A rant that becomes a comparison of how The Criterion Channel and Mubi designed their services.
This is an odd thing for me to write. Anyone who knows me would be quick to point out that I am not a design person. In any way, shape or form. I am someone who will complain, at great lengths, about poorly designed things. I may, in fits of desperation, blurt out my thoughts on how to improve something that is terribly designed. Despite this, in my heart of hearts, I am not someone who knows much about or is capable of sharing in an insightful manner about design.
Which is why I have chosen today to write about video streaming services and how they are designed. First and foremost a revelation I had of late – I have been lumping all streaming services into the same category. Which is to say that when I think of Netflix I regard them in the same manner as I regard The Criterion Channel, Disney Plus, and Peacock TV. Which is completely wrong.
Let us address one streaming service first: HBO Max. My frustration with HBO Max over the past two months has stemmed from me being positively baffled as to 1) why so many shows and films are disappearing from their service and 2) why they have so little new content I want to watch. If you think of HBO Max as being the same kind of entity as Netflix, a streaming service which creates new films and television shows (and apparently games) as well as hosting films and shows they did not make then what HBO Max has been doing is bizarre. Yet if you think of HBO Max as a different iteration of the HBO channel then what they are doing gets downgraded to weird.
For the longest time I have wondered why so many films made by Warner Brothers are not on HBO Max. That is because I assumed, incorrectly, that the good people at HBO would be trying to gather all of their properties (since they are owned by Warner Brothers) to their streaming service. Instead they seem to be following the HBO model of getting new films and shows onto their service for a limited amount of time and expecting subscribers to watch what is offered and be happy about it. The creation of films and shows for their service seems to operate independently of the content available on the service.
I belabor this point because it is easy to mistake HBO Max as being a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu because they do not offer purchases/rentals through their service and because they make original content. Part of this is a design problem and part of this is a streaming service problem. I don’t claim to have the capacity to fix either but today I would like to make an example out of two services in the hope that this might lead to overall changes to streaming services and, potentially, benefit the rest of us.
The two services in question are Mubi and The Criterion Channel. To begin, since The Criterion Collection has been available to stream I have been using services that allow one to do so. First they were on Netflix, then Hulu then FilmStruck and for the past three years there has been The Criterion Channel. Other than FilmStruck I have used/belonged to these services when The Criterion Collection has been available to stream.
In that time I believe I have watched a handful of films. Part of the reason for the lack of watching is and has been the terrible design displaying their offerings. Netflix has always been lackluster in presenting the movies and shows on their site. Between the ever changing poster images, buried subcategories and the carousel main view, finding what they offer has never been easy. The Criterion Collection had it’s own menu when it was on the site but the offerings were small and changed on a regular basis. I am not sure if I watched anything while Netflix had it.
The same was true with Hulu whose design was only slightly better because at the time they had a Staff Picks section which often showcased excellent films the service offered that were buried deep in their catalogue. Which I believe is why when FilmStruck launched I never subscribed to the service (despite having a subscription to nearly everything else and hearing wonderful things about FilmStruck).
For some reason when I heard that they were launching The Criterion Channel I believed I would love the service. I signed up before it launched, was given this weird thing and have been a subscriber, despite watching almost nothing, ever since.
In some ways it feels a bit like Patton Oswalt’s bit regarding giving money to NPR. You do it because you believe in the work and you appreciate the service but dear God don’t make me listen to it.
But rather then run them down unfairly I would like to provide some evidence to what I would like to call “The Design Problem of The Criterion Channel”.
First and I don’t know how to explain it, the design is pretentious. The moment I open the app or go to the site I am bothered by the look and design of everything. The black and white (I see the grey as well) color scheme just shouts “We are important!” and makes me want to go elsewhere. At the time of this writing this is the splash page when you visit from your computer.
I’d like to point out that the image itself changes depending on whether or not your browser is full screen. The above image is full screen, you can see only Michelle Yeoh’s eyes are visible. Whereas,
So the site is incorrectly formatted (at least for with Firefox and Safari). There are four menus at the top which are unhelpful. You can Browse, Search go to All Films or, bizarrely leave this site to visit Criterion.com. Now as someone who likes language and uses many streaming services (listed in no particular order here: Netflix, Amazon, The Criterion Channel, Mubi, Hulu, Disney+, The Roku Channel, Plex TV, Kanopy, Hoopla, HBO Max, PBS and Apple TV) I cannot say with confidence what the difference between the Search menu and the Browse menu are. Let’s find out.
Clicking on Browse takes you to their main page, which resembles the app. Here you have the carousel view of their content with the main large image at the top of the screen. As of today it looks like this –
This is a screen recording of what it is like to scroll down through this page (recorded last month when I started writing this, be kind to me) –
I don’t share this for the sake of overkill, if I am going to criticize I’d like to do it correctly and be fair. This is a ton of information. They have so much on this site and it is organized in many different ways. The problem, I find, is that it is too much. I find that when I want to watch something I need to have it already found and in my list before I get to the site, otherwise I end up scrolling, clicking and looking for an hour. At which point I’ve either run out of time to watch something or I no longer have a sense of what I’d like to watch.
It is also interesting to note that the header, with the menu options, does not follow you as you scroll through their offerings. Meaning if you decided you’d rather search than browse, you have to scroll all the way to top to do so. It’s not a big deal but it’s poor design.
Clicking on the Search menu brings up a search bar. Using this leads to interesting results. This morning I was curious which films they had from the director Park Chan-wook. When I searched using the app on my television I had quite a few results, many having nothing directly to do with the director. Searching now on the website I get these results –
My final comments regarding this site/app would be the All Films menu. When you click on it you get the following page –
Personally I love this. To be able to sort and filter the entire catalogue in this manner is appealing. Their filter options are great as they allow you to sort by genres, decades, countries and directors. I think those are interesting and unique filtering parameters. The sort option lets you do so by title, director, year and country. Again, I like this, it’s different and allows you to get creative with what you watch. I certainly have bouts where I want to watch films from a particular country or time period. The thing I would note here, which is not a design issue, is the total number of films.
I recognize that what they offer changes on a monthly basis and that there are strange and mysterious reasons as to why certain films can be shown at certain times – but 2,849 is a small selection. Part of my frustration with this site and all streaming services in particular is the limited selection of films and shows. I’d rather see services merging (or sharing with one another or creating some new entity) in order to have more offerings than this current situation where I have 14 services and often (very often) cannot stream what I wish to because it is not available. Today that happened with I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (and yesterday it was Oldboy and so on…).
I am relatively new to Mubi. I joined their service two months ago so I am seeing them with fresh eyes. Why did I join them? Because they had a holiday special of getting three months of service for $1 a month. I could not resist and I am glad I didn’t.
As of this writing this is what the homepage (and app) looks like. First and foremost – look at the color. Look at the titles (and text). Instead of trying to impress me with a splash page telling me the site is a ‘Movie Lover’s Dream’ their main image is of their Film of The Day. I love that feature.
I love that the search bar is built into the top of the screen and they highlight the current tab I am using. The tab next to Now Showing is their Watchlist (List) which is great to have available at the top of the screen. Their version of Criterion.com (minus the selling of DVDs and Blu-rays) is Notebook which has plenty of great written content for those of us who also like to read about film. Mubi Go, which is a separate membership, is their weekly service that allows you to go and see a film in theaters. Your account icon is by default Totoro (points for this) and then a drop down menu with numerous other options.
To say I prefer this design and interface is an understatement. They’ve managed to make it welcoming, packed full of useful (and familiar) features, but also convey that this is a place to watch movies. If you look at the screen recording below you will see that what they do with their site is similar to The Criterion Channel (many different categories, the carousel display). To me, because of how it is designed and interacts with the mouse, I find it helpful and not overwhelming.
When I scroll over a film in my Watchlist is shows a check mark to convey this information. Titles that will be leaving the site soon have a banner on their image which informs me of this. Comparing the two main pages what I see is that Mubi has considerably larger images, which I find pleasing and appropriate for a film site. I would like to note that their header also does not follow when you scroll which is disappointing. As you can see from the screen recording the site goes on for a ways and having the header follow you would be a welcome feature.
I’d like to conclude with a comparison of how the two services handle the presentation of the same film. I give you: Lady Vengeance.
Right away I feel my point is made. The Criterion Channel has so much unused, negative space. The entire right bottom corner is empty. The Criterion Channel has a poster for the film and then their own little display they do for films. This feels unnecessary and redundant. My eye is drawn to the grey bars in the middle of the screen which are the least important pieces of information being.
When you look at Mubi, the image dominates the page. The faces are clearly seen and yet all of the information concerning the film is there and easy to read. The screen has the playhead in the middle to indicate how easily you can watch the film but it is small and tasteful, not obscuring the image.
Among the things I think Mubi does better (or I just appreciate) – they offer the title of the film in its original language. Both sites are in English because that’s what I speak, but this feels respectful. I also like that in addition to the synopsis they have the “Our Take” for their films. I have found that I no longer bother reading the synopsis because I want to hear what this person has to say about this film. This is the personal, human touch I long for when it comes to film recommendations.
I’ve done a final screen recording to try and convey the differences.
As you can see with The Criterion Channel the image I captured is all of the information they provide for the film. For many films they have supplemental videos that they include at the bottom of the page. The Criterion channel has an astounding number of “extras” for their films but due to how the site is designed you may miss many of them without knowing. I have had two versions of the same film in My List not realizing that one link is for the movie and the other is for their collection concerning the film. This would be easy to fix.
With Mubi they show you the collections the film belongs to, the awards the films have won and the director and cast pictures which you can then click on to see more about. They embed the trailer on the page (despite having a link to it above) they have articles from their Notebook section and reviews about the film on the page that you can read in their entirety. After which they have reviews from other people who subscribe to Mubi and they conclude with Related Films.
I find this so pleasing and helpful and vastly superior to how The Criterion Channel has designed their site. It feels unfair to make comments about their offerings because I know they have just as many as Mubi. Unfortunately they have not showcased them in a user-friendly manner like Mubi and I think this is why I use their site so little.
Thank you for joining me on this strange deep-dive into the websites of Mubi and The Criterion Channel. I’m not entirely sure how this happened but I am glad it did.
A short and incomplete list of motion picture soundtracks that I love.
In July of 2003 I found myself packing boxes. It was an absurd number of boxes, somewhere around 40, mostly filled with books and CDs. My wife and I were moving, again, and found it would be cheaper to ship most of our possessions via the United States Postal Service. The main reason for this was the media mail (or media rate) discount. Given that we owned many books and CDs if we spread them out among our clothes (and meager household items) all of the boxes would qualify for this lower rate.
On the first box I discovered that we did not have any packing tape. When I mentioned this my wife said, “Just use duct tape.” When I questioned this choice she assured me it was the smart move. “Duct tape can fix anything. They use it to hold airplane wings together.” I should add that I have an abhorrence of the post office and as such I defer to my wife (henceforth to be known as Kate) in all matters. So we packed all of our boxes with duct tape.
The following day we brought them to the post office to pay for shipping. We then were promptly informed that we could ship these boxes but since they were all packaged with duct tape insurance would not be an option. It was an ungodly amount of boxes sitting on the floor of the post office. It had taken many trips to get them all to the building from our apartment. The most assuredly would not survive having the duct tape ripped off and packing tape applied. Plus we’d have to try and do all of this in the tiny lobby of the post office in Austin, Texas.
So we shipped our possessions without insurance and over the next few days drove to Washington, DC. When we arrived we found that the delay we had requested for delivering our boxes was not observed. The boxes were sitting outside in front of our new apartment and it had been raining heavily. The typical whirlwind of trying to move in and set up a new home occurred and neither of us noticed that a few boxes were unaccounted for.
Which is why months later, when I was going through our CDs looking for something to listen to that I noticed I couldn’t find certain albums. Where was Blonde on Blonde? Or The Rising? Looking closely I noticed a number of favorites were not on the shelf. The CDs I had tried, repeatedly to sell over the years were still there (Marching to Mars and B-Sides Ourselves in particular) mocking me.
A number of phone calls later we learned that a number of boxes had been damaged badly during the move. The post office had a policy of taking those boxes and holding them so the contents would not be further damaged. They then were meant to notify the recipients of the package(s) of the situation and from there it would be resolved. I am not sure what the next step would be as the post office also had a time limit on how long they would hold said boxes and we had passed that by the time we realized they were missing. Which meant the post office had already auctioned off (their words which I find implausible) the contents of our boxes. Nothing further could be done.
I write all of this to explain how I came to lose half of my CD collection (which was formidable at one time) in 2003. Of the many lost albums were soundtracks to films. As far as I can tell somewhere in the 00’s studios stopped creating (paying for?) soundtracks for films that consisted of popular artists contributing songs. Which is an absolute shame because many of my favorite songs come from such soundtracks. I also came to know many wonderful bands from buying a film’s soundtrack. Below I’d like to say a few words about some of the important soundtracks of my life.
If you weren’t around to experience the first Batman film it may be hard to explain what a phenomenon it was. The movie was released in the summer (June) and played in theaters forever. Where I lived there was one movie theater that had two screens (a third was added but in my memory it was after this time). One of the screens is absurdly small, it is the only movie theater I have been in where they have single seats.
When I say that the movie was in theaters forever I mean to say that I believe it ran until at least Thanksgiving. The film industry was different then so having new movies every week was not yet the norm. This was such a successful film, in every way, that it was not atypical for it to continue running for months.
One of the reasons this film permeated the culture the way it did was because it had a distinctive, excellent soundtrack. With only nine songs on the album it somehow managed to have something for everyone, Prince was one of those artists that even if his music was not your thing (I am one of those people) you still listened to it. On a near weekly basis I find myself humming “Little Red Corvette”, “Raspberry Beret” or “When The Doves Cry”. His best songs are not on this soundtrack but what he put here made its way onto all of the radio stations and into the cars and homes of America. Everyone knew “Batdance” with its distinctive opening.
This soundtrack is the first that I can remember listening to and realizing it was something different than a studio album. I was pretty young at the time, I know it was my sister who purchased the cassette (you read that right!) but we played it over and over.
Clerks is the film that made me want to make movies. It stands to reason that it’s soundtrack had a profound effect on me as well. In addition to a number of songs I already knew (“Got Me Wrong”, “Shooting Star”) there were a number of unexpected gems on this album. “Kill the Sexplayer” in particular was a fun discovery –
This album is perfect. It fit the film, introduced people like myself to a number of artists and had familiar songs and bands as well. I always enjoy soundtracks that sample dialog from the film, it’s fun, and there is plenty of that here. Plus you get those odd, one of a kind songs that you would never choose to listen to on their own (looking at you “Chewbacca”).
One of the interesting things about this film is that it was touted as being an independent film made for little money ($23,000 I believe) but when discussing the soundtrack it was made clear that Miramax spent quite a bit (one million dollars) to secure the rights. I’m not sure how much was spent to clean up the footage but I know it was substantial. Whatever it was it was worth it. An excellent film with a wonderful soundtrack.
This is one of the better soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Whoever came up with the idea of “let’s get two artist/bands together and have them make a song” for every song on the album (except track 7 – does Stabbing Westward not play well with others)?! That person is a genius. I recognize that this is not the typical collaboration as most of these collaborations are bands with a DJ/group remixing their song. Just go with me please.
There are a number of gems on this soundtrack, “Tiny Rubberband”, “Kick The P.A.”, “One Man Army” and “Spawn” are all solid tracks. My favorite on this album (the video probably tipped you off to this) is (Can’t you) Trip Like I Do. It’s a solid track that ticks off all the right boxes for me. This is certainly an album I enjoy driving and listening to. It’s good background music if that is what you desire.
The X Files
This is one of the more ecclectic soundtracks of the 90’s (that I encountered). The people who made songs for this were certainly not chosen for their similarities. I always found this pleasing and fitting for the show. Sure, the X Files never strayed too far from it’s alien/paranoid/weirdness but there was a bit of wiggle room and when they could they deviated.
I chose the song “More Than This” by The Cure to feature but honestly it could have been most of the tracks. I like this song in particular because of it’s rhythm. There is a flowing quality to the song that the vocals enhance. It feels otherworldly but comforting. It’s a great song.
There are many others on this album that are noteworthy, “Black”, “The Hunter”, “Beacon Light”, “Flower Man”, “16 Horses” and “One More Murder” are all favorites of mine. Listening to these songs now I can hear similarities that were not apparent before. I am sure it has to do with recording techniques and producers using similar sounds and ideas. No escaping such things but I feel the songs hold up.
This soundtrack will forever hold a special place in my heart. I had not heard Rage Against The Machine before listening to this and this song is one of my favorites of theirs. There are so many excellent songs on this album, “Dead Souls” by NIN, “Color Me Once” by the Violent Femmes, “Burn” by the Cure, “Snakedriver” by Jesus and the Mary Chain and “Big Empty” by the Stone Temple Pilots. It’s an incredible soundtrack that shaped its film in many ways.
I had not heard of The Dust Brothers prior to listening to the Fight Club soundtrack. This is an interesting album in that no one song stands out to me as the best. I chose “Single Serving Jack” because whenever I listen to the album I always pay attention when it comes on. It’s a fast paced song that, like all the tracks, builds on what comes before it.
This is one of my favorite albums to have as background music. Whether driving or writing I love to put it on and let it slosh around in my mind. I never pay it much direct attention but I love it.
To be alive in the mid-90’s and not listen to the Pulp Fiction Soundtrack was impossible. It’s an odd soundtrack, I’m not sure all of the songs work well with one another (like the film itself) but perhaps that jarring nature is the point. I believe I knew this song before hearing the soundtrack but it certainly came alive for me when I did. It’s just such a good, heartfelt piece of music. There are a number of other, excellent tracks on the album.
Romeo and Juliet
Oh, this album. Picking a favorite song off of the Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack is almost like choosing a favorite child. I don’t want to do it. So let’s instead say that the above song by Radiohead, “Talk Show Host” was chosen because a) it is a great song and b) I wanted to put something up by this formerly amazing band. Seriously. I miss them.
Song after song on this album delivers the goods. From Everclear with “Local God” and Garbage with “#1 Crush” to “Kissing You” by Des’ree and “Everybody’s Free (to feel good)” by Qunidon Tarver you cannot go wrong. I’m not sure who was responsible for putting this album together but they exceeded all expectations and gave the world a wonderful gift.
Okay this one did not figure in as much for me at the time, despite having some great songs. Everyone heard Seal perform “Kiss From a Rose” and U2 deliver “Hold me, Kill Me, Kiss Me, Thrill Me” but the song we should have all been playing was Michael Hutchence covering “The Passenger”. Holy smokes this is a good cover. It’s not really surprising, INXS was a tremendous band and he was an incredible performer. I’m happy to be able to include this here.
Probably as important as Pulp Fiction (at least in my circle) was the release of this album. I could not have told you that this song was called “Spybreak (Short One)” or that the band is Propellerheads but I feel like this is THE song of the album. It’s important in the film and when you listen to the album as a whole it stands out. Yes, there is a great Rage Against the Machine song here, as well as “Du Hast” and “Rock Is Dead” but I think this is the one.
Yes, I am taking the cowards way out and choosing two songs for this soundtrack. I admit it. I’m driving this ship and that’s the deal. Let’s move on.
The soundtrack to drive is much like the costumes and titles of Drive – it’s weird. Would anyone else have made these choices? These songs are such a strange juxtaposition to the images they accompany in the film. We have, with time and repeated viewings (listenings) come to accept these pairings but I assure you – they are still weird.
But weird in a wonderful way that makes us love them more. “A Real Hero” is such a tender and heartfelt song and despite it being kinda wrong about the main character I love it. I have come to love it. I would never have listened to it without this film but now it is a part of me. The same can be said for “Night Call”. I have listened to quite a bit of Kavinsky’s music since hearing this, something I never would have done. Together they work with the other pieces of music to give us the film that is Drive. I can’t argue with that.
How many of us knew Aimee Mann before this soundtrack? How many of us have been changed forever because of it? Picking a song was hard, but I think “Driving Sideways” is correct. It moves me every time. It somehow captures the essence of this big, messy film. It’s incredible.
Trying to pick a favorite song on this album is, again, nearly impossible. I went with “State of Love and Trust” because it’s so good and as with Radiohead I miss Pearl Jam being a good band. It’s hard to watch amazing bands/musicians lose the thing that made them so good but, alas, it happens all too often. Come home, son!
Cameron Crowe, to no one’s surprise, captured the incredible music scene of the time with this film and soundtrack. “Would?”, “Dyslexic Heart” oh and “Seasons”. Gah. This soundtrack would be a wonderful way to introduce someone unfamiliar with grunge music to the world. So much goodness here.
I love this movie and I love this album. I was unfamiliar with so many of the bands and songs when I heard it and I will be forever grateful for the exposure. I knew Jimi Hendrix when I heard “Foxey Lady (2)” but seeing Dana Carvey perform his dance to it changed me. I am, morally at least, obligated to state that I should have put “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the main song, since I had not heard it prior to this film either. But, dang it, I wanted to have it be Jimi.
Tia Carrere covering “Ball Room Blitz” Alice Cooper’s “Feed My Frankenstein” and Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” are all wonderful songs on this fun album. I imagine Wayne’s World is a film that will soon be lost to time, which is a shame, but hopefully these songs will live forever.
Charlie’s Angels (2001)
This. Always this. Destiny’s Child may have gotten a lot of attention (and rightfully so) for “Independent Women” Pt.1 but Sam Rockwell dancing to “Got to Give it Up” Pt.1 will forever be the moment. Not only was it an important reveal for the story and the character but it was cool.
Charlie’s Angels was a lot of things, it was fun and silly and sexy but it was also cool. This soundtrack reflects all of these qualities with songs like “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”. Unexpected (and wonderful) tracks like “Tangerine Speedo” and “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” compliment the film and it’s underdog nature. No one expected this to be the hit it was – and all of us get to benefit from the film and this soundtrack.
I am positive I am leaving out other, wonderful soundtracks I have owned and listened to. This is by no means a comprehensive list. I wanted to share something similar to my post on cover songs and try and spread a little love around. I feel like I achieved that.
A rant about Echo 3, Nope and trusting your instincts.
The following post contains mild spoilers for Nope and Echo 3
The famous quote about stories needing a “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has been rattling around my head of late. In the past week I have watched the Apple TV show, Echo 3 and the latest from Jordan Peele, Nope. Both of which have unusual, if not bizarre narrative structures. What strikes me upon reflection is that neither of them have tried to displace the order of events hoping to confuse the audience, a technique that has become en vogue in recent years, rather that they bounce around in time without much purpose.
Nope, being a film, is easier to follow and understand in terms of narrative. When I finished the film I looked at Metacritic to see if reviewers enjoyed the film. It appears to be favorably reviewed but with reservations. Most people seemed to feel what I felt – that while the overall experience was fine it lacked emotional resonance and wasn’t terribly coherent. The characters were not fully realized, the storylines truncated or without purpose and the ultimate “message” absent. It is not that the movie is difficult to watch – it is interesting and has a number of sequences that are engaging. It’s that at its heart, having a story about a UFO (or alien creature) and several people trying to control/document it without any larger questions being posed or answered is unfulfilling. I am unsure what the takeaway of this film was meant to be. I am not certain I understand why the horse trainer would be such an expert on predatory animals (and how this ties into chimpanzees). There seems to be no greater plan at work with Nope and it is a shame. Following Get Out I think most viewers were hoping for a multi-layered film that exceeds expectations.
Echo 3 is the latest work from Mark Boal. A former journalist who was embedded with troops in Iraq and wrote a screenplay based on these experiences. It was a successful film despite the disconnected narrative and anti-climatic ending. In fact all three of his collaborations with director Kathryn Bigelow have these qualities. Interesting concepts with narrative gaps and endings that deliver little in the way of closure or emotional payoff seem to be how he operates. Echo 3 does this worse than the films, in part because it is longer and, I suspect, because Ms. Bigelow is not involved.
The show begins in a lackluster, heavy-handed manner. It is the wedding day of two of the main characters and the bride is hiding with her brother (the third main character). The wedding sequence is long. It is disjointed. It makes little sense as we are just meeting these people and know nothing about them. Ultimately is serves to inform the ending – that all is not right between soon-to-be bride and groom. Only….why? It’s unclear other than she’s keeping secrets and he’s…something. The show becomes truly muddled around episode nine, which would have been the final episode for most. The latest rescue mission for Amber (the bride) is attempted and her husband (Prince) and brother (Bambi) work with mercenaries to conduct a false flag operation to get her out of the prison/drug factory where she has been tortured and drugged for some time.
The show hinges largely on a secret beacon, a secret CIA connection and back-channel favors. Why it does not work is because the people, causes and stories that rise to the forefront all eventually are forgotten. Whether it is the abandoned military commander, the drug-addled mother, the wealthy father or the Colombian army all of these stories are left with an ending that is incomplete and unfulfilled.
I’m not sure if there is much of a reason to write about this show and movie (together no less) other than to express my frustration with investing time and emotion into stories such as these. I’ve written before about how Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, changed the way I watch movies. He outlines in his book how a script reader can usually determine by page ten whether the script is good or bad. Since a page of a script usually translates to a minute of screen time this rule of thumb can also be applied when watching a movie or show. Within the first ten minutes you should have a sense whether what you are watching is good or bad.
With both Echo 3 and Nope I stopped watching before the ten minute mark. I could tell with Echo 3 starting in the manner that it did, with two unknown characters having an opaque conversation about the wedding and the groom, that I was not going to enjoy the show. Despite a trailer which promised one thing (a rescue story, a love story, a story about overcoming adversity) this show was going to be something else. It was going to try and deal with the complexity of US relations with South American countries. Of marriages built on a foundation of lies. Of addiction. Of ambition and careers and nationalism. In short I think Mr. Boal was trying to marry ideas and stories from his life as a journalist with a story of his own creation and the results are mixed. I’m not sure if I ever grasped the inner lives of any of these characters. Other than Bambi, who only wanted to get his sister home, I’m not sure I ever understood the motives of the characters. The opening, which gave me nothing, told me everything I needed to know and I chose to ignore it.
Nope is more of the same. A trailer which is eerie and mysterious but gives away little of the plot coupled with an opening of a 90’s television show where a chimpanzee has gone berserk and hurt/killed several people. No explanation is given, no clear reason why this is being shown in relation to the larger story being told. Only to then find out that the little boy in the 90’s show is the neighbor of our main characters and he’s trying to use the UFO as part of his rodeo show. I feel like I am belaboring my point here. The sum of the parts of this movie adds up to very little and the opening made this clear. I went back to both of these works because I doubted my initial impression, largely because I am often wrong (just last week I made this mistake with Everything, Everywhere All At Once which has a terrible first ten minutes but becomes a great movie). As we all know our moods, time of day or even the weather can effect our viewing experiences and I try my best to enjoy things. Only that doesn’t always work and you end up watching ten hours of something that leaves you with a shot like this.
I rewatched a ton of things this year and felt the need to write about them.
The Matrix: Resurrections
I rewatched The Matrix: Resurrections because I was incredibly disappointed on the first viewing. I spent a week thinking about the film, wondering if I was mistaken and being harsh with my opinion. I read interviews with everyone involved, watched interviews with Lana Wachowski and I was moved by her statements concerning why she made this film. I felt like a bad person for not getting what was put into the world and I sat down again to educate myself.
The second viewing was worse than the first. This is a dreadful, wrongheaded movie. For the life of me, despite reading and seeing what I saw, I cannot understand why it was made. When I try and think about the people who claim to like this film all I can come up with is that they must not have seen the original when it came out, particularly in the theater. I don’t write that to be patronizing. It’s hard to reconcile this film with the original and the experience of seeing it for the first time.
The Matrix is an incredible fusion of ideas and influences that requires no familiarity with either on the part of the viewer to enjoy the film. At the same time those who were “in the know” had the double pleasure of recognizing works they loved and concepts they appreciated forged into something new and unexpected. Seeing the Matrix for the first time was, for lack of a better term, an unique experience.
The Matrix: Resurrections tries to protect itself from criticism but offering all of the theories and reasons as to why the film exists. Only this proactive approach within the movie fails. It isn’t “Meta” and it isn’t clever. It is an excuse for returning to the well and attempting to restart a franchise that is creatively spent.
I don’t like to be mean about works of art but this film (much like the two sequels) undermine everything that was great about the original. The best example of the wrongheadedness of this film was recasting the role of Morpheus for no reason. Lawrence Fishburne was not asked to be in the film. They just…recast the role and addressed it in the film as though his new computer program form made it a fun choice to look different. Every original idea was retread, reprocessed and done worse than before. I cannot think of a better film to point to as an example to quit while you are ahead.
Peacemaker – Season 1
I watched the first season of Peacemaker in January and utterly hated it. It felt flat and empty and pointless. The idea was to generate sympathy and compassion for a character who is little more than a caricature. I respect filmmakers like James Gunn because they seem to have no fear tackling new topics and exploring new themes in their work. In this instance I think this is because he doesn’t know any better and doesn’t realize there are things he’s not good at.
I rewatched this show a few months later and my harsh opinion softened. Do I like it now? No. But I feel like I better understand that the viewer is meant to be laughing at the characters. That despite the attempts to humanize Peacemaker, the viewer, ultimately, is meant to look down on him. The trouble with the works of James Gunn is that they are so brazenly simple that trying to reflect on intention and nuance feels like a waste of time.
Rewatching Reminiscence improved the film for me. The first time I floundered and wondered if I had missed something. On the second viewing I confirmed that I did not miss anything, yet I enjoyed it more. I don’t love the film. I feel that Hugh Jackman is, once again, poorly cast. For some reason people want him to play these complicated, difficult characters who are violent and unpleasant and it doesn’t really work. He’s a great actor but when he plays these kinds of roles I can see the performance and it is unfortunate. He is a charming, charismatic actor who conveys goodness and decency and I would love to see him in roles that allow him to be these things.
Thandie Newton, as usual, is the best thing in this film and I wish it had been written for her to be the lead. I think it would have made a better movie. She can be whatever she wants and it works.
Sicario: Day of The Soldado
I think I’ve written about the first film before. If I haven’t, I didn’t love it. I liked it but the way people went on about it (and I get it – Denis Villeneuve, Taylor Sheridan and Roger Deakins) made me question myself. So I’ve seen it four or five times and I think it’s a fine film, just nothing special. It has some great parts and a third act that goes bananas. The entire appeal of Sicario was that they made a grounded film about real issues. Reality-based action sequences and a grounded approach of catching the higher ups in the cartels was the basis of the film. To then conclude it with a one man army storming a compound and killing everyone? Bizarre.
The sequel did not get much love. I saw it, liked it and forgot about it. I came across it in March and wanted something to watch and it felt right. What I can say after watching it again is that I think it’s a better film than the first Sicario.
First and foremost the main frustration I feel when I watch Sicario is that the main character is clueless for most of the movie. She’s used and in the dark and the big conclusion is that despite being an accomplished FBI agent she’s not capable or prepared to operate in “the real” world. She’s forced at gunpoint to sign and official lie because her only real purpose in the movie was to use her status as an FBI agent to allow a CIA covert action to take place. Does this sound rewarding to you? Do you get a sense of emotional payoff? Or do you, too, feel like a dupe for sitting through this film and not being part of the real plot?
The sequel is focused on the actual main characters of the first film, played by Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro. They are at it again and operating in Mexico. I like the story of this film better. I like that both Brolin and Del Toro have a chance to behave like actual people (and not some weird Cormac McCarthy version of a tough southern guy) and have genuine, tender moments. I feel that both actors are able to actually act in this film and do interesting things with their characters. I also feel that the film concludes in an interesting and satisfactory manner. All in all I think it is a better movie and hope people circle back to it and give it another chance.
I had a spell this year where I was rewatching Michael Mann films. I didn’t start with Ali, I watched The Insider first and I was startled at how poorly it holds up. I don’t think I had seen either of these films since they were released. Since their releases I’ve seen countless films and shows and learned how to write films and make them. I say this because I believe part of my frustration with both of these films stems from knowing more about story structure now and how to actually put a film together.
Whereas The Insider spends too much time with Al Pacino’s character and constantly jumps forward in time with Russel Crowe’s – effectively removing the suspense and sense of how completely this man destroyed his life becoming a whistle blower (the entire point of the movie by the way) – Ali simply fast forwards through numerous important moments of Muhammad Ali’s life.
I found this viewing fascinating given the impact both of these movies had on me when I initially watched them. The portrait painted of Muhammad Ali in this film is that of a hothead who is unfaithful to every woman in his life and wasn’t that impressive of a boxer (because you only seem him boxing when he’s older). The last part is particularly interesting given that when he was younger he was obviously an amazing boxer.
If all you knew of Muhammad Ali’s life was this film and you focused, naturally, on the third act when you recalled it, you would be forgiven for thinking he was not very special. More attention is paid to his interest in women or his strained relationship with the Nation of Islam than it is to his boxing – which would be forgivable if you felt you learned something of value from the time spent on these other things.
Instead we have a third act taking place largely in Africa, showing the build up and long wait for the Rumble in the Jungle. Where Ali comes to distrust and dislike Don King and ultimately devise a strategy of beating George Forman. I haven’t rewatched the actual fight but the one in the film is painful. You see a smaller, slower man essentially hiding from the fight while the better boxer tries to go through with the match. It’s an unpleasant ending, what might be called a very un-Hollywood ending, where by doing the sneaky, dubious thing Muhammad Ali wins the fight. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and questioning my reverence for the films of Michael Mann.
Kong: Skull Island
I rewatched this in June. I was the correct thing to do. I love this movie. I love that this movie knows exactly what it is and does it’s job. I think it is perfect.
I rewatched this in July and enjoyed it, again. Hellboy is the dumbest title in the history of dumb titles. For anything. Every time I see it I can’t help but feel it is a test. Or that the writer lost a bet. It’s stupid and lazy and feels like a five year old came up with it thinking they landed on the coolest thing ever. It’s not and I wish I could make it go away.
This film was savaged and should not have been. I think I prefer this to both of Guillermo Del Toro’s films. The plot is straightforward, you understand HB and his motivations immediately, and the mystical/magical elements are interesting and creepy.
The special effects (benefitting from coming later than the earlier films) are quite good. The fight sequence with the giants is weird and unusual and different from anything I have seen before. I also think making the main character looks as he does – actually ugly and weird, was a great choice. Comments were made about how he resembled a melted candle – this was intentional. He’s supposed to dislike his appearance (and it should unsettle others) and what his “true nature” is. I like the performance that David Harbour gives in this film (in every film) and I hope people give this another chance.
The Ghost in The Shell (2017)
I watched this again and had the same response as before – I like this movie. I’ve seen a few versions of the original, I’ve watched several of the television shows. I’ve seen sequels to the original anime. In some way or another I have enjoyed them all as this is an interesting concept and to varying degrees these films and shows have been well-made. All of those previous projects have been animated. This is the first live-action film I have seen of Ghost in The Shell and I think they did an excellent job bringing it to life.
I don’t want to dwell, this is a rewatch for Pete’s sake. They made changes to the original story. The cast a caucasian actress to play the lead. They created a role for Juliet Binoche. Yep. They explained and justified these changes and, I think, made it all work. I think the filmmakers were less interested in “whitewashing” the lead role and were more interested in casting one of the biggest and best known actors in the role. If the goal is to get as many people as possible to see your film – casting Scarlet Johansson in your movie is a good start.
For some reason Guy Ritchie re-entered my life this spring. I was, often, at a loss as to what I should watch this year. In that moment I think I had just been dealt the one-two punch of Killing Eve season four and Shining Girls. I was lost. I needed something that would bring me back from the dangerous precipice of believing that no one was making anything good. For some reason Snatch presented itself as the best method to do this and I watched.
Unlike Rock ‘n Rolla I find snatch to be a pretty smooth film-watching experience. There are no rough spots or sections that you fast forward through. Is it perfect? No. It is funny? Very. I think this is the last film Guy Ritchie made where he wasn’t copying from himself and you can feel the difference. The ideas were new to him. He’s playful in this film. Brad Pitt clearly is having the best time playing this role and Jason Statham isn’t trying to compete with him.
The underwater boxing moment holds up nicely as does the shocking shootout after the fight. I enjoyed watching this film enough to watch three other Guy Ritchie movies I hadn’t seen. If that isn’t an ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.
What rewatching The Batman brought home to me is the following:
The score is excellent but strangely forgettable. I kept thinking that parts of it were similar to Down on The Upside (Soundgarden) when watching the movie. Afterwards I tried to find the particular track to share with a friend and I could never find it. So many of the songs are very similar to one another but it isn’t a theme being manipulated (I don’t think). It’s an odd thing to discover. What I am clumsily trying to say is that the music is married to the music and separating it does harm to the music.
The plot is pretty so-so. The first time through, not knowing what is coming and then getting the capture of the Riddler long before the ending feels interesting and fresh. Rewatching the film all I could see were the influences of Seven everywhere. Which is not to say that I think Seven was the first film to do this. Only it was the first time I had seen it. So much with Catwoman and her story doesn’t hold up well on rewatching the film. She’s really upset only she’s falling in love with Batman, only she’s got big issues with her father only…I feel the will of the screenwriters more than the drive of the characters in most of this film. They want Catwoman to have feelings for Batman but what I see on screen doesn’t justify anything.
I didn’t realize they were utilizing “The Volume” when they made the movie. Once I saw a number of behind the scenes videos it became apparent. It’s not that knowing this takes away from the film but there is something about actual locations that gives sequences that extra “oomph” that you want in a movie like this. You think about the opening of “The Dark Knight Returns” with the airplane and then people talking about the virtues of the “The Volume” and you find yourself quietly sidling toward Mr. Nolan (detonate that bomb, baby!).
Everything with the Batmobile is gold. They did such a nice job with the vehicle and that car chase. I love it.
The notion that Bruce Wayne fits his Batsuit into a backpack that he can quickly change into is absurd. It would not fit and he would not be able to quickly put it on. Plus he’s wearing the eye make-up beforehand and that’s weird. Also, what happens if he loses the backpack or has an accident? Then the suit is just out there. This is no good.
Look my life, in many ways, is just Dune and Tenet now. I have accepted this and so should you. I seem to watch it every four months or so. Each time I notice something new, am comforted by how masterfully it was made and adapts the source material, and how much I yearn for more time with Javier Bardem.
Just last week I learned that the “bagpipes” at the beginning of the Atreide’s landing on Arrakis are not, in fact, bagpipes. Hans Zimmer you madman, you.
Hello. Again. This movie is so absurdly good and so universally unappreciated. I will never understand it. It’s layered. It’s nuanced. It is so intricate and complex then when I start thinking about how you would conceive of the story and figure out how to execute one of these scenes I go cross-eyed. This is such a movie.
When I rewatched The Northman I tried to pay more attention to the beginning. My initial impression was largely focused on the revenge aspect of the film. Not so much the romance and mystical aspects. Rewatching I was surprised how little there is to the childhood section. Each scene is so important and memorable. You get a strong sense of the world and this boy’s place in it, it is very well done.
I also noticed how much I liked the action sequences of the film. Despite the comments made by Corridor Digital in the episode when they looked at the special effects of The Northman, I like how the action was handled. It didn’t feel overly stylized but felt correct for the time period. The most memorable moment being catching the spear mid-air and throwing it back which I believe is based on a painting but I cannot remember where I read that so I’m not finding a link to offer. I know that the director tried to do things practically whenever possible and I think the details of the costumes and the sets gives this film an authenticity even if you aren’t actively noticing them.
I enjoyed this film as much if not more the second and third times I watched it. It holds up remarkably well.
Shows and Movies that brought me heartache and pain in 2022.
I want to be clear – I didn’t hate every film that is listed below. In fact a number of them I have decidedly mixed feelings about. My goal this year was to share thoughts about all the films that seemed worthy of comment. In the past I have tried to keep things positive. This year the number of films that frustrated and angered me was too large to ignore. This was a truly difficult year of watching and I have found writing about it to be immensely helpful.
I try and avoid spoilers when I can but I am discussing films I’ve seen so if you want to go into any of these films or shows fresh I would suggest not reading what I have written until you have watched them.
Another confession, when I saw the film I had not yet read the poem it is based on. That’s on me. But I saw the trailer for this film which excited me greatly. I am pasting it below.
Here’s the thing, even if you aren’t overly familiar with the story of Gawain most likely you know he was a knight of the Round Table and he was known for his virtue. Or maybe you didn’t know that in which case perhaps this movie is for you. The director claims to have studied the text closely but then chose to ignore nearly all of the important aspects and events of the text which leads me to question why he bothered to make the film at all.
First and foremost, in this telling Gawain is not a knight. He’s the cousin of Arthur and wants to be part of the court. Any standing he has comes from his mother as he is a drunk and spends most of his time in brothels. Okay, fine. The Green Knight appears and issues his challenge. No one wants to take him up on it. Gawain moves to, is warned not to, does it anyway. Okay. He then spends the next year carrying on as he had, drinking and fornicating. And then it is time to go on his journey to find the Green Knight.
The bulk of the film is concerned with this journey where Gawain is beset by problems he is not able to overcome. He is not virtuous or brave or kind. He is certainly not capable. When he finds hospitality with a landowner who lives near the Green Knight he then proceeds to have a sexual encounter with his wife (played by the same actress who plays his favorite prostitute for no apparent reason) and to take the green sash (which will save him from death) no questions asked.
I mention all of this because these are major plot points in the poem (except the prostitute existing and him engaging in sexual activities with the wife) – only the director has altered them so that they are now devoid of meaning. He is meant to resist the advances of the wife but eventually accept the sash. The landowner has asked his wife to test Gawain and is pleased when Gawain passes – despite accepting the sash.
We also are treated to a fantasy of Gawain not being beheaded so that he can watch his life play out and end terribly. So he does the “noble” thing and chooses death. Which, again, is the opposite of what happens in the poem. In the poem the Green Knight is the landowner in disguise, all of this has been an elaborate test and he does not kill Gawain.
To say that this film misses the mark is like saying that the Titanic sinks. It’s one thing to rework a text and insert new themes that would not have been possible when it was written – psychology for one. It is another to drastically alter the story in such a manner that the result is now the antithesis of the original.
The New Pope
I don’t know what to say about this show. Somehow I knew the big event (spoilers now, so stop reading if you don’t want them) about Jude Law returning and it tainted the experience. This season (and the one before) are painfully uneven. Such moving, wonderful sections and others that drag on with no purpose or focus. I gave up at one point and took a month off, coming back to finish the show because I usually do. I think this was probably the tipping point for me this year, where I realized it doesn’t really matter. If you know something isn’t working for you why waste time?
Raised By Wolves – Season Two
I’m going to be brief. I watched season one because Ridley Scott made this show and directed the pilot. I didn’t love it, he gets too weird about space and robots, but it was interesting and I watched it. This season is considerably less interesting, less rewarding and less worth watching. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time with this nonsense because I derived absolutely no pleasure from it.
Okay, the gloves are now off – I hate this show. The trailer made it look like a complicated mystery with supernatural elements that would ultimately….do something. This show is all about women who have been murdered by a guy who uses a magic house to travel through time and kill them. He cuts them open, puts an object from his time inside of them and then skedaddles. Only…one of the women he attacked doesn’t die.
From here it gets weird(er) but never fully explained. Aspects of the heroines life (appearance, pets, job, etc) begin to change at random intervals and she’s the only one who notices. Before one of these changes she was about to be a reporter so she uses her skills, gets a currently employed reporter to help her and they track down other cases like hers…to discover the time traveling guy that she ultimately defeats by taking over his magical house.
I hate this show. I hate that I wasted my time watching it. I hate that the payoff is murky and lousy an unfulfilling. I hate that I love Elizabeth Moss so much that if they make another season I will consider watching it. Grr.
Outer Range – Season 1
Keeping in this vein of complicated time travel shows that have endings that are unsatisfying I give you Outer Range. A show that starts off great and slowly devolves into a big mess. The pilot is such a good episode that I would recommend watching it and stopping there. Or something. I don’t know. This show made sense for a long time and ended with Buffalo traveling through time and wreaking havoc in present day Wyoming.
The conceit is there is a hole that can access other points in space-time. Only the ending makes clear that the hole is not the only means of doing this. And that our hero, in fact, traveled though the hole (and time) as a boy. He does it again at the end of the pilot and goes to the future. He then returns to the present where things are going wrong. The show ends with buffalo and a character who from the first meeting you know was important and not telling the truth being important to the story (and she has secrets!). Watch this show if you would like a prime example of having a good idea and giving up on your ending.
Killing Eve – Season 4
Dear Lord. If you were on the Internet at all in May you surely saw something about this. Four seasons of “What is up with Eve and Villenelle” to have it conclude with Eve deciding she wants to be with Villenelle and Villanelle being killed by Caroline at the very end. I just…why? This is the definition of sophomoric. Of all the things they could have done with this show, the crazy ways they could of ended it they essentially said to their rabid fanbase – here, we are giving you the thing you want and then taking it away at the last second. The end.
May was a rough month in my household for television watching.
Moon Knight – Season 1
I watched this in May as well. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. The idea being – guy who has multiple personalities does not know he has multiple personalities – coupled with the technique of – let’s put the audience in the same clueless state as the character – was bad.
Let’s ignore the fact that the main character of this show is not the personality we, the audience spend time with. The way they structure the “blind spots” or “missing time” was lazy and done to hide the fact they didn’t have the budget or means to properly do the big action sequences that *wink* clearly happened. Okay, fine.
I saw a lot bad stuff in May and it may have clouded my judgment but what I would have loved to see with this show was a God’s-eye view of everything. Nothing cute and clever just a guy with serious emotional trauma trying to navigate being the avatar for an Egytian god. That’s enough for a story, I promise.
Frankly most of the Marvel shows have been a letdown, in part, because they haven’t tried to do much. Oscar Issac is fantastic in this show and gives a powerful performance. There just isn’t anything else being explored or put forth. After seeing The Falcon and The Winter Soldier it’s hard to settle for anything less ambitious from these incredibly well-funded and supported shows.
Stranger Things – Season 4
Anyone else remember when Netflix “saved” Arrested Development and made season four but didn’t wait until the actors could work together? Anyone? I’ll sum up then. Because they were impatient and didn’t wait until the cast of an ensemble comedy could be reunited as an ensemble they broke everyone off into little groups or pairings and made a season like that. The result being terrible and ruining the show. Got it?
I don’t think part one is terrible but I do think it is the worst (season/part) of Stranger Things by far (season two episode seven is an outstanding episode and furthers Eleven’s character development). I usually watch a season of this show, see a couple of other things and come back and watch the season again. Typically it is good enough to warrant this and I find it enjoyable. I almost did not make it through part one. So many of the wonderful dynamics of this show come from having all of these lovable goofballs together doing their thing. This season, not so much.
Also – I know that most people are catching on to this but let’s be clear, introducing new, lovable characters to only just kill them off is not cool. It’s not clever and it is not rewarding.
So despite all of this the show continues to look amazing and the performances are fantastic. All of us became infected by Kate Bush for a spell and I believe a whole lot of young people became aware that early Metallica is amazing. These are huge wins.
Part two is much better than part one but Netflix became guilty of my biggest gripe of 2022 – making me wait to see streaming content. This nonsense of parcelling out episodes needs to end. Just wait until they are ready and put them on your site. Time in-between decreases the quality of the experience.
They also made this season more upsetting than previous ones (I am sure because the kids are older) and I didn’t care for that as much. Hopper’s story in the prison felt pitch perfect to me whereas a lot with Eleven was off. Hopefully they are able to readjust for season five (the big hint here is to lean more on Winona Ryder) and do more of what makes this show so special.
The Gray Man
I am conflicted about this film. It doesn’t fail but it doesn’t really succeed. It exists. This film, with it’s talented, likable cast and massive budget doesn’t wow and it doesn’t excite. I wish it did. I wanted to like this movie more than I did. There are too many moments, like a fight scene on an airplane, where the material is handled so poorly that it yanks the viewer from the film (or this one at least) and makes you start thinking about why it looks so bad. This should not happen on a blockbuster film with action stars.
This could be forgiven if, perhaps, the filmmakers had gone too far in a dramatic direction and instead of making a great action film made a great drama. They did not. I can’t say why this film doesn’t work other than to say it is uninspired. I get the sense that the Russo brothers made this movie because they could, not because they passionately wanted to.
Noomi. My love for her is known. I tell you, she is a gift. Lamb is…pushing it. I watched it. I enjoyed many parts of it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. It’s meant to be a fable, I think? I’m not sure what the point of the film is.
The premise being that an Icelandic childless couple (their own died) discover a half-sheep half-human among their flock of sheep (little did they know that a gigantic half-human half-sheep creature impregnated their ewe to bring this about). So in their grief and goodness they take the creature, Ada, into their home and raise her as their child. All is well until Noomi’s bother-in-law, a ne’er do well (in a leather jacket no less) shows up. He’s not okay with Ada and tries to to get them to see what they are doing is unnatural. Eventually he is won over by Ada and recants his position.
My memory of the ending is fuzzy, the brother-in-law has left, the husband is killed by Ada’s father (giant half-man half-sheep creature) and Ada is taken away. Noomi is alone and heartbroken amidst the unforgiving landscape? This feels right. It’s a long, quiet film that ends and makes you scratch your head wondering why you watched it. You may not be able to answer that question but I can. Noomi. I’m not sure it was worth the time.
I am going to lump this in with Lamb. It’s A24, the company that found its niche and refuses to leave it. This is another understated, somewhat pointless film that has an incredible title sequence. The rest is a forgettable story (sorry, I’m being harsh but the story has no emotional resonance) about a family, a robot and valuing the little moments? Clones are people, too? Tea can have meaning and add purpose to one’s life? I honestly don’t know.
Westworld – Season 4
I loved season three of this show. I may have been the only person who did. This impressive, ambitious show that boasted an unparalleled cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Jeffery Wright and the rest) was stellar for the first two seasons. Rich, complex, epic in scale – you could not ask for anything more. And then they changed everything and gave a radically different season that was less dour and repetitious than what came before. That change was bold and it was brave and it was very good (although, as always, it could have used more Maeve, the true star of this show).
Season four is very much like “Maxtrix: Resurrections” – a “meta” reboot wrapped up in pretentious explanations for an implausible concept no one wants. Ideas don’t always come when you want them to and I can’t help but think that season four needed to be made on a schedule, regardless or whether it was ready. This feels like making the best of a bad situation – which is unfortunate as season three was so incredibly good.
I had been hoping that they would have the courage to leave Dolores behind and explore the new and potentially fascinating characters like Dolores/Hale and whatever Host William was but it all fell a bit flat and still relied on Dolores, only, you know, trapped in a simulation and being manipulated to extract information. New ideas please! There will be no further episodes which is sad but most likely for the best, you have to walk away before you tarnish the entire enterprise (hi Matrix sequels!!).
Drive My Car
I don’t want to pick on the arty Japanese film that everyone loved. Except it’s not really a movie. This feels like a novel that a filmmaker decided to write as a sceenplay and then try and film. I have never had the sensation when watching a movie that the film should have been a book instead, but Drive My Car made me think this thought.
So many long silences that mean nothing (and would have been better as passages of interior monologues and thoughts). The performances where everyone speaks a different language and the text is displayed on a screen behind them. People just abruptly saying, “I feel that I must tell you the story of how I…”randomly throughout the movie because without this exposition you would have no idea what was happening or why.
I’m someone who enjoys world cinema and not everything I watch needs to be fast-paced and full of action but Drive My Car needs an editor and possibly a priest. I think a good movie might be hiding in this film but there is a whole lot of excess that should be removed and thought put into how to convey ideas and concepts visually.
Tehran – Season 2
Apple TV has problems. I don’t know why most of their shows don’t work but for some reason they do not. Season one of Slow Horses, Suspicion, For All Mankind (and season two as well), The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray and Tehran are all terribly uneven. I have no idea why this is. It is as though the people making these shows don’t know how to link episodes together when telling their stories. They seem to know how to make individual episodes but then connecting them to one another, or having a through-line when it comes to emotions and plot seems to escape them.
The second season of Tehran has many solid and interesting moments. The cast is great, the tension is palpable and for the most part it works. Then you reach the last five minutes of the season and it’s like someone’s angry teenager has gotten control of the plot and ruined everything just to spite you. The ending of the season is about as wrongheaded as anything I’ve ever seen and it defeated the purpose of watching the season. Let down isn’t the correct way to put it. The ending felt like the filmmakers saying “Sucker!”, while driving past me and throwing a slushie in my face. Why did I watch this thing?
I understand that this is based on a true story and that it happened recently. I can appreciate wanting to be sensitive to the feelings of the people who are still alive. What I cannot understand is making a show about a missing persons/murder case where you never see/hear from the perpetrator.
Somewhere around the third episode it became clear you would get secondhand reports about the enigmatic inventor who took a journalist out on his custom submarine, but we were not going to meet him. This is a bizarre move. Especially since the meat of this story, the quirky interesting parts, stem from the fact that this person continually changed his account of what happened in an effort to stymie the police’s efforts. Those would have be THE scenes of the show.
Without them it is this weird, empty thing where we watch the parents suffer, the investigator wring his hands and ask others to do their jobs and get a lot of explanations as to why you cannot do things in the Danish Judicial system. If you take all of the most frustrating parts of a courtroom thriller and make an entire show of those you would end up with something like The Investigation. I have no idea who this was made for but it certainly was not made for me.
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law
Speaking of frustrating we have season one of She-Hulk. A show that decided to follow the Deadpool formula in the hope of being successful. To start – I think Tatiana Maslany is amazing and I will watch almost anything with her in it (she and Noomi are clearly two sides of the same coin and should work together). The work she did on Orphan Black is the best acting I have ever seen. She deserves a better show.
The decision to make this show a half hour comedy with constant fourth wall breaks must have seemed like a great idea on paper. In reality it does not work. The show tries to rely on the charm of Ms. Maslany and the cleverness of it’s quips. Only there isn’t much of a story, the quality of the special effects is inconsistent and there is no payoff. There are a number of good moments and interesting ideas (in particular the notion that men connect with She-Hulk and not Jen, that she’s valued more for being super-powered than being a lawyer) that are immediately ignored and replaced by typical television nonsense.
This show feels as though it exists to build a bridge between MCU projects and little else. I wish they had figured out something better before they made this, it is a missed opportunity.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
I was incredibly excited to watch this film after seeing the trailer. What I thought I was getting – Nicholas Cage let off the chain and going wild for an hour and forty minutes. What I got – Nicholas Cage and Pedro Pascal becoming buddies in the middle of a messy movie that forgets what it was meant to be.
This is the kind of film that starts with a solid premise and then morphs into a weird meta-dream thing that feels like an excuse for the writers to insert themselves into the story. There are numerous characters who feel unimportant who come to matter and several who seem important and matter not at all. It’s not that the film doesn’t try and deliver on the conceit – Nicholas Cage is drawn into a CIA sting of a mob family and must help the CIA while protecting his friend – it does do this, but it also fails at it.
I don’t think it’s a bad movie it’s just not a great one. If I have one theme from the things I watched this year it’s that I wish people put more effort into what they are making. A lot of the shows and films I watched in 2022 felt half-baked. More time, more thought and more care could have helped these projects be something more than mediocre.
See – Season 3
Jason Momoa’s television shows, so far, are heartbreaking. Red Road was upsetting and difficult and his character was mistreated but also kinda awful. Frontier was lackluster for the first season with a better second and excellent third at which point Netflix decided enough was enough and cancelled it. The heartbreak being once the filmmakers figured out how to make that show properly it was cancelled.
See was always uneven but the show had an interesting premise, a unique execution and solid performances from most of the cast. The ending of this show, however, is just dreadful. I watched seasons one and two with my wife. She was busy when the third aired and I watched it alone. When it ended she asked me, “How was it?” And all I could say was, “What’s the one thing this show could not do?”. She knew immediately what I meant.
If you haven’t watched See I have no words of wisdom. It never occurred to me that they would end the show the way they did, largely negating the point of the entire experience. There was a fantastic alternative staring them in the face and they chose to ignore it. I cannot imagine why. I would love to see Jason Momoa work on projects that get things right, he keeps getting better as an actor and deserves to be a part of excellence.
Until the final episode I loved this show. So well done. They improved upon many aspects of the book and made an interesting show that fleshed out many hinted at ideas from the novel. I think the actors do a great job of bringing the characters to life. Watching the finale it became apparent that they are not finishing the story with a single season and instead got clever with the plot. Now I feel sad and empty. It’s a lousy non-ending to an otherwise wonderful show.
Peaky Blinders – Season 6
Peaky Blinders, possibly more than any other television show of recent memory, won me over with it’s singular vision. It’s not a nice show. It’s not a happy show. It isn’t the kind of show that you watch and think, “You know who this is perfect for?” Unless you know some truly dark and masochistic people. It’s a dark show. It’s a mean show. The first two seasons had a beating heart buried in the coal and grime and that made it worth watching.
Then season three happened and that light was extinguished and ever since we’ve been wandering around in the darkness wondering if we are walking toward something good or about to plummet to our doom.
Season six answers this question – it’s all bad. There is absolutely nothing rewarding or good about this season. If Peaky Blinders had a secret sauce, that magical ingredient tying everything together and made that pain and suffering worthwhile, it’s gone. The hero is diminished, his life is loveless and the supporting cast has been reduced to simplistic cardboard cut-outs of characters they used to inhabit and explore.
I couldn’t finish the season, I’m halfway through episode five, and enough is enough. It’s possible that they redeem the show. It’s possible that some sense is made of the nonsense that is this season’s storyline. It doesn’t really matter. What made this show worth watching was that Tommy and Grace found one another and that despite everything else terrible in Birmingham, you had their love. Yep, that’s sentiment and it’s romantic and it was the heart of the show. Tommy wasn’t really a monster and Grace wasn’t stone cold. He didn’t need to be a gangster and she could move past the great loss of her life. When this relationship went away you simply had others floundering (looking at you Arthur) or being ignored by the storytellers (Finn? Who is Finn?) or killed off in the hope that it might mean something (farewell John, we hardly knew you).
This show is so well-made and pleasing to look at but has become an unbearable slog of misery and pain. It breaks my heart.
The Crown – Season 4
Speaking of misery and pain wrapped up in gorgeous images and impeccable filmmaking, we have season four of The Crown. Dear God. Look, I knew that once we reached all things Diana it was going to be bad but this show was already in the doldrums long before she entered the picture.
I had hoped, why I do not know, that once Olivia Coleman took over the role that things would be different. Gillian Anderson was going to play Margaret Thatcher and be important (she’s not). I have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking but what the viewers get is sadness and pain and monotony.
I knew five minutes into the first episode of season one that this show was not for me but I watched it with my wife so quitting was not an option. As the show went on I found many moments where it became incredible television that seemed to justify the misery and long bouts of nothingness.
It’s just that these bad moments so greatly outnumber the good ones. So often it’s drudgery and now with these later seasons it is repetition of previous drudgery to illustrate a point. It’s terrible. One thing of interest is comparing this show to The Investigation on HBO. Whereas that show seemed to show too much restraint out of respect for the family members and people involved The Crown seems to want to push things too far in the other direction. No one comes off looking good or decent. We wallow in everyone’s pain and misfortune. I am not quite sure I understand the point.
Street Food USA
This is a show I wanted to love. The problem with all of the food programming Netflix makes in this Chef’s Table universe is twofold. First, it is incredibly uneven. Second they try and give each subject the same amount of time and importance. The quality of the episodes of Street Food USA varies greatly. The Portland episode is one of the best food documentaries I have ever seen. Since watching it I have wanted to go to Portland every time I am hungry. I have started following Mama Dut on Instagram and telling my children about every post I see.
Nearly every person featured in the episode is making interesting food, has an interesting story and comes across as someone I want to support in every way I can. I love it. It is an amazing episode of food television and you should go watch it now.
Many other episodes and people featured don’t have much of a story. And what brings this home, painfully, is that each episode of Street Food has the same structure. Here are the experts of the city to try and give you a brief overview of what is interesting about this location. Here is our main subject for this episode – Thuy Pham for the Portland episode – whose story we are going to interweave throughout the other subjects of the episode. And then intercutting all of this together over about half and hour.
As you watch the episodes this formula becomes more apparent. Around the midway point you get to the tough times of the main subject, and when things were hardest for them. By the end we are back to happiness and making great food again and isn’t everything wonderful. If you watch several episodes in a row this is grating.
The unevenness of the episodes, I am sure, exacerbates this repetitive structure. I imagine the problem with Street Food USA is the same as it is with Chef’s Table – that the directors are assigned their subjects. I mentioned this in my food post and linked to this article where a director explained this issue at length. It makes sense. The person in charge of Portland clearly liked the people and the food and the city. By extension the viewer comes to like the city and the food and the people. Other locations, New York in particular, you get no sense of. Which brings me to my second point – that each episode and subject is given the same amount of time and importance.
I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their job but Los Angeles and New York must, simply by the size of their populations, have considerably more street food options than Portland and New Orleans. Therefore, it would stand to reason, that when you make an episode in those cities you have a) longer episodes and b) feature more subjects. The number of cuisines excluded from each of these cities (despite Los Angeles being a pretty interesting and good episode) is massive. New York easily could have been double its length and still left out plenty.
I have this show in the bad category which feels mean. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity like so much of Chef’s Table now. They could be making such better shows! I do not mean to harp on New York City but allow me to put a link to a video from The New York Times below. I watched this in-between episodes of Street Food USA and I think Priya Krishna did a fantastic job capturing the story of Sonia Pérez and her tamale cart in Brooklyn. I think it’s better than most of what is in Street Food USA.
1899 – Season 1
I watched this show for two reasons, it has a good trailer and it is made by the same people who made Dark. The problem with the second reason is that Dark went completely and totally off the rails by the end. When people lodge complaints against a film like Tenet they usually are along the lines that the storyline is too complicated or that the conceit of the film is bad but you can’t tell because the filmmaking is so intricate. I would argue that Dark ultimately fails as a show because it was so intent on being complicated and intricate that eventually no one, including the filmmakers, really understood where to go with it or why.
1899 suffers from a different problem, one I’ve already mentioned regarding Matrix: Resurrections and season four of Westworld – the notion of our characters being stuck in a simulation but having to discover that this is the case. It’s not an unusable concept but it is a familiar one at this point. So if you are going to use it – do something original and exciting with it. Whereas this is a component of the story in The Peripheral it is not the central story being told. Here you have nothing else. Episode after episode is spent getting to know the various characters on board this ship, each of them with their own past they are trying to escape as mysterious and strange events unfold around them.
Okay, that’s fine for a couple of episodes. But to drag this out until the last episode, where you discover that none of these other people matter (in this season at least) and in fact our heroine is stuck in a simulation that she must break free from…only to have the season conclude with her waking up and oh-ho is the real world different from the one we’ve been in – is a complete let down. We have done this many times before.
I knew around episode five that the show was going to be lackluster but I trudged along because this miserable year has taken away my show-watching hope. I’d say 60% of what I have seen this year has been mediocre or bad. It is depressing. If the big reveal of this show had been done at the end of episode two, or the beginning of episode three this could have been an interesting season of television. Instead so much time was wasted with characters who simply died or disappeared. This show feels very much like literary novels that take two hundred and fifty pages to begin their story. I don’t know who these people are that have absolute faith that viewers and readers will carry on despite no reasons to do so but I wish they would stop. Make an effort, give your audience a reason to stick around and care about what you have created.
Ted Lasso – Season 2
It’s amazing in a terrible way, to watch something that you loved and brought you joy self-destruct. I have no idea if the plan for Ted Lasso was always to have a first season be about positivity, joy and making your way through life like a goldfish – to then undermine everything you did and set it on fire. If it was, mission accomplished. I cannot imagine why you would want to do this but if it was the plan than everyone involved gets an A for execution.
I didn’t finish the season, I stopped watching during episode eleven – enough was enough. I tried reading many (and I mean many) reviews and columns and tweets as to whether I was the only person (excluding my wife) who took issue with the new direction of season two. After reading I don’t know how many things I found little comfort in some people feeling as I do. The first season was a gift dropped in the middle of a terrible time. The second season feels like a punishment.
I don’t want to spend more time trying to tear down the show or convince anyone to dislike it. If you found season two to be rewarding and a good time, I’m happy for you. I did not. The introduction of anxiety attacks, a counselor and a spiteful and mean Nate strikes me as terribly storytelling on an unprecedented level. That I made it to the middle of episode eleven speaks to my love of the first season. It felt like they had to, at some moment, course correct and undo all of the terrible things they were doing. From what I have read they did to some extent. Given that Nate is not redeemed and ends the season a villain clearly I was not entirely wrong.
I don’t have a wonderful conclusion to this post. As I said I generally try and stay positive with my online writing. That being said this past year was absolutely horrid for watching movies and television. Ted Lasso being the best example I can offer. To say that it carried me through a month of 2020 is no exaggeration. Season one is joyous, healing television. I will be forever grateful for it.
I imagine that good deal of what I watched in 2021 was influenced by what we all went through in 2020, whether the filmmakers intended to do this or not. I understand the urge, in fact that might be why I am posting this, but you have to temper it. It can’t all be bad and bleak. I tried to find balance even on this page and I hope I did not bring any of you down.
Some thoughts and musings about drones and filmmaking.
To begin: I am not (yet) a licensed drone pilot. I want to get this out of the way as it means I cannot make money from anything related to drone photography/videography. Since I do not make money from this site I can post images and videos here from my drone flights without violating any rules or laws. I have registered my drone with the FAA and I do follow the rules everyone must follow in order to fly a drone legally. Let’s all rest easy knowing we are standing on the right side of the line.
Christmas 2020. My wife listens to months of hints that I would like to finally buy myself a drone but I feel it is an unwarranted expense. She removes the guilt and gives me a DJI Mini 2. I am beyond pleased. I unwrap it and get things charging so I can take my first flight. Three minutes into that first flight I know that I was correct (I love it) and that I should have asked for the mid-level model, the Mavic Air 2.
So I spend the next two days flying the drone and taking pictures and getting video while I place an order for the new drone. I return the Mini, get the Air 2 and fly away like the little drone pilot I was meant to be.
Why write about this? I’d like to share some insights and thoughts I’ve had since getting a drone and flying it. There are a number of people on YouTube who make great videos about choosing a drone, or how to get set up for your first flight. I am going to put two videos I found helpful below.
If you have already chosen the drone you want and would like to watch a comprehensive video that walks you through every aspect of the device watch one from Jeven Dovey. I’ve put the Air 2S above but he’s made one for all of the DJI drones. As I mentioned I have now owned two different models and his walkthroughs for each helped me tremendously. He’s thorough, if you watch the entire video all basic aspects of the physical drone and how to use it will be covered.
Aside from having a channel name that I dislike there is nothing but goodness with QuickAssTutorials. He talks fast, doesn’t waste time with nonsense and offers practical advice. If you are looking for something other than a walkthrough about basics I would recommend looking at his videos.
I always say this but I think it is true – if you are anything like me then buying a drone probably does not make sense for you. I wanted a drone for impractical purposes. I keep writing screenplays and having establishing shots, the town center or the lonely house on the hill, and when I think about how I would execute these shots I am stumped. Or I was. Because I would need something like a drone to capture these images and I did not have one.
Now I have a drone and largely I am still not shooting these projects because this $1,000 device I own did not solve the other problems keeping me from making that short film. Namely that I don’t have actors or locations or a crew. So to bang this drum one last time – if you are anything like me (thinking and hoping but not actually doing) reconsider the purchase.
Some Things I Did Not Realize About Drones That I Should Have
My primary interest for drones concerns videography. So if you are reading this as a photographer, I am sorry, most of my thoughts and comments probably are not that interesting to you. Let’s state the first obvious point that escaped me: drones do not record audio. I know that this is glaringly obvious but if I can help one other person realize this then my job is done.
When you watch a video with drone footage and there is sound: ambient, voices, whatever, that’s all coming from elsewhere. The drone is capturing nothing. Most of you (maybe all of you) know this. I did not. It’s not major but I was surprised as I filmed my kids only to later discover I had no audio to go with it. It means an extra step if you are looking to capture audio at the time of capture.
The next big point: most drones have a fixed aperture. I’ve written about this with the iPhone. If I ever write about my action camera it will come up there as well. People do not address this enough: the aperture is fixed. What this means is if you are flying in some difficult lighting conditions, which you most likely will, you only have the ISO and shutter speed to control the amount of light hitting the sensor (it is another reason why having ND filters for your drone are a must).
This only applies if you are buying the lower end models of the DJI line. The Mavic 3 and the Mavic 2 Pro allow you to control the aperture. This is important to remember because if you try and rely on the auto features it could mean some really wonky settings for your video. For photography it is less of a big deal.
Something else to consider would be the obstacle avoidance feature. The Mini 2 does not have this (despite being the entry level drone) and what that means is the drone will not protect itself from flying into things. My Air 2 does have it and it is a wonderful feature. I am not overly careful when I fly (the video here shows that) and even with this feature engaged I still end up in trees. I’ve only found one person on YouTube who stressed this point and I think it matters. If you are just starting out it is helpful to have features that protect you from yourself.
Final point of this nature – internal storage. The Mini 2 does not have this feature and the Air 2 does. I cannot tell you how many times I have left my SD card in my computer and gone out to fly. I now keep a second SD card in my bag but before that I was so pleased that I could record onto the internal storage for the drone. It holds 8 GB which is ample and allowed me to do what I wanted to do. This is a really wonderful feature to have especially if you are traveling for the express purpose of shooting drone footage.
All of this is well and good but it is information you could get from anyone else – so why am I writing this? What I have learned about done videography over the past year is that it is a small part of filmmaking. Much like owning an action camera, the number of shots you actually need one of these devices for is quite low. I keep using my drone because I like it. I take pictures whenever I fly and I shoot a lot of video. But for me, a person who presently is only a hobbyist, I have little to no use for any of these things.
I post to Instagram and occasionally Twitter. Largely I edit together clips and they sit on a hard drive. If I make a short film I put a shot or two into the video and that is it. I love the drone, I love flying the drone but I am continually amazed at how little I need it.
Who you are and what you do is going to differ, greatly I imagine, from me. What I have found since getting a drone is that when I watch films or even YouTube videos (that are not reviews of drones) is that the shots are quick and few. If you were to look at the average length of a drone shot in a YouTube video that is not a review I would guess it is about three seconds long. Even the travel videos designed to highlight drone footage cut very quickly. Often they will incorporate a person is these videos, standing on top of a car in the middle of an empty expanse, and still the quick cutting.
In films they tend to be longer but there are perhaps three to five shots over the course of a feature length film. Which is not me disparaging the shots. Only to point out that I thought this would be a huge component of everything I would be making, now I find myself with a lot of footage and nowhere to put it.
These are specialized shots, almost on par with something like that probe lens that took over the Internet two years ago, for particular situations. I write this to offer up something that should have been obvious to me – this isn’t going to be the tool that allows you to suddenly make everything you want.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to have the same person appear opposite themselves onscreen. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time trying to talk people out of doing this unless they have an interesting idea to explore (which is not to say my concept satisfied this condition – I had no one else to work with and made do). I’ve done this because to pull off this technique requires planning, time and effort. All things that I never utilize properly. I also advise against playing around with doubles because it’s something that has been overused and often feels a bit silly.
That being said I recently watched The Innocents and found they did a good job of incorporating this technique with a concept that felt fresh and interesting.
What I enjoyed most about this show was the choice to spend time with all of the characters and not focus solely on two sixteen year olds. By having three distinct age groups of characters and letting the story wander between these groups gave the show depth and interested me more than if had just been about the young lovers.
I can’t help but feel that when you have great actors, adults in particular, capable of portraying complicated emotions and dealing with “grown up” material, that this is the correct approach. I do not mean to be dismissive of the younger actors, they did an excellent job. I think I am reacting largely to a trend I see on sites like Netflix, where a great deal of programming seems to be aimed at an audience much younger than I am. I imagine this has been going on as long as there has been television and movies, but to see wonderful actors who are now shunted into the role of mom and dad and given nothing to do is depressing.
I started writing this post some time ago so my memory of this show has faded. I recall liking it but not loving it. The big “twist” is interesting in so far as they took a concept that most of us are familiar with and made it feel new. It’s easy to dismiss something like that but it is not easy to do and I commended the filmmakers for their work. Guy Pearce is always interesting and the rest of the cast was, for me, expected and welcome. If you are looking for something different and unusual, something that the algorithm has already forgotten and most likely will not send you way, I recommend checking out The Innocents.
A long list of films and shows I watched and loved in 2020.
I wrote one of these last year despite thinking it was a bad idea. I enjoyed doing it as I only write about the films and shows I like and want to say something nice about. For me being in a position to heap praise (and not be burdened by word count or having to be clever) makes all the difference.
So, let’s get on with it.
If you saw the trailer for See you could be forgiven for not thinking it would be an outstanding show.
One of the first shows to premiere on Apple TV it was given a trailer that emphasized the violence and world-building aspects of what the show has to offer. So much was omitted. As I have been clear about in the past, I really like Jason Momoa and what he brings to his projects (https://johnryansullivan.com/2019/05/16/a-moment-for-momoa/).
This show offers plenty of violence and gore and rugged manliness. There is a great deal of vulnerability and character and, well, great acting on display as well. The supporting cast is fantastic (looking at you Alfre Woodard!) and it’s an interesting story being told.
The amount of effort made to have nearly all of the sighted cast behave as if they are blind is apparent, it takes no time for the viewer to become immersed in this world and accept that these people are doing these amazing/dangerous things without their eyesight.
This was one of my viewing highlights of 2020 and I saw it in January, which filled me with great hope for the year to come.
The Dead Don’t Die
If there is one genre I am truly and completely done with it is zombies. I have never, ever, ever understood the appeal of zombie movies. That being said I have watched some and I did make my way through season one of The Walking Dead. If I had my way everyone would abandon zombie movies and shows tomorrow (which of course would mean that a film like this wouldn’t be made which would mean I wouldn’t write this post, which would mean..).
That being said, I love this movie (people are a mystery). I believe I’ve previously written about Jim Jarmusch on this site – in case I am mistaken – I think he is a director much like Steven Soderbergh in that they have distinct approaches to their films. With Mr. Jarmusch I feel that the either cares what the audience thinks and experiences or he does not. Some of his films have such an interior feeling that they come across as inaccessible, almost gibberish. This is the other kind of Jarmusch film, where he cares about us and is even playful and silly and fun.
This film is self-aware (meta, if you like the term) and giddy about it. When you have Bill Murray discussing Jim Jarmusch and the amount of the script (of the movie he is presently in) he’s been shown, you know you’ve entered into that strange territory where projects can either soar or go off the rails.
This soars. Tom Waits gives a strong performance (although nothing could come close to his role in The Ballad of Buster Scrugss) and Tilda Swinton gives a mightly weird (shocking!) performance that ties the various storylines together.
Adam Driver is delightful in this film and for once, once! the zombie stuff doesn’t feel forced or meant to be a complex metaphor for humanity and…. It’s silly and goofy and I appreciate all of it.
The films of the Safdie brothers escaped me until Good Time. I recall, vaguely, hearing about Heaven Knows What around its release. My thought, then and now, was “I really don’t want to see this movie”. Which might be unfair but the story sounds deeply unpleasant to me.
Which brings me to a tangential point: movie trailers are important. I cannot stress this enough. In our current, over-saturated state of media information the two most valuable things for portraying a film are the trailer and the poster. If I had to assign these values the trailer would have 90% of the importance. So many films are deeply unpleasant and go to places you would never choose to go on your own. It’s the skill of the filmmakers, how this subject matter is handled and why it was presented in the first place that decide whether something is worth watching or not. Most often a well-made trailer can tell you if the film succeeds or fails at these goals.
To come back to Good Time, it has a decent trailer. It’s not a great trailer, it is a somewhat misleading trailer but it gets the job done. The success this film had, the praise that was lavished upon it made me curious enough to watch it. I love New York movies and in particular I love gritty movies that take Place in New York and don’t try to make the people or the place pretty.
If you’ve spent time in the city you know, the sidewalks aren’t clean. There are piles of trash by the curb and many of the people you bump into are not put-together and living their best life. Good Time is an interesting film in that it goes to these places, with these people and you are led there by a good-looking and well-known actor who has done everything in his power to be neither. Yet it works.
It’s dark and dirty and at times deeply unpleasant. It has an ending that I would be hard pressed to call “satisfying”. Yet. It’s good movie and I’m glad I watched it. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next or what the main character would do and I appreciate that.
Happy! (season 2)
If I am honest I watched season one of Happy! because I knew Patton Oswalt was voicing the imaginary character and I knew one half of Neveldine/Taylor (Crank, baby!) was running the show. The first season is dark and weird and not always rewarding. Season two, however, (Punisher anyone?) takes the parts that work from season one and discards those that do not.
This show has a fine line to walk, the boundless optimism and naivety of the child’s imaginary friend coupled with the dirty, nasty world that the grown-ups inhabit. Since the child is largely missing from this season and the imaginary friend now is mostly with Nick, the indestructible main character, he’s allowed to grow up and it makes for more interesting viewing.
There are a good many elements of this show that I cannot explain. That is, I could try and explain and they would not make sense or they would seem silly. But it works and it’s interesting. It’s an incredibly dark show that relishes going to the more disgusting, disturbing places. Yet, there is a core to it that redeems to nastiness.
This second season is so strong and so well done, with many of the side characters (Ann-Margaret people!) getting a chance to develop and shine it is, frankly, amazing that SyFy would cancel the show. To have something find its feet so soundly only to be denied the chance to continue to shift and change and amaze is somewhat depressing. But I say, take heart, enjoy what was given and delve into the weird and wonderful would that is season two of Happy!
Bad Boys For Life
Let us be thankful that the number four was not used in the title of this movie. Truly. People do that nonsense and who ever was in charge of the title of this movie refrained. On behalf of humanity I say, “Thank you!”.
The Bad Boys franchise should not exist. Anyone familiar with the story of the first film, of the original cast or Michael Bay’s filmmaking experience prior (since?) knows that many things had to go right for all of this to come to pass.
But it has and I, for one, am grateful. Bad Boys For Life does what many sequels do not, it allows the characters to grow, to age and to change. Yes, Marcus is still trying to retire (and does!) and Mike is still shooting people and not caring much about the death and mayhem he causes (only Will Smith and Bruce Willis could play characters this amoral and still make them seem like wonderful people).
They are older now, they are less physically amazing and the sins of their pasts’ (fine, Mike’s) are coming back to haunt them. Michael Bay did not direct the film but his replacements have done a fine job replicating the established style of these films. The story is what it is (not meant as a put down) and the action sequences are well done and rewarding.
What blissfully remains intact and makes this a fun film to watch is the relationship between Marcus and Mike. It’s changed but so much is the same. It works and I enjoy watching it.
If I am honest this is the film I was most excited to see in 2020. Before I had watched Good Time I was chomping at the bit to see Uncut Gems. Remember when I took a paragraph to talk about movie trailers? This film is a perfect example of what a trailer should be. I knew exactly what this movie would be and I knew I’d like it.
So much praise was heaped upon Adam Sandler and his performance that people seem to forget that every few years he appears in a dramatic role and astonishes everyone. He’s a good actor and it’s not his fault that most people forget it.
So much of what I wrote about Good Time, about the depiction of New York and the people who live there, applies to this film. What I like best about both films is how you have an almost immediate sense of who the main characters are. You understand how deeply flawed they are and you know, even though you keep hoping, they are going to do the worst possible thing for themselves, over and over.
I love the supporting cast in this film, I love the look of it – it’s gritty and glowing and strange. I dislike how much hype surrounds certain movies these days but I feel that Uncut Gems deserved what it was given. I went in having a sense of the film without knowing much information and it was perfect. I’m excited for what the Safdie brothers do next.
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
I don’t write much about this kind of programming, which is odd because in the past three years I’ve come to watch a great deal of it. David Chang in particular is a favorite of mine because the television he makes is about so much more than cooking or eating.
Ugly Delicious is as educational as it is entertaining. Although the two seasons differ greatly in style and presentation at the heart of both is the curiosity and intellect of Mr. Chang. It’s wonderful television and if you haven’t watched the show you should.
What I like about Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner is the format makes the episodes as much about the guests as it is about Mr. Chang. To explore one city, with one guest in what is meant to be one day, is an interesting concept. Although only four episodes long (looking at you season two of Ugly Delicious as well, give me more!) there is lot contained within.
Particular highlights include Kate McKinnon being a more adventurous eater than David Chang, Lena Waithe (that’s it, she’s [and everything about her episode] the highlight) and the pleasure being had by all with eating the food.
It’s a show of snippets, of small moments or bit of knowledge being doled out to the viewer. I don’t say that to diminish it, what I enjoyed about watching B,L&D (yep, I did that) is that it prized the entertainment aspect over the educational. Did I learn a bit about Vancouver? You bet I did. Did I laugh at David Chang flipping a giant crab in the air? Absolutely. Do I value one more than the other?
I’ve written in the past about my dislike of the question “What is your favorite film?”. I stand by what I wrote. I will also say that I believe Victoria is the best television show I’ve ever seen (I didn’t say favorite, although that may be true…). I should back up to qualify what I just wrote.
Until recently I have been the opposite of an Anglophile (except Anglophobe isn’t quite correct). While many people I know have an affinity to all things British I have had an aversion, or a general dislike. Much like their general interest, my general dislike has not been founded in anything concrete. To put is simply I was put off by period pieces about the English, in large part because everyone was so dour and snooty and generally unfeeling.
Which is to say I was ignorant and had not seen enough to appreciate that Colin Firth’s Pride and Prejudice is not the same as Keira Knightly’s (and so on). There are many interpretations of the same source material and because of this some will thrill me and others rub me the wrong way (which is how art works and we need to just accept this).
Victoria is a wonderful show. What begins as a story about a young woman becoming the queen of England (and being unprepared) becomes much more and quickly. One of my favorite things about the show is how much is packed into each episode. So much happens over three short seasons and yet it never feels rushed or forced.
Opposed to many other films and shows about monarchs what makes Victoria so appealing is the she’s presented as being a good and decent person. She’s not ruined by ascending to the throne, she expands to fill the role. She remains who she is while also adapting to her new position and responsibilities. It feels like a realistic depiction of life regarding how we change and stay the same.
I cannot praise this show enough for being a balm during the past year. Despite it dealing with a wide array of unpleasant topics I never found it to depress or even annoy me. It’s core is a positive, uplifting one – while still being a dramatic program. What’s presented isn’t all hearts and flowers yet the overall feeling I had when watching was of a warm embrace. I hope they make at least twelve more seasons.
Wolf Hall (Masterpiece)
Imagine for a moment that your historical knowledge is deeply incomplete and you’ve learned next to nothing about Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. Imagine you haven’t watched countless movies, read countless novels dealing with Henry’s reign or Anne’s beheading. I know I am in the minority here but before I came to Wolf Hall I knew very little of this story.
I certainly had never heard of Thomas Cromwell (which I gather is the case for most) and I absolutely have watched little of the period dramas made by Masterpiece. Yet Victoria showed me the error of my ways regarding period pieces and a slump in finding a good book to read led to a late night where I pulled Wolf Hall off the shelf.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself reading what felt like a contemporary story set in 1535 (or so, the book covers a fair bit of time). After finishing Victoria and the novel it seemed only natural to give the show a try. I’m not going to beat around the bush here – both Victoria and Wolf Hall have some very strange, very video-y cinematography in places that can be off-putting. There, I said it, my one negative thing.
Yet, in most places it is stunning, albeit different. Victoria is warm and sumptuous. You can almost feel the fabrics on your fingertips and the light is soft and warm. Wolf Hall is so dark and secretive. Yet, and this is the trick I can’t quite figure out, despite never really knowing the main character, we are firmly with him from the beginning.
It’s an interesting story and reading the novel you can better grasp the mechanics of how we are at once in Cromwell’s mind and shut out from it. The language used, the technique is fascinating and as I writer I should sit with it and dissect it in order to better understand the inner workings. But I don’t want to. The writing is so good, the acting so perfect that only a sadist would try and pick apart the stitching hoping for a glimpse of what lies beneath. I know there are no real answers there.
If Victoria convinced me to stop thinking all period films and shows about the English had to be a certain way, Wolf Hall is the show that made me stop thinking the term period has to mean anything at all. The costumes, the manners, the sets all certainly point to a specific time and way of life but all of the behavior and machinations feel contemporary. I’ve never seen a show that better conveys the universal nature of human interactions regardless of time or place.
It will be interesting to see if the make further seasons of the following books. If they can replicate what they did with Wolf Hall we are all in for a treat.
Jumaji: The Next Level
I didn’t write about Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle, I believe because I saw it in 2018. I enjoyed the film immensely despite having some misgivings. It’s a film in the same vein as The Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl – it should not work but it does, beautifully.
Having seen the original film (and loving Robin Williams beyond words) I was skeptical as to why a new movie was being made. After seeing Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle I was reminded, again, of a sad but growing trend in filmmaking – most movies aren’t fun.
Remember fun? Remember when a movie could just be fun and that was okay? That’s what this series is about and I love them for it.
Jumanji: The Next Level does a number of things I like: it gives us Danny Devito and Danny Glover (together at last!). It gives us Kevin Hart doing a performance that isn’t Kevin Hart (AT LAST!). But, and I say this in all seriousness, it gives us one of my favorite things ever in a film – Awkwafina doing her version of Danny Devito. It’s everything I never knew I always wanted.
In short there’s a lot of humor in this film, coupled with great action. It’s fun and I am thankful that someone out there is still making movies that are. We need them.
I want to be clear from the start, when I first saw the trailer for Knives Out I had no interest in seeing the film. Remember our previous discussions on the matter of trailers? This is an excellent example of someone not doing their job well.
First and foremost – Ana De Armas is charming. She’s lovely and conveys kindness and goodness and she’s just someone I like watching on screen. That the story centers on her is smart. The trailer should have done a better job of conveying this. Secondly, Chris Evans has a great time being an unpleasant character in this film and it’s a joy to watch. He clearly has fun with the role and he does it in that wonderful tongue-in-cheek way actors can where they don’t mean it, but they do, and we just go along with all of it.
That the movie is more funny than anything else should have been conveyed in the trailer. Somehow this murder mystery movie is more of a good time than a clue-following excursion and I appreciate that. Having suffered through other films by Rian Johnson (Looper still plagues me, it should be amazing!) that I thought I would love, I am pleased to report that I feel very strong affection for Knives Out. My only possible complaint is I would have loved more Christopher Plummer in the film – but I would say that of every film.
I keep mentioning hype and how much I dislike it. As I write this I am still suffering through the hype of season four of The Crown and, frankly, it is insufferable. I never, ever wanted to watch this show (much like I never, ever wanted to watch Downton Abbey – but I did and I loved it) and after Wolf Hall I figured, why not?
It doesn’t hurt that my wife is and Anglophile and had already watched all of these shows and loved them. So, she rewatched these with me and was pleased that I finally “had gotten over myself”.
The Crown is an interesting show for me. I’ve never paid much attention to the royal family and I know next to nothing about them. Nearly all of the information conveyed is new to me and I certainly have no preconceived notions of how the Monarchy actually works in the twentieth century.
It seems, and I may be wrong, that this was the working assumption the filmmakers had for seasons one and two and I definitely benefited from it. It’s a lavish show, you can feel the money behind the shots, whether with the landscape or the ornate outfits or period vehicles lining the streets. They had the money to make this show as they wanted to and it’s interesting to see after watching the Masterpiece productions where they clearly did not.
I wasn’t expecting to feel empathy for Queen Elisabeth II and at the end of each episode there I was, thinking about how difficult her choices (or lack of choices) must have been. Learning of her love for horses was touching and being informed of her husband’s infidelity affecting. It is an interesting depiction because, as the name suggests, the show is about the Crown – yet because of how long she’s been queen, the two have in many ways come to mean the same thing.
I’ve seen an episode of season four but had to stop watching. In part because it was horribly depressing but also because I find I can’t shut out the social media voices about it at present and I need a bit more quiet in my mind if I am to enjoy what I am watching.
Westworld (season 3)
Speaking of hype…yeah. So, after watching the other seasons as they aired I decided to take a break from Westworld for all the reasons mentioned previously about hype. I am glad I did. Not watching these episodes as they are released on a weekly basis and not paying attention to what was being said about the show increased my enjoyment greatly.
Whereas the other seasons certainly have their strong points (and rewatching season one after finishing three helped remind me of how strong that season is) I think season three is my favorite. To be out in the real world, for the central question to shift away from “what is real?” and generally to become unexpected was wonderful.
Aaron Paul was a welcome addition to the show and getting to see Tessa Thompson (and Thandie Newton) do something different was refreshing to watch. There are so many fantastic actors on this show and it is so well-funded that the only limits are the imaginations of the writers.
As I write this I am struggling to remember all of the plot points and the ultimate resolution of the season, which is not usually a good sign. What I do recall is how much I enjoyed the journey and in particular the evolution of Evan Rachel Wood’s character this season. Taking the show out of the parks was an excellent idea and I cannot wait to see what they do next.
Santa Clarita Diet (All seasons)
Remember earlier when I said I don’t care for Zombie films and shows? I meant it, truly. But on occasion I watch something that is zombie-centric and I find it is quite good. Initially I was put off by the season one trailer for this show. It looked…gory. And weird. It struck me as another gross outing into the world of zombies for no good reason. I was wrong.
This show works because Drew Barrymore is who she is. If you don’t think she’s great you probably won’t care much for this show either. Is this show gory? Yes. Is it gross? Quite. Is it funny and heartfelt and sincere? Absolutely. It’s also pretty sexual and morally ambiguous. But funny!
Drew Barrymore is an actor who is able to be conflicting things and make it work. She’s kind, and funny and sweet and then terrifying and intimidating. She easily shifts between these states in such a natural and believable way (and given the details I know about her life) that I feel she contains all of this within herself. That she can access all of it and put it out into the world and make it palatable is an impressive feat.
The concept of the show, that she somehow becomes a zombie but wants to continue living her life is pretty fun. Her husband is a pretty relaxed and understanding guy who really loves his wife (Timothy Olyphant is my guy).
They have a teenage daughter who somehow manages to be a teenager but not fall into any of the typical tropes. It’s tightrope walk that works. At the heart of this show is the idea that if everyone in a family works together you can deal with all kinds of crazy stuff. I’m making it sound corny (and at times it is) but it also involves Drew Barrymore eating a lot of people. It’s complicated. Oh and it ends on a cliffhanger because streaming services are no better than traditional television companies and they do that sort of thing (shakes fist at sky).
The City and The City
If ever there were a television show that is clearly adapted from a book, The City and The City is the one. Two cities occupying the same physical space. One side is one city and the other…you get it. Or do you? It’s a weird concept and it makes for a pretty good show. The citizens of each city train themselves to only see their city – despite there being nothing preventing them from seeing what is on the other side of the street.
One city is poor and downtrodden, the other polished and successful. You can be a pretty literal person like me and see where this is going. If you ignore metaphors for a moment the show is about a murder that needs to be solved and man looking to come to terms with his past.
This and the show Counterpart are two of the more “adult” things I’ve watched in recent years. By that I mean the people making these programs haven’t tried to find and “in” for people under eighteen. The themes are appealing and make sense if you are an adult dealing with guilt and remorse and loss. I can only imagine how far I would get with this kind of programming, which I am making sound like a complete bummer but it is not, if were in my teens again.
What I enjoyed most about this show was how different, in terms of it’s execution and it’s approach to the material, it is compared to the other things being made today. It feels fresh and unexpected and that is such a joyous thing to encounter.
I never saw the short ESPN film that the show Ted Lasso sprang from but I have to imagine it was slightly different than what aired on Apple TV this fall. On the surface this seems to be a show about a goofy southern football coach who is tricked into coaching an English soccer (I’m American I call it soccer, I’m sorry) team whose owner is looking to have it fail. The idea being, or at least the trailer gave me the impression, that this half-wit won’t know he’s the reason for the teams’ failure.
What the show actually is, is a testament to the power of positive thinking and optimism. Yeah, I said it. Ted Lasso is an optimistic coach who is more concerned with helping the young men on his team be better people than he is with winning. He’s a positive force that changes the lives of the people around him. In some ways he’s a friendly version of Mary Poppins (I’m referring to Julie Andrews, Emily Blunt was actually quite nice) who isn’t here just to help the children (Saving Mr. Banks? Really? I’m not buying that) but is, in fact, helping everyone.
I want to stress these points of goodness because the show begins in such a way that it isn’t apparent what you will be watching. Everyone other than Ted (with the exception of his assistant coach) is a bit rude or vulgar or nasty.
I like this show so much that it is hard for me to properly praise it (see my take on Orphan Black for a similar situation). I enjoyed watching this more than anything else this past year. It inspired me and it entertained me. The show is funny, it has a big heart and I truly hope they make more of it. The world needs more Ted Lasso.
I am going to be straight with you regarding The Handmaiden, I cannot say much about it. Watch this movie knowing as little as possible, okay? Look at that poster, what on Earth is it telling you? Watch this trailer –
You are still confused, are you not? Go with it. Trust me.
I didn’t watch this film until 2020 and I am glad I waited. So many of the highly-lauded (hyped! Again!!) films I watch I se too soon. I knew how well received this was and I put it into my watchlist as soon as it was available. And there it sat, for years, because I knew I wasn’t ready.
If you are familiar with Park Chan-wook’s other films then you should have a sense of what you are getting yourself into. If you are not, just know you are watching a director at the height of his powers weaving a tale of intrigue and lust (and a whole bunch of other stuff that I won’t talk about).
I saw this a month before Parasite and it absolutely reinforced the idea that you have to wait until you are ready to see something (I am implying I should have waited longer with Parasite). I enjoy the story and the structure of this film and to be utterly repetitive I enjoy watching something where I am not sure what will happen next.
I don’t want to say more other than I found this an inspiring film to watch. The structure, the overall story being told – there’s not fat on this thing and nothing out of place. It this movie were a machine I’d be calling it a technical marvel and getting out a rag to needlessly polish it.
A Private War
You may not be familiar with Matthew Heineman and you probably didn’t hear about this film when it was released, but you should know both. Best known for directing Cartel Land this is his first foray into narrative fiction and it is an excellent film.
I’ve discovered in the past few years how much I respect and admire journalists and how wonderful films about what they do can be. I am absolutely in the minority in thinking that All The President’s Men isn’t a great movie about journalism and I accept that (I mention this because, to me, this is why I am surprised to discover I love these films). In large part I am drawn to the integrity and bravery that many journalists possess and bring to bear in so many situations.
I was not familiar with this particular journalist nor the stories she covered. Over the past two years the amount of reporting I’ve seen about Syria has been next to none and this was a welcome reminder of all that has happened in the recent past (as much as a reminder about what has happened and continues to happen in Syria can be welcome).
This is such a well made and well told film that it is hard to believe that Mr. Heineman is new to narrative fiction. The performances are wonderful and you quickly have a sense of the conflicting impulses within the main character. That we get such a complicated and complex main character that is a woman is a rare treat. You should watch this movie.
Technically this is a rewatch but I make the rules here so Okja is included! I saw the film when it was first released and found it to be odd. The first ten minutes struck me as discordant with the rest of the film. This impression was so strong that I spent the first forty or so minutes pondering why Bong Joon-ho would start the film in this manner.
Well, a few years have passed and I knew what was coming so I watched the film again. I can safely say that it bothered me less and I enjoyed the film more. I get the beginning now (even the weird method of Okja’s defecation, it serves the plot even though it’s downright odd and makes little sense).
If I had to describe what this film does well I would say that it blends numerous elements seamlessly. The special effects work of Okja is incredible. In particular the underground mall (I think it’s a mall) scene with Okja interacting with the environment and the actors is so perfect that it is hard to imagine Okja wasn’t really there. The young actress Ahn Seo-hyun gives such a wonderful, heartfelt performance. Again, it’s difficult to imagine that she’s alone in so many of her scenes because her interactions with Okja feel completely real.
The other people in the film seem to fall into two categories: caricature and believable. Both do a fantastic job and somehow, despite the shenanigans that Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal get up to, fit nicely into this world. Paul Dano as the leader of his faction of the Animal Liberation Front is perfect. Sincere, determined and capable of extreme action it’s a pleasure to see him in this role. Let us not forget Steven Yeun who is quickly entering Olivia Colman and Elle Fanning territory for trying to appear in all movies.
Okja is a film stuffed full of so much meaning and plot and nuance that it’s difficult to feel I’ve said enough about it. I am positive others have done a better job of explaining the film. I wanted to convey that if, like me, you find the opening a bit off, stick with it, it’s worth it.
If you recall I posted a list of films I was excited to see in the upcoming year at the end of last year’s list. I’m sure you’ve been waiting for me to get into more of those titles, so here goes.
You would be forgiven for watching this trailer and thinking you know what this film is about. For whatever reason the people marketing this movie decided to paint Jennifer Lopez as the antagonist of the film. It’s bizarre because she is the exact opposite in the movie. In fact the film has no tangible antagonist, I believe it is arguing that our economic system and who it favors (men) are the antagonist. I digress.
The best thing I can say about a movie that focuses on women who dance the striptease is that I don’t think it exploits them. One of my first thoughts when finishing this film (which I watched with my wife and she agreed) is that I’d like to share it with our daughter (who is ten and is obviously not old enough, but the message of the film is such that we wanted to share it with her – which is astounding).
The trailer conveys the main idea of the film, a woman (Destiny) starts working at a strip club because she needs money to take care of her family. Jennifer Lopez (Ramona) works there and is the featured dancer. She takes Destiny under her wing to teach her how to do the job, make money and not be taken advantage of. The trailer makes the film seem like Magic Mike for women (that betrayal at the hands of Ramona is inevitable) but in fact Ramona is more of a mother figure to the dancers, Destiny in particular.
The story focuses on how these women work together to drug and dupe men into spending large sums of money at the strip clubs which the women then steal. Can you see how good this film must be if two parents (who are not terrible people, I promise!) think their child will benefit from watching it?
The ultimate message is one of love and acceptance and it’s quite beautiful. It’s not obvious (but I feel it should be) that this material was handled in such an appropriate and thoughtful manner that the message and ideas are the focus, not the half-naked bodies gyrating on screen. It should be no surprise this was directed by a woman because everything about this film feels different and unique – simply because a different point of view is presented. The women in this film are not offerings to the men watching, it’s their story and we are being invited to follow along. I think you should.
I’m Your Woman
If this year of movie-watching has a theme it is “I want to be surprised.” Perhaps the current state of the world plays a part in this, perhaps it is because my own writing has started falling into predictable patterns. Whatever the reason I am pleased to come across films like I’m Your Woman that subvert my expectations.
The trailer for the film conveys plenty of information and gives a general sense of the plot. It also omits a great deal. As I write this I am debating whether I agree with this choice. On the one hand I liked being in the dark and not knowing big aspects of the story being told, on the other the information is given to you so early in the film I’m not sure it was the right move.
Would I have done the same? No idea! This is part of what I enjoyed so much about the film, realizing I would never make the same choices. Much like with Hustler’s I’m not sure many men would make this movie and make any of the same choices. So many moments are focused on the main character’s experience, even when that means sacrificing the more dramatic and cinematic aspects of the story.
One scene in particular, when the main character has been wandering the streets all night and has been caught in the rain and takes shelter in a laundromat, stands out in my mind. The way it’s shot and acted, it’s a powerful and emotional scene and I have to imagine that without a woman directing the film it would not have made it into the script, let alone out of the editing suite.
Perhaps I am beating this drum too hard and focusing on the wrong things. What I enjoyed most about I’m Your Woman relates to the shifted perspective of the film. If this story had been told in a traditional manner, the main character would have been a minor character and her relationship to her son would have been given little to no screen time.
That the baby gets so much screen time and is so important to the story was quite wonderful. Perhaps if you aren’t a parent it won’t feel so important to you but for me he was the emotional center of the film that gave weight and importance to so many scenes. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it made me remember the best parts of the director’s earlier effort, Fast Color.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
This is an odd, interesting film. I recall hearing that no one was quite sure how to market the film and after seeing it I can appreciate how difficult a task that must have been.
The trailer makes it seem like a comedy but it isn’t. It is dramatic but the structure is atypical and most of what constitutes the first and second act would normally be condensed into the first act of a “normal” film. Which is to say that by forging its own path this is a typical Richard Linklater film. A by-product of this, at least for me, is a sense being unsure of how you feel when the movie ends.
What I like best about the film is that it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like real life and the weird ways people deal (or don’t deal) with their problems. I think this is why the ending is so abrupt. To reach the conclusion of this story you would need to stay with the characters until their deaths. Which is a morbid note to end a film or year-end review on.
What I enjoyed most about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the realistic way the characters behave. The main character, Bernadette, is someone whose past troubles her. She is unhappy and that unhappiness manifests itself in how she deals or does not deal with the world. This is demonstrated in the way she interacts with her busybody neighbor, played by Kristen Wiig.
The payoff of their mutual animosity and difficult dealings with one another comes when Bernadette flees her home and hides from her family. It’s raining and she has no friends or family she can turn to, so she knocks on her neighbor’s door. In explanation she says she needs to hide and no one would ever come looking for her at the neighbor’s house. It’s a nice moment, a real moment in the context of the story, and because her neighbor is a woman she lets Bernadette in.
Not only does she allow Bernadette into her home she provides her with tea and towels and even lies to her best friend about Bernadette’s whereabouts. The reason she does this is because she is a person, a woman, and she’s been asked to help.
I feel I am belaboring this point but given my disappointment with a female led, female directed film that just was released (for not doing these very things) I want to state my appreciation of this film and the things it does so well. I can’t think of many women who would not let someone in need of help into their homes – regardless of how they feel about the person. By and large women do not behave like men, they do not think like men and it is refreshing to see this portrayed in film.
My final comment about this film is about Bernadette’s relationship with her daughter. Despite being a creatively stifled and frustrated person Bernadette has a wonderful, loving relationship with her daughter. It is the center of the film and it is the best part of the film. It also is a wonderful choice on the filmmaker’s part to not have a tumultuous, difficult relationship between the frustrated mother and teenage daughter. That dynamic is so well-known and so easy to portray that to choose not to have another source of conflict and dramatic interactions is a brave choice and the film is better because of it.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the kind of movie you watch and when it ends you feel unsettled. I wasn’t sure what I thought at the end and my wife felt the same. When we found ourselves discussing it the following day and then the day after that, we both realized how deeply it resonated with each of us, and how wonderful that is. This is not a disposable film that provides entertainment and then is forgotten. It’s atypical and odd but I am pleased I saw it and it has given me insight and perspective into my life. I don’t think I can give a film higher praise than that.
I would like to conclude with a list of films and shows I am excited to see in the upcoming year. I’m finding it harder to keep track of what is coming out and when, in large part because of the pandemic and the shifting release schedules.
My first ever year end list about anything! It sure beats writing about iPhones…
I’m not sure when I first became aware of the website Extension 756 but of the features listed on the site, “The Soderblog” is my favorite. Each year Steven Soderbergh publishes a list of the things he’s watched and read the year before. In 2016 I decided to start doing the same. Unlike him I do not keep track of the books I’ve read, which is weird, but for some reason the idea of doing so is repellent to me.
Also unlike Mr. Soderbergh I’ve never wanted to share my list with anyone. I find it interesting to look back and review what I’ve seen every few months, often noting the films or television shows that I do not recall watching.
At present social media is full of everyone sharing their lists about the past year or decade and given that I have not posted anything to this site in some time I thought I would follow suit.
Below is a list of films and television shows I saw this year. These are the ones I enjoyed and felt compelled to say something about.
The Punisher (Season 2)
Now that the Marvel shows on Netflix are finished it is easy to look back and rank them. In the middle of their airings I was often confused as to how I felt about them.
The final addition to the group was The Punisher and my expectations were low. This was in part because the Punisher comic books I had read were forgettable. Also, I’ve seen the three Punisher movies and they, too, were forgettable.
The first season of The Punisher was interesting in places but it wasn’t compelling television. The second season, however, went in different directions and became a better show. Jon Berenthal made me believe, in many unbelievable moments, that he was not only capable of extreme violence but that he could endure all that was thrown at him. That his pain and anger were enough to get him through moments of extreme duress and injury. That he was able to overcome his adversaries because of his loss and desire for vengeance.
The Punisher is a difficult show to like, when I think of who I would recommend it to I am unable to think of anyone. That being said I’m glad I watched it, and with the exception of Daredevil, it is the show I wish could continue for another season.
I find Noomi Rapace to be such an enjoyable actor that I have sat through a number of truly unpleasant films despite my discomfort with the subject matter on the screen (looking at you Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Close is a small, self-contained film. It doesn’t have big ambitions. I do think it achieves what it sets out to do.
Like many of Ms. Rapace’s recent films I wish it was a bit better and more deserving of her talents. That being said it is different. I imagine that part of this is because it was based on a true story and that the director is a woman. There is a feeling to the film, the way the you perceive the characters and how action sequences are handled, that is unique and unexpected.
I watched this in January and it still is quite fresh in my mind, which is one of the better endorsements I can give.
The marketing of Molly’s Game was bizarre. Look at the poster. What is this movie about? If you watch the trailer –
You get the sense that the film is about poker, women is slinky dresses, a lawsuit and something about the Russian mob. It’s all a bit unclear and you don’t really get a sense of Idris Elba’s role.
My point being that going into this film I was not really sure what I was about to see. It’s an excellent movie, based on a true story, about a woman with integrity navigating dangerous waters. I don’t want to say much more than that except – so much of what seems titilating or sensational in the promotional materials makes sense in the context of the film.
There are wonderful performances and a story that you become emotionally invested in. I wish they had figured out how to promote this film better because it deserved it.
High Flying Bird
I’ve already written some about this film but it needs to be on this list. Billed as another iPhone movie from Steven Soderbergh this is one of my favorite films I saw in 2019. I went into this thinking it would be a basketball movie and instead watched something more complex.
To my surprise this was not the other kind of Soderbergh film (ala The Laundromat) that is based on a true story and gets really tricky and clever with the narrative. This is the stripped-down, straightforward Soderbergh film that tells the story simply and well.
After ten minutes I stopped paying attention to it being an iPhone film (which is an impressive feat and something I am interested in – my previous posts might give this away) and found myself immersed in the story, trying to keep up with the strategies of sports agent Ray Burke.
I saved myself from some heartbreak, with only seconds to spare, when I remembered who was directing and knew he would cut before giving us the one-on-one basketball game we desperately wanted to watch. Hopefully if you haven’t seen the film this warning will do the same for you.
I like movies and despite the weird debate that has been raging online the past few months I don’t make a point of distinguishing between movies and films (or cinema). I am happier this way. That being said my expectations for Aquaman were low (regardless of how you classify it).
I liked the Justice League movie, in no small part because of Jason Momoa’s performance. I knew nothing of the director or the story they planned to tell and truthfully the trailer for the film did not convince me it was going to be a great movie.
Imagine my surprise when I watched the film, found Mr. Momoa as charming as ever and the sprawling story interesting/fun/rewarding. This is a film that I think most screenwriting instructors would tell you should not work. Yet it does, beautifully.
Even those who poke fun at the “problems” of the film, like Screen Junkies with their Honest Trailer –
Seem to be making an effort to find flaws. In short this is exactly the kind of film I wanted to see and I was so pleased when I watched it. Aquaman, especially the one I grew up reading about in comics, was not cool. Mr. Momoa has given us probably the coolest superhero ever with this character and he has made the film fun and enjoyable. What more can you ask for?
This is another film that should not work. At all. When I first watched the trailer I did not bother finishing it because I was convinced this was a terrible movie.
If you watch the trailer you will discern that the majority of this film is a bunch of people, in a warehouse, shooting each other. I feel like a broken record here but, again, this should not work.
Yet somehow it does. The film is funny and sad and engaging. The cast managed to create somewhat memorable characters from…shooting each other? Quipping across the battlefield? I don’t really know. The film works it magic in a way that snuck past my defenses and I am pleased that it did.
If you feel like watching a black comedy with a fair amount of absurdism, Free Fire is the film for you.
I had been hearing about the show for some time but I hadn’t watched season one until January. With prior attempts of watching I found the fourth wall breaking annoying and gimmicky. It was only after watching season one of Killing Eve that I was properly prepared for what Phoebe Waller Bridge was offering.
Full confession – I watched both seasons this year I can say without hesitation that I found season one to be more interesting and fulfilling. I don’t say this to be controversial or to annoy anyone. It is just how I feel. I have found it baffling to watch everyone pile on about how great season two is and have no one mention how great the first season is (or even attempt to point out that they like it better). Perhaps everyone got it out of their systems when season one aired and I missed the praise but I get the sense that most, like me, are late to the party.
Season one was unexpected, strange and filled with so many wonderful moments that made me laugh. Of the many things I liked I think the episode that showcases the difference between the retreats of men and women is my favorite. The women silently clean and do household work while the men shout and set fire to things. It’s so far from subtle and so terribly poignant.
It also has this moment which made my year –
The Poet and Singer
May brought The Criterion Channel into my life. The biggest unexpected perk of the channel has been the short films. I was not aware of many of these films prior to joining the channel and this alone has been worth the price of admission.
I had not been aware of Bi Gan prior to seeing The Poet and Singer (although immediately after I was reading about Long Day’s Journey into Night everywhere). It’s an interesting short film and I think I enjoyed it more than Kaili Blues (but it’s hard to say because my mind wandered with both and sections of each continue to haunt me). This film and Kaili Blues are just different and unexpected. When Martin Scorsese speaks about “cinema” I know he is referring to films like these and while I do not agree with the need to differentiate I fully appreciate the point he is making.
Too Old to Die Young
If asked to state the film/show that deserved more attention in 2019 it would be Too Old to Die Young. In the numerous interviews and articles I’ve read concerning Too Old I found Mr. Refn’s comments to be interesting and illuminating.
Regarding the way the story is structured, in that there seems to be no end or beginning he offered the following –
“What’s interesting about streaming for me — because television is dead as a doornail — but streaming is like a whole new opportunity,” he said. “And if it’s a different concept, in a way, because it’s uncontrollable. You just log on [and] log off. It’s a coexistence now. Episodic television was designed when television was once a week on an analog channel. Why do we still retain the same narrative and constructions from a time that doesn’t even exist?”
He further elaborated that the show is designed to work however you wish to view it. Start in the middle, start at the end – watch all of it or only watch one episode. At a time when people are fiercely debating whether Disney is destroying the film viewing experience and whether or not the movies they are putting out have value you have a filmmaker putting up a ten episode series on Amazon and saying, “Do what you will.”
After watching the show I can see how many people will certainly partake (or not) in their own ways. It’s long, it is strange and it is deeply unpleasant. Things happen that fly in the face of conventional storytelling. Story arcs are disassembled or forgotten or altered in ways I am not accustomed to.
Too Old To Die Young is certainly not for everyone but it deserves more attention, more review. I wish the heated discussions happening now were about this show because it is terribly interesting.
Stranger Things Season 3
I would be remiss not to write something about Stranger Things – the show that has surpassed all expectations three seasons running. I don’t have anything to add to what has already been said. The addition of Robin, the expansion of Erica (who may well take over the show in season four and I am fine with that) and the continued redemption of Steve Harrington all made my heart feel warm and fuzzy. It’s an excellent show and I love that it continues to receive the success it deserves.
Another short film I found courtesy of The Criterion Channel, Logorama is an unexpected gem. I’ve watched it once, I imagine I need another five or six viewings to try and give this any kind of proper review. It’s a complex film with a bizarre plot that immediately sucked me in. This is an overwhelming short film, they packed so much in to its short running-time but it is rewarding. When it ended I wanted to tell everyone I know they have to watch it – so here it is, go watch this film.
Before I started writing this I thought that Vice was a poorly reviewed, barely seen film. I had thought only Christian Bale was nominated for an Academy Award (not true it was nominated for eight awards and won one) and that basically no one liked this movie.
I stand corrected, it seems most everyone liked this movie but it lost money at the box office (domestically) – which for some reason a lot of people care about and report. All of this nonsense being said I watched Vice and I think it’s a great movie. I liked the way they put the film together and told this story, the narrator and his reveal were clever, and I feel like the filmmakers had something they wanted to say.
I enjoyed everything about this film. I know I’m not writing anything clever here but this is such a solid film it doesn’t need me. Watch it, it is good.
I’m not sure when a new Luc Besson film stopped being BIG news but it is a shame. I only learned of Anna’s existence because I watch trailers on Apple’s website. They included a scene from the film, a fight in a restaurant, that was interesting and well done. I was sold.
This isn’t a ground-breaking, original film – I feel like those days are gone for Mr. Besson. That being said it is an interesting, well-made action film that delivers. Helen Mirren is her usual wonderful self and Cillian Murphy brings so much to the table. If you are looking for a fun action movie this is a good choice. It certainly entertained me.
This film exceeded my expectations to a ridiculous degree. In fairness I watched the trailer and did not know that this was a retelling of Henry the Fifth. That would have been good information to have.
If I were to list all the ways that this film impressed me this already long post would continue for days. Every aspect of the production is executed with such precision and care. The performances are sublime. The movie is so good I am using the word sublime to describe it and I feel not an ounce of shame.
So let me give one example. To demonstrate the life Hal and Falstaff live (before the throne) the director has one sequence, perhaps a minute long, that consists of two static shots. One is a slow motion shot of Hal’s face, drunkenly laughing, the other of Falstaff drunkenly dancing. Where others would have spent the bulk of the first act depicting the debauched lifestyle the characters live, David Michôd handles the matter briskly and moves on to more important matters. It is a such an important and well-handled choice.
Which is not to say the film is rushed in any way. The fat has been trimmed, the story told and the result is one of the best films I watched in 2019.
Peaky Blinders Season Five
I would be remiss if I did not write something about Peaky Blinders in a year where a new season is released. The show that taught all of us that Cillian Murphy has much more to offer than what Christopher Nolan has presented, continues to deliver unforgettable moments of Tommy Shelby.
Season five is no different in that regard, although the introduction of politics and facism – while timely and relevant, is deeply unpleasant. Season four had a similar feeling of being a bridge between what has been and what is to come and while both seasons have wonderful moments, there is a lack of completion to the story being told. It is hard to be critical of this show as it is so well made and has so many wonderful characters.
Ash is Purest White
I posted on social media that I don’t normally care much for titles, concerning my own work or others, but in the case of this movie I would respectfully offer the alternative title “Females are Strong as Hell”. Partly because Kimmy Schmidt gave us that gem and partly because this film has one of the best parts I’ve seen for an actress.
After watching the trailer I thought I knew the film I was about to watch but at each turn I was surprised. I adore that. The film is not at all what I thought it would be and ultimately it was better than I hoped. I’ve been slowly working my way through Jia Zhangke’s other films, not wanting to run out too quickly. This was a wonderful surprise.
Happy Death Day & Happy Death Day 2U
I don’t watch many horror movies. If I do I usually don’t know that is what they are when I begin watching them. I have nothing against the genre, I just don’t usually enjoy them. In part that is because I think of horror movies as being all the same, part of the slasher sub genre or the body horror sub genre. Obviously I am wrong in this thinking and these two films are proof.
In looking for something to watch while running on the treadmill I saw the trailer for Happy Death Day and it looked….fun? It turns out these two movies are fun and silly and clever. I didn’t find either scary but I’m not sure they were supposed to be (that or I am just tough as nails now which seems unlikely). In any case I wasn’t expecting to find myself moved by the sequel and wondering if I would have the courage to make the choice that the main character was faced with. Who knew?
John Wick – Chapter Three – Parabellum
Okay, first of all – am I the only person who didn’t know the definition of Parabellum? I hope not. I felt a bit foolish when this was made apparent but then I know nothing of Latin. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to feel less intelligent than John Wick three, but there you have it.
I wasn’t sure what could happen in this film that would surprise me or please me. Then Halle Berry came on screen with her dogs. I don’t write this to diminish Keanu Reeves in any way, he was wonderful as always in this – but Ms. Berry and her dogs steal the movie. I would love to see a film of just them, I am sure it would be exceptional.
Another great example of trusting a trailer and being rewarded. I’ve never watched anything relating to Pokémon, never played a game, I’ve had no contact whatsoever. Yet. I watched this movie and greatly enjoyed it. The humor is wonderful, the emotional connection is there and the Pokémon are weird and cute in equal parts.
In many ways I feel that 2019 was the year of Ryan Reynolds and I think Detective Pikachu proves it. I don’t think this film would have worked with anyone else.
I often think I no longer pay attention to brands. My wife and I discuss this before we buy kitchen appliances – in particular that it used to be easier because you could trust buying from brand X because their products were always of the highest quality.
If I am truthful I only watched Watchmen because HBO made the show. The trailer gave next to nothing away and while people (and reviewers) have been heaping praise on the show I was still skeptical.
This show, expanding on the story and working largely with different characters in different times is interesting. I enjoyed the season despite disliking large sections of it. The casting was great and having Regina King play the lead character was inspired. So much happens during this season that it is easy to lose track of things, which is why when I read articles about it after watching I was pleased to see that others had made lists asking things like, “What happened to lube-man?”.
These are important questions.
I want to conclude with a few films that I am looking forward to seeing. In a late-night rant last night I expressed my frustration at not being more excited to see films of late. That so many that are thrust at me are interesting or middling but not truly exciting.
I, of course, was being ridiculous and I wanted to correct myself here with a list of films and shows I am absolutely excited to see.
To begin – this may be the best television show I have ever seen. I say may only because several other shows I discovered in this past year (which has more to do with my stubbornness than my ignorance, but that is for another time) are of such amazing quality it would be hard to select the “best” [see my post Favorite Film for my thoughts on choosing a favorite movie and apply it to television as well].
That being said Orphan Black is nothing short of outstanding. I am using some big, powerful words here and I am not throwing them about carelessly. This is a meticulously crafted show, where each aspect is handled with such care and precision that, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to point out the one aspect that makes this show exceptional. None of the traditional sins of television apply to this show. There are no disposable characters or “retconned” storylines because the people making the show decide to go in a new, exciting direction for no apparent reason. Everything in this show is there for a reason. It is pleasing and rewarding to watch something where so much thought and effort has been devoted to the planning and execution of what you are watching.
I could and want to go on about everything this show gets right. It is simpler to say it gets everything right. I have watched the first three seasons several times now and I can say, without hesitation, that there none of those moments that the viewer has to accept, knowing in their hearts that what they are watching is wrong/bad, in order to stay with the show.
All of this being said if I had to offer you one reason to watch this show (which is horrible and unfair and should not be done) it would be Tatiana Maslany. She is out of this world, insanely good doing something no one has ever done before. Don’t try and remind me of Kind Hearts and Coronets – that was a movie, not a television show (meaning the duration is much shorter and easier for a feat like this) and at no point did you cease seeing Alec Guinness and only see the character he was playing.
I have watched these episodes multiple times, I know everything coming and still, still I find myself forgetting that I am watching Tatiana Maslany playing a character. It is incredible. It is the reason why in every interview she gives people try and get her to explain the “how” of her acting abilities.
I have attempted to not spoil the show for someone who has yet to watch an episode, which is not easy to do. If I have tipped you off I apologize, but let’s be honest the show is about to start it’s fourth season and if you are still somehow in the dark you should not be reading random blog posts online. If you have a reason for not watching Orphan Black allow me to try and address it here.
The title is awful. I do not care about the actual meaning and how if you watch the show you come to see how appropriate it is. Anyone who has not seen an episode comes across this title and thinks, “Orphan Black? What is that? It sounds awful. Bad things happen to Orphans? No thank you.” Or something like that. Or you think of Kevin Klein and how orphan can be mispronounced as another word and golly, wouldn’t that make for a good song. Either way – don’t let this title put you off and confuse you. Ignore the title and watch. I assure you, when you get what the title means you will no longer have feelings about the creepiness/silliness of the title.
The artwork. It’s creepy. It’s weird. It is meant to be. Ignore it. Let it be. Watch the show.
Patton Oswalt. In his attempts to champion this show and Tatiana Maslany he has, inadvertently, kept some people away from it. I have no proof of this, only my own feelings. Before I saw the show I followed him on Twitter and aside from teaching me that you should not follow comedians on Twitter it also taught me that one man’s fan is another man’s off-putting Internet commentator who needs to calm down and let things be.
That should cover matters. Do yourself a favor and watch this show if you haven’t.