December 2019, films de la feature


The ███████ Report (2019)

All I knew about this movie was it was a true story and that Adam Driver was looking to get an Oscar nomination for either this or Marriage Story. It was playing at the theater when we saw I Lost My Body and then, while I was looking for something completely unrelated, I saw that it was now available on Prime, and I started watching it, not really intending to pay close attention. But oh did I.

This is about Dan Jones, the lead investigator for the Senate into the CIA's recent torture, um, shenanigans? mistakes? evil? He works for Dianne Feinstein (and, let me just say, that if Annette Benning had been playing Dianne Feinstein all along, she would be my favorite politician of all time).

The Report is like watching All the President's Men if Deep Throat were the protagonist. I mean---sort of. It's contemporary, like AtP'sM was oh so long ago, yet the story is even more buried in obscurity than Woodward and Bernstein were. I knew nothing about the people involved in this story. Now I feel well educated. And, considering the movie's about one of the darkest chapter's in recent history, it's kind of a feel-good story---the good guys win. The nerds with their thousand-page reports come out on top.

One of the smart choices this film makes is not casting most of the more famous politicians. Dianne Feinstein and Mark Udall are cast, along with other Senators and bureaucrats whose names you might remember, but Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, McCain, Obama, Kerry---if they appear at all, it's in actual footage from the time. Arguably the emotional climax of the film is an extended take of McCain's anti-torture speech on the Senate floor. It resonates because we have so, so much context for what he's talking about.

But it also resonates because we know McCain. The film doesn't explain who he is, but we, the audience, know that he is a Republican, that he was a victim of torture as a POW, that he just lost the presidential election---it's powerful, with all that context. He's an American hero.

But I don't know if that resonance will work if someone born twenty years from now watches it in their twenties. I'm not sure it would have that kind of resonance now if you're under twenty or don't pay any attention to the news. You'll probably still appreciate the movie, but you would be missing several layers of meaning. Probably, I'm missing additional layers.

Dang good movie.

The Best Two Years (2004)

Often, while at the church making copies of that week's bulletins, I grab on old VHS off the library shelves to watch. I've watched some old BYU classics this way like The Phone Call and Greater Love, but it wasn't until recently that it occurred to me I could watch a feature if I broke it up over multiple weeks.

The Best Two Years was one of the best reiewed movies from the Early Oughts' Mormon Film Renaissance, but somehow I never got around to seeing it. But a VHS copy was in the library and, since mid-October?, I've been eating it piece by piece and I'm happy to say that (at least in piece-by-piece form) it's still good. It got some big laughs out of me and managed to move me a couple times. The details felt right, good and bad, and even the over-the-top characterizations (notably Elder Calhoun) ultimately are fully human persons.

Although they work fine, I was most disappointed with the musical montages. Montages are, you know, fine, but there are several here. They are very 2004 with very 2004 music---a white guy and his guitar (in this case, the white guy is Michael McLean's son). When we reached the end of the movie and it reprised the opening song from over a month previous, I was, like, oh yeah, I like this song, where do I know it from? So this paragraph's complaint is not that sincerely meant.

Good film! Doesn't seem like the writer-director's done much film since, though. Shame.

Elf (2003)

I noticed a really obvious Wonderful Life reference this watchthrough I don't remember seeing before.

I got our DVD at a Tehachapi News white-elephant exchange in 2004 (or possibly 2005) and boy was that a good gift! This dvd is one of only a couple certain Christmas traditions I think our kids will remember.

We would be utterly culturally bereft without it.

Gremlins (1984)

I last saw this movie when it was close to brand new. I only have a couple images left and a sense of it being very scary. And even though I love Gremlins 2 (it is the subject of much research backing me up) and admire Joe Dante. Of course, I also find Chris Columbus generally annoying, so...

We were at the Goodwill and this was for sale for a dollar and son #3 likes kid-friendly scares and it's Christmastime and Gremlins is a Christmas movie, so....

Me, I laughed more and jumped more than the kids, I think. I also enjoyed more of the references. (Having just watched Elf, I also can't help but to wonder if it referenced Gremlins with its date.) My favorite references were at the inventors' conference however---Robbie the Robot and the Time Machine (which disappeared between cuts which, frankly?, hilarious. And the movie-theater scene? Is that a Muppet Movie reference?

The movie wasn't quite as madcap as its sequel, but much more of the DNA is in the original than I would have guessed.

It's been thirty years since I was brave enough to watch it, but I had a good time.

It's surprising it hasn't been rebooted. BUT WAIT. HBO's putting a prequel series on one of its streaming services next year. I just hope they have practical effects.

Oh: One last note: Scenes in Gremlins---especially the early outside scenes---feel more like my memories of '80s America than about anything else I can remember seeing.

Bagdad Cafe (1987)

So.... It's weird to watch a movie that seems to be aimed directly at what I like, but never quite hit. Maybe because I never quite figured out what it was up to. At times it looked like it would be weird like Trent Harris or lean become magical like Twin Peaks, but not really. But it never turned into realism either.

It's the film-group film this month. Maybe others will help me know what to think, (I also checked out four film books that discuss it---one on Christian film theory, one on queer film theory, one on feminist film theory, and one other I forget which theory---which may help.)

One weird thing is the German tourist seemed to play a Magical Negro for the black family in the desert.

It was pretty great to see the Mojave looking like the Mojave.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Film club watched this over four days, which is probably part of the reason we all found it so enjoyable. It is, frankly, too long and no doubt watched in a single setting, you would really really feel that.

Which is a shame because this film was so so so much fun to watch! It's utter nonsense and endlessly amusing.

So: watch it, but turn it off if you're feeling bored. Come back a couple days later.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Buster Keaton will warm your frozen heart and recover your shriveled soul.

His work does not get old.

(And it's had plenty of opportunity.)

Hitler's Hollywood (2017)

The main thesis of this film is that popular cinema as produced during the Nazi era is, in a very real way, the work of a single auteur: Joseph Goebbels. Because he and his had to approve every film made and distributed, the thinking goes, we can see the progress of his psyche through the changing nature of popular films produced during his reign as Reich Minister of Propaganda. Writer/director/narrator Rüdiger Suchsland stops talking about Goebbels early on, discussing film more as a dream state for a people, but I find his argument more persuasive if we keep Goebbels in mind through out, as a sort of organizing intelligence throughout. Not that "film as a dream state for a people" is without merit, but the way he talks about it becomes borderline mystical if we forget his initial statements about Goebbels. Which Suchsland will certainly allow us to do. Goebbels is nowhere to be found in the films' conclusion.

Many of the sourced films are otherwise locked up and unavailable. Which is kind of a shame. I believe Suchsland when he says they're not that good, but some of them would manage to be interesting to modern non-neoNazi audiences. Every once in a while would come a shot or a performance that was chillingly modern-feeling.

Fast Color (2018)

I remember readings about this movie when it was unceremoniously (and exceedingly briefly) dumped into theaters. People who knew about the film were disappointed-cum-outraged about a superhero film about three generations of African-American women was treated so poorly. The trailer looked great and I was disappointed too, now that it was too late to do anything else.

I've now seen the movie and I'm glad I have. It does have a couple of awkward joints, but overall, I it brought new things to the genre. Which is all I really want. (And why I will get around to watching Brightburn.)

The trio of main actors is great (I know the youngest best just from all those times I've seen Fences) and it's a shame their work has gone so unseen. And the effects design is solid. And when it goes to the hi-CPU version of a classic '80s effect, it embraces that moment with synthesizers.

It's ... maybe the near future. The dustiness feels a bit like Logan, but most of the details suggest this is actually, maybe, twenty years ago? There's one detail that makes near future more likely, but over all, this is more like an alternate present than a possible future.

The plot's a bit reminiscent of Midnight Special, what with feds and scientists chasing down a super in a flick that avoids seeming overly supery. I don't remember Midnight Special that well other than that I found the ending a bit hokey. This ending I think is similar, but more grounded. And I liked that. And the face work of Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes that moment---like so many others in the film---just sing.

Imperfect but most certainly worth a look.

Go (1999)

Even though I had plenty of opportunity to see this for free when it was new, I never did because I figured it would be an immoral yuckfest. Then a few months ago I got the dvd for free. I still might have never watched it except I read this article pitching it as a Christmas movie and I decided I better watch it so I can at least return the film to a Little Free Library. (Incidentally, other articles making the same sell include this and this and this---plus, did you know it's over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes? If we'd had Rotten Tomatoes in 2003, I might have long ago seen this on VHS!)

So I was right about the immoral yuckfest thing. It's about drugs and drugdeals and raves and even has a stripclub thrown in for good measure. But the film is almost like an anthology film, moving back in time to start new stories with different characters (the yuckiest story is the British guy's, easy), and although the characters are hard to like, the film is pretty well written and edited. It's like the '90s wanted to go out in fine form and chose this film to make that so.

It also seems notable as a time capsule. Twenty years ago, Timothy Olyphant didn't even make on-the-poster identification. Now, even though I didn't recognize him, I can name shows he's been in and have listened to him on NPR. Sarah Polley might have been doing the traditional break from a Disney-kid reputation (a recent example), and yes, we see her, nonsexually, in a bra, but the movie's pretty smart, as I said, not just trashy. It's a pretty good role. And today we know her more as a director, anyway. Jane Krakowski and Melissa McCarthy get lots of mileage out of tiny roles.

In opposite news, I recognized name and face of Jay Mohr, but have no idea why. How and when did I come to know Jay Mohr?

Anyway, I wouldn't say I liked i but, to my surprise, I do not regret watching it. #highpraise

Jack Frost (1979)

While I am quite certain I have seen this before, outside the actual appearance of Jack himself, I have retained zero memories of it.

Having now rewatched it, this is not surprising.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The Animagic World of Rankin/Bass (2018)

After Jack Frost, although it was fine and although the baby's been wanting to rewatch it, we might not have gone back and rewatched anymore Rankin/Bass specials except for two things:

1. There's a certain cultural literacy you lack until you get the references. And we can't show our kids Elf (see above) or listen to Sia without educating them as to source material.

2. We'd already picked the dvd up from the library.

Anyway, I'm glad we did. This is the ur-Christmas special, a year before A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it's so much better than I remember feeling as a child. It's also, speaking as a culturally literate adult, so obviously influential. It's not just Elf and Sia---and it's not just other stopmotion, either. And if I say there's a clear influence on Isle of Dogs, it's not just the stopmotion or the Japanese connection I mean. I mean the actual Isle of Dogs and the motivations of the dogs there is a direct and clearly intentional parallel to the Island of Misfit toys. It's core to the movie's intentions.

Baby enjoyed the movie okay, but she found the abominable snowman terrifying. Climb-in-dad's-lap-and-shake terrifying. And this is a girl who watches Nightmare Before Christmas three or four times a week.

One surprising connection is found in Hermey's facial expressions and body language which I'm certain was an influence not only on Lock, Shock, and Barrel but also on LEGO Batman's Joker---subconsciously if nothing else.

The accompanying documentary has luminaries in animation (and animation-adjacent) talking about how Rankin/Bass affected them and animation generally. Plenty of facts I didn't know, but mostly I appreciated being forced to reconsider my childhood antipathy. (At least towards the stopmotion. I always liked Frosty.)

About a Boy (2002) x2

We had some tech issues so we ran out of time, meaning we just watched a movie with hardly any pedagogical support, but I ... honestly don't even care. This is one of the great films of the century and it's much too overlooked and underappreciated.

I watched it split in half (part one, part one, part two, part two), and each time---the second time more than the first---I was very nearly broken by the concert scene.

This is a beautiful film---intelligently made, wonderfully shot and edited, with great music and stellar performances---and I'm all for making it a part of every holiday season.

Babe (1995)

Same same. Tech issues prevented time for proper pedagogy.

I don't consider Babe a Christmas film (even if it has one of the great Christmas lines), but it is a powerful film. And don't we all wish we could go back in time and switch envelopes, give James Cromwell the Oscar instead of Kevin Spacey?

Although the entire film is perfectly constructed, Cromwell's performance is what elevates this from a Good Kid's Film to something universal. His silence makes his words weigh so much more. Although he does speak more than I remembered, the Academy might think of this performance as they're discussing Anna Paquin.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

So Aquaman was a little dumb, but it wasn't trying to be anything other than what it was. The Meg was dumb, but it embraced its dumbness, reveled in it.

The first Godzilla in this series was also dumb, to be fair. It also had the benefit of being first. What both movies are great at is inspiring awe. They are truly awesome movies. They're just also filled with bloviators and insultingly bad science contradicting other insultingly bad science. I mean---it's a kaiju movie---I'm not expecting good science---but Come!! On!!!

This is the first of these I've watched with all three boys (none saw Godzilla; only the youngest shared Kong, more on which in a moment)---it's the first time we've roasted a movie together. But it deserved it.

What I don't understand is how the two Godzilla movies can be so stupid when the King Kong movie---part of the same franchise---was so dang good. Who is the Kevin Feige around there?

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)

Even though, baby reasons, I missed chunks from the middle of this film. Even though I could mention a couple things I don't think are perfect. Even so. Last Jedi is one of the very best Star Wars films. After tonight, I'm changing my rankings for most entertaining (IV VI VIII) and most artistically successful (IV V VIII) and putting Last Jedi in the two spot, both categories.

Also, while I'm at it, Holdo is a terrific, terrific character. Star Wars is so much richer because of her alone. Haters can hate, but they're only hurting themselves. Even the great haters must recognize that. Last Jedi does not hate you.

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

It's a good movie. Sadly, it a bit better-than average Star Wars movie. It's a weird mix of slavishly devoted to precedent (everything is a remix, sure, but you don't have to be so obvious about it!) and utterly disrespectful thereof. The movie---perhaps understandably---has no idea what to do with Leia.* But it also has no idea what to do with its own title. I'll want to see it again before I say much more. I just wish it were more thematically coherent, to go along with all the great pieces assembled.

Among those great pieces assembled, a special note for Richard Grant whose cold performance makes him the best Empire (slash First Order) officer since Grand Moff Tarkin himself.

* That said, I don't know what portion of Carrie Fisher is real vs cgi in this film, but they did an incredible job. It was really her. (As opposed to the couple seconds of young Leia which, even in the dark, was still awful and fake. Young Luke, however, looked great. Weird.)

It was nice to see Wedge again...even if I had to go to IMDb to figure out who that old guy was I was clearly intended to recognize.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Now this is how you compete an epic film series.

I cried so dang much. And this is how you redeem a "villain."

(All the Toy Storys had good, understandable villains. This is the first that molds our opinion of that villain into something approaching a co-hero.)

Plus, it's hilarious. Can't do much better than that. I look forward to the three-year-old watching it again and again and again.

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Above when I talked about the film's thematic inconsistency? I stand by that, but the much bigger issue is how it is in utter argument with Last Jedi. That movie took everything in Star Wars and set it on its side, forcing us to see everything in new ways. This movie pushed it back up and says nu-uh. The most egregious example is this: Last Jedi suggested anybody can be great. This movie says no, only somebodies can be great, but somebodies can be any kind of great they want. It's a very royalist argument and I don't like it.

Also, I never liked Palpatine. He shows up in Episode VI. Which is fine. Then he dominates the prequels. Then he shows up here again. In a very real way, the Saga is Palpatine's story more than anyone else's. And that's kind of awful, don't you think? Evil makes history. Good only prevents history from stopping.

In addition to making constant references in shape and size and color to every other Star Wars film, this film also makes definite references to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. (At one point, first viewing, I said, possibly aloud, "That dagger had better not start glowing.")*

*(It didn't. The other two times I had that reaction ["They had better not kiss" and "She had better not say 'Skywalker'"] did happen, but I felt better about them this viewing.)

Other obvious references include Indiana Jones (although if you want to rebook Indy with Oscar Isaac, I'm listening) and probably Harry Potter (I've seen four of those movies once and didn't like any of them, so I'm not an expert). But I think this is what JJ Abrams is best at. You hire him, you get clear and present references. That's the deal.

Overall, I liked the movie. At least as much as Force Awakens and maybe better. Certainly it's in the top of the second tier of Star Wars films. Maybe even first tier. Time will tell.

It was certainly John Bodega's best movie.

(This tiering assumes that the original film isn't in a tier all its own. Which would probably make for a more accurate tiering.)

Incidentally, science is right. This viewing, free of having to decide what I thought about every revelation, the movie was much, much better. With the ending now in place, I want to rewatch the trilogy and see what I think.


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