File Under 2018 #88: Sweet Country


What it's about: Sam Kelly is an indigenous Australian who works as a farmhand for a tolerant man, overseeing his land and house. Harry March, the new owner of a neighboring farm, comes to ask Sam's employer to loan his staff for a little extra work that needs to be done. March is a cruel and lustful man who mistreats Sam and his family before telling them to leave. March then turns to another land owner to use his working men, including a young boy named Philomac, who March chains up outside overnight. When Philomac escapes, a drunken March violently confronts Sam looking for the boy. In self-defense, Sam kills March and goes on the run with his wife through the unforgiving Australian wilderness.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Sweet Country gets its title from a line of dialogue, spoken by the sergeant tasked with finding Sam in the wilderness. The journey across northern Australia is certainly beautiful [director Warwick Thornton primarily works as a cinematographer and it shows], but the environment is far from sweet -- certainly, there is a bit of irony in his statement.

  • This is an untame, unrelenting world. Both nature and men are cruel. From the perspective of a racial minority, this is only amplified. The opening scenes before Sweet Country becomes a search film are increasingly difficult to watch. I don't know if the film ever reaches a moment of grace as counterbalance, but it thankfully doesn't keep up its early pace.

  • Sweet Country is made like a classic American Western. There are shades from The Searchers to Deadwood in the characters, the community, and the vast desert. This story could have been made in 1940s Hollywood, though probably letting up on some of the violent tones.

  • With this classic genre framework, archetypal characters and plot, the film adds its purely Australian specificity. Indigenous Australians don't often get their stories told on screen and I've certainly never seen one in this context. While the American Western isn't without stories on the racial divide between white and black men, Sweet Country is a unique take on a culture losing their identity in service of another.

  • The film dives deeply into issues of race, masculinity, justice, family, sexual assault, and how they all intertwine. In the form of a Western, these themes are explored in a world that is drastically changing -- Sweet Country ends with a character directly questioning whether this world has a chance to survive, and certainly it doesn't.

  • While Sam is the film's prominent character, the film takes significant time exploring others. Perhaps the most interesting is Philomac, the young boy who essentially instigates the events leading to Harry March's death. Philomac is in an interesting position socially as the son of his white employer and an unknown black mother. He represents the dying culture of the indigenous culture as well as the violence from their white masters.

  • One intriguing stylistic flourish which brings the film out of the classic Western style are a few brutal quick flash forwards to what looks like the aftermath of a horrible massacre. At times, a character will be introduced and then a quick cut of that character covered in blood will be shown. I'm not sure if the technique is entirely successful or if it pays off particularly well, but the images stick. They keep the violent and dower tone in mind when things seem to be heading in a more positive direction.

  • The final third of the film shifts into the trial of Sam for the murder of Harry March and it is a surprising turn. After seeing the black characters consistently being treated as subhuman, the finale is taken seriously. There is no indication that once Sam is caught he wouldn't be immediately shot, let alone be given what seems like a fair and balanced trial. It is also a clear way for the various subplots to come together, for characters to directly reckon with their actions and the actions taken upon them.

  • I'm all-in on late-stage grisled Sam Neill character actor. He isn't a large part of Sweet Country, but his characters is incredibly important. As Sam's employer, he offers the film a bit of humor while being one of the only white characters with any redeeming qualities. He definitely has some fun in that role.

File Under 2018 #87: Skyscraper


What it's about: Will Sawyer is a former FBI agent who is hired as a security assessor for the world's tallest building, a Hong Kong structure that will soon open its doors to residents. With his family the first guests to stay in the swanky building, they are soon caught up in a terrorist plot to retrieve something valuable locked inside. As one of the only people who know how the building's security measures work, Will has to risk his own life to save his family, breaking into the towering inferno to get them out alive. Not only is he in danger from the elements and the well armored men inside, but also by the Chinese officials who think he might have something to do with the plot.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Skyscraper already has been granted the mantle of big dumb fun for its insane [and mindless] action. It's true: a lot that goes on in the blockbuster is ridiculous. And dumb. I'll admit that I, too, had a good time with Skyscraper, but don't think this is on any shortlist of Hollywood entertainments.

  • Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars and again puts in a solid performance. Sadly, though, Skyscraper doesn't give him a lot of fun riffing to do, just tasking him to be a generic action hero. It is a little surprising given director Rawson Marshall Thurber used The Rock as well as anyone in their first collaboration, Central Intelligence.

  • The "fun" of Skyscraper is limited to the crazy huge action sequences [jumping off a super-crane into a burning building is the centerpiece one found all over the film's marketing, but there are others to match]. There are surprisingly few laugh lines. Again, with Thurber and The Rock involved, it is surprising.

  • What is Will Sawyer's job exactly? It seems like he is just brought in as a consultant to give the final go-ahead that the building is safe, but he sure is granted a lot of access. It would be acceptable that he was the head of security, but there is another character who is called that. He's basically in a magical position to set the plot in motion without any actual defined role.

  • Neve Campbell plays Will's wife Sarah and is one of the bright spots of the film. Skyscraper revolves around Will doing whatever it takes to save Sarah and his two adorable kids, but Sarah is no damsel in distress. She's smart, skilled [a Naval doctor], willing to take risks, and can beat up Noah Taylor when she has to. It is a nice way to give a traditional character type a little more agency -- Sarah is involved in nearly as much action as Will.

  • Skyscraper's McGuffin, like Will's job description, is completely and laughably incomprehensible. When the film actually takes the time to explain the doodad that the baddies are trying to obtain actually is, it becomes even worse.

  • Given the film takes place primarily in one location, it does well to make the titular skyscraper pretty cool. The highlight is the top of the structure, called "The Pearl," the most expensive looking observation deck/VR experience ever created. The amount of tech shown off almost makes Skyscraper a sci-fi flick.

  • On paper, the ending is a creative twist on the house of mirrors chase scene. Unfortunately, the design of the room is too hi-tech, giving it a completely green screened look. It is still a fine sequence in its construction, but it looks too fake to completely work.

  • Aside from The Rock and Campbell, there is an impressive supporting cast. Chin Han plays the billionaire proprietor and continues to make a nice career out of being a random Chinese businessman in big Hollywood blockbusters [I'll always think of him in The Dark Knight, though]. Matt O'Leary, who was great in Brick and Natural Selection, plays a short-lived hacker with the most hacker-ish costuming ever. The aforementioned Noah Taylor is great as a sniveling insurance man.

  • If you told me that half of the production budget was paid for by the duct tape lobby, I wouldn't be surprised. In some ways, it is true hero of Skyscraper.

File Under 2018 #86: Leave No Trace


What it's about: Tom is a young girl who lives with her father Will deep in the woods of a public park outside of Portland, Oregon. They keep their lives simple, only going into the city when they need to, and they don't stay in one place for long. When Tom is spotting by a jogger, their lives are turned upside down. They are forced into society, given a place to stay in exchange for Will's work on a tree farm. Possibly for the first time in her life, Tom has a place in a community with other people her age. But will her father be able to handle following society's rules or will his instinct to run affect his daughter once again?

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Where films fit in with the year tends to change over the course of the year but at this moment Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is my favorite film of 2018 so far. It is glorious, devastating drama that is also strangely life affirming. The long-awaited narrative follow-up to Granik's Winter's BoneLeave No Trace shares a similar environment and stakes, but is a much richer and diverse emotional experience.

  • The film didn't immediately strike me as a coming-of-age drama, though it technically fits in the genre, with Tom's journey of coming into society. Tom is at an interesting age given her strange circumstances. She's starting to become an independent person, able to question her father and find her own interests. She is still completely loyal and trusting in his decisions, but that is starting to change.

  • Thomasin McKenzie's performance probably won't be on my end-of-year lists but she is quite good and is able to stand across from the venerable character actor Ben Foster. Their chemistry is great, especially in non-verbal moments.

  • Even without an incredible amount of plot, there isn't much explicit backstory given to the characters -- it is all there, though nothing you learn about Tom or Will comes out unnaturally. Really, how they came to this situation isn't as important as spending time with them and seeing where they are going.

  • When Will decides to leave the farm house there is a mix of emotions. In a way, it is heartbreaking because they could have led a good life there and Tom clearly was interested in the socialization. But, of course, Will's pain and perspective is completely understood.

  • It is an interesting plot turn that it is only when they actively decide to leave a more comfortable life when things begin to fall apart.

  • The natural response from everyone they meet is that they are running from something or are in some kind of trouble. It would probably be easier to understand, a more digestible story. It probably would have been easier for the film to make that the case, as well. It could offer some inherent stakes or character motivates, even making the film more like a thriller. Leave No Trace doesn't need it though to be compelling.

  • In a very strange way, Leave No Trace is really life affirming. It returns constantly to the idea of kindness of strangers, even toward a man who can't trust others. There are no villains in Leave No Trace despite a slew of potential ones -- no one takes advantage of their struggle, attempts to break them apart. Honestly, there is hard to think of anyone in their situation being treated so fairly.

  • Toward the end of the film there is a pretty clear metaphor of a bee colony that could have soured the emotional complexity. It works, however, because Tom understands the metaphor and can use it to help her father understand the world a little better, too.

  • Some potential spoilers on the ending ahead. The ending moments are really challenging on an emotional and character level. I don't know if the characters make the right moral decisions and I don't know how much I can judge them. It is such a pivotal developmental moment for Tom, one of the first times she makes a completely independent decision and so there is something beautiful about it. It could have been a tragic ending and in some ways it is. Tom and Will are no doubt better together. It isn't "happily ever after." But it makes so much sense within the context of their story.

  • I desperately want Granik and Kelly Reichardt to collaborate, maybe make a film with two parts that connect in some thematic or narrative way. They have clear common interests of struggle and nature and they draw their characters so beautiful. While Leave No Trace seems very similar to films like Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, they aren't the same filmmaker. I think Reichardt works more in the effect of a harsh nature on people where Granik focuses a bit more on how people work with each other in a harsh nature. It would be fascinating to see their approaches coming together. But I'm also cool if they both just continue to make more of their beautiful films.

File Under 2018 #85: Borg vs McEnroe


What it's about: Björn Borg was the #1 tennis player in the world and was gunning for his 5th consecutive Wimbledon championship. Borg was a model sportsman, cool and calm under pressure, never showing any emotion that his opponent could use against him. During the 1980 Wimbledon, a new challenger emerged: a brash and loud athlete by the name of John McEnroe. They may have seemed like completely opposite men and athletes, but Borg could understand McEnroe better than anyone as a troubled and emotional teen. And Borg's serene facade was supported superstitions and routines, with his toughest challenger testing whether he could hold it together. Their rivalry would go on to define the sport over the 1980s, but their first meeting in the Wimbledon finals was legendary.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I don't know why but I expected Borg vs McEnroe to be a comedic romp. The time period, the personalities at the center, films like Battle of the Sexes and 7 Days in Hell recently showing off the funny side of the sport. As soon as I heard the somber music playing over the Blu-ray menu, however, it was clear this was a serious drama.

  • Despite the casting of Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe, this is predominantly Björn Borg's film. Their storylines are told concurrently, but the Swede's backstory is fully flushed out. Made by a Danish filmmaker, Janus Metz, this isn't entirely a surprise.

  • For as dramatic a tone, though, I'm not sure Borg vs McEnroe really justifies it. The childhood flashbacks don't really offer that much drama -- we see Borg getting tough training away from his family, on a mission to become the best in the world, while McEnroe was something of a wunderkind. As adults, they are serious men but I don't know if the film really captures them with any complexity.

  • In one cool touch, Björn Borg's own son plays the tennis star as a teenager.

  • McEnroe's antics don't come off with any humor, which is wild because you can't help but laugh at highlights of McEnroe storming around a court, cursing out unprepared officials. He's shown as a desperately sad and angry man who wants people to focus on his tennis game rather than his behavior. It doesn't at all champion him, however, which giving it a comedic tone would inevitably do.

  • Borg vs McEnroe is structured around their runs through the 1980 Wimbledon tournament with flashbacks to the competitors' youths and their lives away from the court. There isn't much tennis until the third act. I'd almost classify it as a dramatic biopic set around sports than a sports movie in itself.

  • I usually find tennis to be a pretty cinematic sport even if it isn't the most TV-friendly live. Editing is vitally important during a tennis match and the action can be displayed in many ways. In Borg vs McEnroe, a traditional camera frame from one end of the court is used with closer quick cuts of the action. Overall, it works fine, but can be a little incomprehensible at times. Like an action scene, it is often better to see the full action as much as possible. The use of overhead shots are the most cinematic and creative, the small touch of the worn grass adds is a nice visual.

  • Given the ultra-high stakes, the film doesn't effectively build much of a narrative over the course of the match. It is a nice recreation but any specific moment of the match isn't easy to feel within the presentation. There seem to be twists and turns but not necessarily a story.

  • At one pivotal point, commentators and spectators remark how much tension there is and how they can't bear to watch. During real-life sports, the emotional investments lets this happen and, arguably, cinematic presentation can enhance this. Borg vs McEnroe tries to convey this by slowing down and getting inside the heads of the athletes -- it even cross-cuts in images from the flashbacks to give a "it all led to here" feel. Overall, though, the action of the match was still a little too choppy to fully build the scene.

  • Borg vs McEnroe smartly defies expectations in its tone and gives a proper stage to the sport by the end. There is a lot to appreciate in the film, though I don't think it can quite reach the level of an epic character study that it wants to be.

File Under 2018 #84: Ant-Man and the Wasp


What it's about: Scott Lang is under house arrest for breaking the Sokovia Accords following his involvement in a certain superhero civil war. Unable to contact his former associates Dr. Hank Pym and his daughter Hope, he spends his days hanging out with his daughter, playing drums, and spending too much time in the bathroom. But Hank and Hope must recruit Scott once again to use his connection to the subatomic quantum realm, in hopes of finding Hank's wife who has been stuck there for the past 30 years. A figure from Hank's past, however, has her own reasons to find Janet Van Dyne and a strange power to challenge Ant-Man and The Wasp.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It didn't make sense to me to release Ant-Man and the Wasp after the monumental Avengers: Infinity War. The scale-changing events in the finale of Infinity War made it seemingly hard to go back to a silly little superhero story involving a character who wasn't even in Marvel's biggest blockbuster yet. Who would care anymore? Turns out, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a perfect palette cleanser.

  • I haven't revisited Peyton Reed's Ant-Man since seeing it in theaters -- I didn't feel any impulse to do so. I remember enjoying it as a small, quippy, disposable, mid-tier Marvel film. Honestly, the two things I remember most are the train-set action sequence and Michael Peña's amazing Drunk History-style storytelling scene [we get another one here, thankfully, and it is awesome and adequately points out some of Ant-Man's biggest character flaws].

  • The film's sequel steps up the action, comedy, and character beats while keeping its identity as a relatively small-scale and personal superhero story. Ant-Man and the Wasp is thoroughly enjoyable. It's not without flaws, but the inevitable managed expectations really serve the film well.

  • It might be a smaller story, but the film is full of constant special effects that are executed really well. The shrinking/expanding works seamlessly within the action scenes and the villain's phasing power is perfectly realized. After Infinity War, it is also nice to see these effects consistently interacting in the real world instead of open fields and CGI-created landscapes.

  • The film also uses the full scope of Ant-Man's powers: shrinking, growing, even more mind-controlling of insects which I understand is a major part of his comic book powers. I would have expected this to be pretty hokey, but it works well within the film.

  • The main plot involves a lot of confusing and stupid science mumbo jumbo but it keeps itself bound nicely in relatable emotion. And it is able to poke fun at the obvious ridiculousness -- at one point, Scott asks if the scientists around him just put the word "quantum" in front of everything.

  • Hope Van Dyne [Evangeline Lilly] is thankfully given much more to do, not just in the most important emotional narrative but as a kick-ass action star. The hand-to-hand action sequences involving The Wasp are a lot of fun, quick but clear.

  • Of course, Paul Rudd is also a highlight. The film doesn't overplay his character as a fish out of water amidst much more intellectually capable company, which was more the case in Ant-Man. His natural charms come through the screen, especially in non-verbal reaction shots that Rudd has perfected over the years in silly comedies.

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp continues to show that Marvel has solved their villain problem. Well, sort of. There are two major villains here and one of them works well. I love Walton Goggins but his street-level criminal could have been completely cut from the film. The supernatural villain Ghost, on the other hand, has a well established backstory and plenty of motivation. The more important thing, though, is the character design is extremely cool and her superpowers are unique and amazing on screen. Unlike many Marvel villains, Ghost has real staying power within the larger story.

  • I'll try to talk around it but some spoilers involving the post-credits stinger ahead. I was anticipating the twist seen in the stinger to come and was curious how they'd execute it. With time away from Infinity War, I've come to terms with how its ending was handled and I think it was integrated smartly here. Ant-Man and the Wasp didn't need to unfairly revel in the emotional impact of the rapture yet again -- we've already been put through that once. It does, however, nicely showcase the implications for Scott Lang, which are massive. It actually helps build the story, giving us a glimpse into the future of the series, not just leaving on a sour note.

File Under 2018 #83: The Endless


What it's about: Aaron and Justin Smith are survivors of a cult which they escaped 10 years ago. But their lives haven't been great since. Since the crazy media attention of their experiences faded away, they found themselves trapped in crappy jobs with few friends and generally unsuccessful lives. After receiving a mysterious video tape from the cult, people they assumed were all dead, Aaron decides he might as well go back and see if he can find some meaning. Justin is a little less optimistic, more cynical and angry about his past experiences, but he goes along to make his brother happy. They find there that not only is the community still thriving, it doesn't seem like anyone has aged a day over the last decade. Aaron and Justin, now adults with a better level of social understanding, dig into the cult's secrets and begin experiencing strange phenomenon that is both frightening and alluring.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As I've been putting myself through this daunting challenge of noting on every 2018 theatrical release I've seen, there have been some ups and downs, natural highs and lows of writing, but The Endless met me with something different. I haven't put off writing about the film [mostly because I don't want these things backing up before I see something else] but I'm here not knowing exactly what to say. The Endless is a strange and perplexing film.

  • This should have been expected as I somewhat felt the same about the previous film from directorial team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead [who also star in The Endless], 2014 horror film Spring. While that film was getting really good buzz from those who saw it, I was a little lukewarm on it. While watching The Endless, though, the strange rhythms and tones felt a little more natural -- seeing Spring was an instructive experience and probably helped me like both films a little bit more.

  • To put it frankly, I had no idea what was happening through much of The Endless. I was desperately hoping the film had a long and extensive Wikipedia plot to help me suss out everything. I wasn't bored by the film, but I also found myself to get a little sleepy by the end, which didn't help matters.

  • The complexity of the plot and science fiction elements is both good and bad. Benson and Moorhead obviously want viewers to be uneasy and they really nail that tone. On the other hand, I was constantly trying to find any answers to questions I'm not sure were even pertinent. It could be a frustrating experience.

  • In some ways, besides Spring, the film that The Endless reminded me most of was Shane Carruth's Primer. This isn't quite as heady but it hits on a similar emotional and intellectual place. There are also elements of something like time travel [though differentiated in a clever way].

  • The Endless is more successful when it tells its strange story visually and there are definitely enough captivating visuals throughout to carry the sci-fi mystery. Toward the end of the film, however, there is more philosophical thought and scientific explanation happening and most of it just went over my head. Still, the big concepts were shown [in addition to being told] in creative ways -- I never fully understood the looping, for lack of a better term, but it was a cool effect.

  • This sits in an interesting ground of clearly being a micro-budget film without exactly looking like a micro-budget film. It is really impressive how some of the effects were conceptualized while still being a little rough around the edges. It has a distinctive charm.

  • Narratively, the cult sci-fi/horror subgenre has received a boost in recent years, especially on the indie side. The Endless does some things differently with the concept to both positive and negative results. One of the biggest differences is that there is no big personality at the center of the community, which keeps the focus on the outsider protagonists and the supernatural. The community feels kind of small, though, only a handful of characters, which gives it a limited scope.

  • I never found myself invested in the journey of the two lead characters as brothers, though individually I found them compelling characters. Given that the film starts with an unattributed quote about how friends reveal their feeling toward each other while brothers can't, this should have had more of an emotional impact.

  • Ultimately, I'm curious how The Endless will stay with me. I definitely feel like it is a film that would benefit from a second viewing and I might give it another shot around the end of the year. I can't help but feel this is a film that should have hit me harder, it is totally in my wheelhouse. Already, the specifics are a little fuzzy. The sheer weirdness of everything keeps me afloat.

File Under 2018 #82: The Workshop


What it's about: Olivia Dejazet is a popular thriller writer who spends a summer leading a writing workshop for a group of diverse teens in a small French town. The group argue over what kind of novel they should collaboratively write, focusing on a thriller but unsure of who should be the villain. Over their discussions, politics inevitably comes up, with a disaffected young man with alt-right leanings named Antoine provokes his peers with anti-Muslim rhetoric and shocking views on violence. Olivia sees something in Antoine that she can use in her work, so she often singles him out, challenging his worldview. Getting too close to her pupil might put Olivia in harm's way of a rapidly radicalized and angry young man.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The Workshop's high concept of setting the characters into a classroom setting is an effective way of having an open dialogue on the racial and economic problems in France and the rapidly changing political sphere. Secondarily, how these issues can be addressed through art. The kids have the right mix of passion and naivety, with Olivia able to channel their beliefs and feelings into something more cogent.

  • Using the thriller as a medium to explore these issues isn't accidental, either, as genre filmmaking has become a primary source of unpacking political discourse [hell, the newest Purge movie just came out].

  • After increasing arguments about the motivations of their still undefined fictional killer, Olivia explains to the group that a writer can use controversial characters without endorsing them. It feels like a genuine breakthrough and becomes one of the most important themes of the film through its second half, which moves a bit away from the workshop setting into a more traditional character study of one of its members.

  • The use of what seems like documentary news footage of the town's once-vibrant shipyard [a possible setting for the workshop's collaboration] is another interesting tie-in between fact and fiction within the film and the importance of art. The teens are told that research is vital when writing a novel, even if it is purely fiction, as realism will only be of benefit. The footage, though brief, gives a better understanding of the place this film takes place in, one that has a complicated immigrant history that has become more volatile with economic deterioration.

  • The Workshop no doubt is at its best in the long workshop discussions. The characters are vibrant, their arguments define them thoroughly. The political and artistic nature of these discussions also provide all the narrative tension the film needs.

  • The plot outside of these scenes, especially in the second half of the film, seem to reach too far for dramatic and thematic resonance. The Workshop tries to be provocative by tapping into the life of a seemingly normal kid whose isolation is tempted by radical political ideas. It is a similar story heard on the news after any mass shooting. Unfortunately, The Workshop doesn't actually say much, certainly not anything new, with Antoine.

  • Strangely, the film could maybe have used some of its own advice by making Antoine someone the viewer truly has to reckon with. He's an interesting character, certainly, and a realistic one. The film spends a lot of time showing how seemingly normal he is -- normal family, he has a good relationship with his young niece and sister, etc. But the dramatic turns the film takes toward the end feel unearned.

  • Granted, The Workshop clearly builds to its ending, I just couldn't find it all that compelling. It seems to want to explode and yet it falls flat. On the surface, The Workshop itself turning into something of a thriller is another interesting parallel to the workshop. But when the motivations of the complex characters become simple and strange, it just doesn't work as well.

  • I haven't seen director Laurent Cantet's previous film, Palme d'or winner and Oscar nominee The Class, but The Workshop seems to be within the filmmaker's wheelhouse. I was interested to see as the credits rolled that Robin Campillo served as co-screenwriter, as I've really appreciated his work with Eastern Boys and BPM (Beats Per Minute). I can definitely see his storytelling in the film but that only makes The Workshop a little more disappointing. I'm not sure what may have been lost in translation, but this film doesn't have the same clever observational style -- at least not when the film turns into a broader story.

File Under 2018 #81: Three Identical Strangers


What it's about: Bobby Shafran was a college freshman arriving on campus for the first time when something strange happened: people he had never met before were greeting him as if they were close friends, someone even mistakenly called him "Eddy." A random stranger popped his head into Bobby's dorm room and asked him if he was adopted. The stranger took Bobby to meet Eddy that night and the resemblance was not only clear, it was extraordinary. Their story was told in a New York newspaper and attracted the attention of a third brother, David. The three young men, separated at birth, quickly became a national media sensation. But the circumstances of their birth and adoptions caught up with the joy of their meeting.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It seems like every few years a documentary comes out that quickly becomes notorious for its "stranger than fiction" craziness. I remembered hearing the same kind of buzz for Catfish and Tickled that I heard on Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers leading up to its theatrical release. The basic story is something incredible, even unbelievable, and the film's marketing really showcased that. But the buzz suggested the intriguing set-up was only the beginning.

  • Three Identical Strangers is difficult to talk about in any meaningful way without getting into the twists and turns, so be warned.

  • That said, the film does a lot to foreshadow where the story eventually goes. Who tells the story and who doesn't tell the story gives some clues. What people are saying and what people aren't saying does, too. Though Three Identical Strangers starts pretty clearly as a fun and uplifting story, it never really hides that there is some shady stuff behind the story.

  • Because of that, I was never truly shocked by its turns, though they do offer a lot of intriguing questions. Three Identical Strangers definitely isn't the same kind of class as Catfish or Tickled that had me on the edge of my seat wondering what could possibly happen next.

  • Three Identical Strangers is filled with old photographs, home videos, and news footage shown over and over again. Some of this is part of its revelation structure [remember all these things that were said that point to this new specific point?], though it also seemed to need to keep the visuals as busy as the story being told.

  • OK, so on to some specifics. One of the most complex questions at the heart of the film is the nature of scientific study. I don't think anyone would argue that the study which involved the triplets and other identical twins was performed ethically or appropriately -- there was not enough transparency for those involved, there didn't seem to be a consistent question to be answered, the methods of collecting data were extreme, etc.

  • That said, Three Identical Strangers struck me of having a pretty anti-science stance, like it took one [extremely] poor example and blew it up to argue that any extensive scientific study that might explore similar questions wouldn't have any value. At the very least, I'm confused about what the film is exactly trying to say about the bigger picture in this story.

  • As it becomes crazier, the film tries to crystallize over the "nature vs. nurture" debate but never can really make a cogent thought. By the end I think the film is more balanced on the side of "nurture" but it definitely misses opportunities to narrow in on a point-of-view. Specifically, there is a line said by someone [I don't recall who] that really struck me, something to the effect that everyone focused in on the triplets' similarities and they really never cared to notice the differences. In ways, the film does the exact same thing.

  • Seeing the brothers express their anger based on their experiences is a potent emotional punch. It is impossible to disagree with their thoughts on their lives because they are the ones who've lived through it. It is undeniably a tragic story.

  • In that way, Three Identical Strangers is very effective as a specific emotional story about three brothers and their families. As a broader exploration of bigger issues around scientific responsibility it just isn't as successful -- in part because of its point-of-view, but also because of the unfortunate circumstances that the study has never been completed or published to have any real scientific value. It's an unenviable position.

  • The questions the film raises are really important and can definitely lead to some really good discourse [my wife and I disagreed about the film but had a really good conversation over it] but I'm not sure the film competently raises those questions on their own. I can't help but think that if Errol Morris had the rights to this it would have been a much more thought-provoking and explicitly about the questions underneath the tabloid and shadowy story.

File Under 2018 #80: Journey's End


What it's about: Captain Stanhope leads a group of soldiers at the front lines in the trenches during World War I. Because tactical battle has ground the major conflicts to a standstill, groups of soldiers are cycling in for six day shifts. Even without much battle, the tours are long, grueling affairs against the elements and fear of battle. A young man named Raleigh, who idolized upperclassmen Stanhope while in school, enters the war and requests to join his old friend. But Raleigh hasn't realized that Stanhope has been completely changed by his war experience, no longer the upstart young man who shared time with his family. In these extreme circumstances, their relationship is tested and changes under the cover of war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Journey's End is a war film that isn't exactly about battle -- rather, the long and excruciating waiting for battle. It captures the spirit of World War I, the muck, the standstill, the never-ending feeling, quite well. It takes place over the course of six days, but feels like an eternity through the characters.

  • The state of the war is completely boiled down early on by the company's marching song repeating "We're here because we're here because we're here," etc. to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." It perfectly captures the hopelessness of their situation.

  • When there is battle action [the first sequence comes in over an hour into the film], it is unspectacular, shot mostly in close up with a shaking camera. I'm guessing this is due to a relatively small budget, but Journey's End should be appreciated for sticking to its narrative strengths.

  • Much of the film is basically a chamber piece taking place in the captains' quarters where Stanhope gets drunk and angry and sad. There are times where it is more Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is Saving Private Ryan. There is a lot of fighting over the awful quality of their food.

  • The film's structure of introducing Raleigh into Stanhope's company gives a sharp look at how endless war can change a man irrevocably. Because Journey's End takes place in a short and specific amount of time, pre-war Stanhope is never shown, only talked about. He can be pictured, though, through the eyes of Raleigh, who hasn't lost the hope or love for his former friend. The film smartly delays their meeting, letting Raleigh's optimism live on long enough to be devastated by who he finds.

  • The three years age difference between Stanhope and Raleigh is a little deceiving as actors Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield are almost ten years apart. It emphasizes the effect to an extreme degree, which is what Journey's End is ultimately trying to do, so it works fine. Personally, too, I've not yet put Claflin out of the YA actor stable, so I wouldn't have guessed the was already beyond 30.

  • Claflin gives a really good and centered performance with the opportunity outside of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Hunger Games story. He is properly beaten down, living on a fine edge of depression and insanity. He's also appropriately rugged, believably able to lead a group of men into battle.

  • Paul Bettany plays Osborne, the old man of the company, second in command to Stanhope and the captain's confidant -- consider Bettany is now able to be the "old man" is a little strange, but we're all getting older. He's the film's only spot of comic relief -- granted in a very serious, droll, British sort of way. Strangely, he's also a big part of the story's heart, with one of the most defined characters arcs and tragic figures.

  • Journey's End is an incredibly measured and austere exploration of war's effect on young men. Thematically, this isn't new ground. From a stylistic standpoint, the film doesn't capture a new look at warfare, either.. And so, Journey's End might not be an essential World War I film. It is, however, wonderfully crafted and almost delicate in its character study. There is a real and honest emotional core here and if you don't mind a very dower time, it is worth seeking out.

File Under 2018 #79: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


What it's about: Claire Dearing has moved on from the failure of her Jurassic World theme park to a life trying to protect the last remaining dinosaurs. A once dormant volcano has become active on the island of Isla Nublar and competing interests are working to evacuate the majestic [and very valuable] creatures to safety. Hired by a wealthy stakeholder of John Hammond's original vision, Claire re-unites with Owen Grady to track down his specially trained Velociraptor Blue. Once on the island, however, they quickly realize that not everyone has the same intentions to protect the inhabitants. There is also a new breed of dinosaur that could pose a threat to everyone's safety.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I wasn't particularly enthused to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, not being a fan of its predecessor. I wasn't even planning on seeing it in the theater but with the holiday break, I had some free time and I caved. My expectations were not high despite J.A. Bayona, a filmmaker I respect, taking over the franchise. I'm not sure they were even met.

  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was surprisingly unfun. For being a huge production, the epitome of the summer blockbuster, I generally found it dull, bland, emotionally empty, with nothing in particular to latch on to. It might not be fair to put it on the same level as a Transformers film, as Fallen Kingdom has the ability to pare itself down for a coherent setpiece, but the franchises share incredible thin characters, massive narrative holes, a harried script with logic problems. I feel like I could nitpick Fallen Kingdom to death, so I'm going to try and resist that as much as possible, but bare with me if I revel a bit.

  • There is so much stupidity in the film's cold open scene: humans acting irrationally, technology that doesn't make any sense, dinosaurs used solely like a reverse deus ex machina, no indication of what is happening on a narrative level, and a hurried tone that doesn't make understanding any easier. And, honestly, this is one of the more distinct scenes of the film.

  • I can't get past the main plot line. In the span of just a few years, Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard] has gone from one of the most important figures in the disastrous opening of the Jurassic World theme park [what was her actual job anyway?] to a non-profit lobbyist to protect the dinosaurs as an endangered species. Let's think about this for a second. A woman responsible for dozens [maybe hundreds] of deaths and $800 million of litigation [as told by the movie] now talks with members of Congress about passing legislation to use taxpayer money to transport and care for the murder machines. Would any serious non-profit group want anything to do with her?

  • I'm pretty far left on most environmental issues but the questions of animal rights the movie tries to explore with total seriousness is a bit too much for me.

  • One character mentions John Hammond's dream of letting these magnificent creatures live in peace is a serious next-level retcon.

  • Mid-way through the movie there is a reveal of a new science fiction element that is a logical step for the Jurassic World franchise and could have some big implications. Unfortunately, it is completely botched by tip-toeing around the subject to death -- even when the reveal is fully confronted, the explaining characters don't even use the precise word, using euphemisms and strange expressions for some reason instead.

  • There is a major plot point around breaking into a secure underground laboratory only to later show that it is easily accessible by a dumbwaiter that we've seen a child character use to get from one part of the estate to another.

  • I was shocked by how little humor there was in Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and the few laugh lines didn't work at all -- there wasn't anything above a few chuckles from my decently full matinee audience. A big spectacle like this absolutely needs some laughter to go hand-in-hand with the wonder and terror and thrills. This definitely came out severely unbalanced.

  • This is definitely one of Chris Pratt's least humorous turns, on the level with the problematic Passengers. Owen is such a bland tough guy Clint Eastwood wannabe. None of the actor's usually easy charisma comes through. As someone who didn't like him much in Infinity War, either [though he's better there], I'm starting to worry about Pratt.

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ted Levine is excellent casting for the hammy hunter villain that has become a type well worn out in the Jurassic Park films. The character is involved in one of the most memorable moments of the film, but I still wish he'd been given more of the film to carry.

  • I'm wondering what J.A. Bayona really brought to this movie. There are a few sequences that dip into horror but nothing to the degree of The Orphanage -- obviously, a big Hollywood film wouldn't want to get that scary, but these scenes feel like a neutered version of its creator. The spectacle may not even be as great as The Impossible, which is a disturbingly bleak film but had infinitely more stakes.

  • It isn't really fair to hold this against Bayona, who undoubtedly has better work ahead. I can't see any filmmaker coming in to save this franchise, bring it back to its amazing beginnings. It might not be possible. It might be too big, too broad, too thin at this point. Someone is going to get a shot, though.

File Under 2018 #78: Hearts Beat Loud


What it's about: Frank Fisher is a record store owner who has long had dreams of being a rock star. With his only daughter Sam off to college on the west coast in a matter of weeks, she is pressured to perform jam sessions with him. When Frank uploads their latest collaboration, a song called "Hearts Beat Loud," it starts to get some recognition. This sparks his interest in making a genuine go at making music, but Sam is hesitant, solely focused on medical school. But with his business closing, his mother in poor health, and a complicated relationship with his landlady, this might be his one and only shot at his dream.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hearts Beat Loud wouldn't work without the music and the music has to be good. Fortunately enough, it is, and maybe more importantly, it feels authentic to the characters. It is quickly established that they are really good musicians, maybe not pros, but they understand songwriting and form. When Nick Offerman plays the guitar or bass or drums, it doesn't cut around to make it look easier -- it is clear the man can play. When Kiersey Clemons sings, she can really sing. They both show legitimate star power.

  • The first jam session of the film evolves into a full songwriting montage. Yes, it is a little improbable that they could write and record an completely polished song in the matter of a few hours but the editing on the montage is clear and fun and shows the process really well.

  • In its execution, the "Hearts Beat Loud" sequence is on the level of the musical sequences of Once. There isn't the same amount of emotional connection to the characters at this point in Hearts Beat Loud, but the showcase of the artistic process is incredibly charming.

  • Features probably the best version of the hearing my song on the radio for the first time plot device ever.

  • Hearts Beat Loud isn't afraid to name drop musicians, a few even show up in the film. It is always a little annoying when films feel like they have to establish the characters' tastes by them talking about hip and trendy artists. And Hearts Beat Loud doesn't really need it -- their musical chops are established by them simply playing music.

  • There is a fun extra layer in the songwriting process with it being a father-daughter duo. Intentions within the lyrics are read in a different way by the characters because of their relationship. When Sam writes a love song, for example, she is hesitant to call it a love song so she doesn't have to talk about the relationship it is based on. Frank, on the other hand, is excited to know about the context within the lyrics.

  • Their emotional connection and the songwriting live on the same level in the narrative and it can naturally build the themes, narrative, and relationships. This is what musicals are supposed to do and Hearts Beats Loud utilizes the form well.

  • Offerman simply sitting on a stool, playing a sad sounding guitar riff has all the emotional resonance the film needs. It is a nice shorthand and difficult to pull off.

  • Seeing Toni Colette show up as a totally normal person only a few weeks after seeing her in Hereditary took a second to get over.

  • One of the best clues that Hearts Beat Loud is working on a narrative and emotional level is that I genuinely wanted the characters to pursue their band while completely understanding pragmatically why they couldn't.

  • Perhaps because director Brett Haley is known for films where older people find a new lease on life [I'll See You in My Dreams is his other film I've seen], this might skew his thematic interest in Frank's direction. Sam's realistic outlook isn't looked down on, however, even if she is less of the major focus of the film.

  • Maybe it is because I associate Nick Offerman so strongly with Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson, but I've never really considered him to be a real actor, whatever that means. Hearts Beat Loud gives him a pretty good opportunity to show a little bit of range and really carry a movie with both comedy and drama. I'm not going to think of Offerman at the end of the year, but that shouldn't discount what is a fine central performance.

  • Kiersey Clemons, on the other hand, may have already had something of a breakout with Dope, but this shows that she can be a star. I always feel wary of giving actors bonus points for singing, but it is such a key to the character and she performs so incredibly well.

  • The two actors together is what makes the film really sing [pun intended]. Offerman and Clemons wouldn't have been anyone's idea of an ideal screen duo, especially as a father-daughter pair, but they work perfectly together. Hearts Beat Loud is charming and cool because these actors are charming and cool. It is exciting that a film cast them together in these roles.

File Under 2018 #77: What We Started


What it's about: Carl Cox was at the forefront of Electronic Dance Music [EDM] and is still going strong with pure and righteous beats at the age of 55. Martin Garrix is a 17-year-old music wunderkind who rose to the top of the top-40 charts out of nowhere. These two men are at the cross-roads of a musical genre that has gained popularity in recent years but has been around for decades. From the post-disco roots in Chicago and Detroit to the mega festivals across Europe, EDM is a distinct music genre that is also incredibly broad in its scope and tones. The full history of the genre is explored, including drug scares and the internet's influence.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The extent of my knowledge of Electronic Dance Music is random mainstream acts that made it to pop radio, a vague understanding of what "dub step" is, Daft Punk [but they are cool, right?] and the Netflix rom-com Ibiza. That might put me in the target audience of What We Started, which starts the revelation that EDM isn't a new phenomenon.

  • For anyone who would have no interest in watching this film because of an allergic reaction to their perception of EDM music, What We Started tries to set itself apart from the worst [and most visible] of the genre, instead highlighting "pure artists" who spend their sets mixing records instead of being glorified hype men. There is a distinction made between underground electronic music [which is "art"] and EDM [which is "show business"].

  • The fun thing about What We Started is along this distinction and the in-fighting that comes out through the documentary. Many of the talking heads are incredibly critical of other talking heads within the film, especially of new kid on the block Martin Garrix.

  • Surely, though, this message is a bit blurry, as the film is wholeheartedly in favor of the new school EDM artists, including Garrix, who is one of its main profiles. By the end of the film, it goes to listing all the cool and popular top-40 mainstream acts that have taken the world by storm [Skrillex is pointed out], even name-checking David Guetta as the guy who started it all. It then highlights musical interlopers like Usher and Ed Sheeran who have collaborated with the new age EDM. It comes off a bit like it wants it both ways -- wants the street cred of the underground acts while also geeking out about the new acts that are completely at their odds.

  • Taking a cue from the hip music it is chronicling, What We Started is very slickly produced. The film moves quickly, splicing talking heads from some of the biggest names of the genre [Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Moby, etc.] with footage of the root pioneers, new festival concerts, and lots of shiny flashing lights. What We Started has the visual styling the match the music.

  • There is lots of good people watching from clubs of the 80s and 90s. Such fashion!

  • If you are a fan of EDM, there will certainly be things to take in from the film. If you are new to the genre or only listen to the mainstream stuff, you will probably appreciate the connections to the inner-city post-disco roots of the movement and you'll have new artists from the underground to explore. And, of course, just taking in the sights and sounds has value.

  • For an art that I have very little interest in, What We Started does a pretty thorough job of making the history and current scene pretty entertaining.

  • I'm not going to become a convert, but that doesn't mean What We Started is a failure. It is worth seeing for anyone with any fleeting interest in the genre or just wants to be lightly entertained for 90 minutes and isn't repulsed by the electronic sounds. It isn't a perfect documentary and its flaws are pretty annoying, but it is a pretty excellent 100-level course into the genre.

File Under 2018 #76: Hondros


What it's about: Chris Hondros was an American war photographer who captured some of the most indelible, frightening, and important images from recent conflicts in Africa and Asia. His work has been lauded and his stories are fascinating. After his tragic death while doing the work he loved, friends and colleagues remember Hondros, think about his life and work, and what his legacy has meant for art, journalism, and war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hondros opens in the midst of insanity. Young black men running through the frame wielding powerful guns, shooting imprecisely screen. Then the voice of Chris Hondros is heard, casually accepting a telephone call, telling the person on the other line that he'll call back later. This mix of the extraordinary and the ordinary is strange and unsettling. In about 2 minutes into the film, Hondros captures the essence of war photography and its subject in a beautiful way.

  • Director Greg Campbell has an intimate connection with his profile as a newspaper correspondent who worked with Hondros throughout their respective careers -- their first job together involved breaking into a party to get a photograph of President Bill Clinton.

  • Especially as a debut filmmaker, Hondros benefits by knowing the subject personally and understanding the kind of work he did. Making a profile documentary doesn't always benefit from such close emotional contact, but because the focus of Hondros is on the work and a celebration of the man, it works just fine.

  • Not surprisingly, the film is filled with images and video taken by Hondros, much of it speaking for itself. The visuals aren't always specifically connected to anything in the story being told, but the whole effectively builds a complete picture. At other times, seeing the images from the most important events of his life as they are being described can be cathartic. The breadth of emotional captured by the images is incredible, from grace and beauty to horrific and hectic.

  • Of course, with all this footage, the film becomes more than just a profile of a person, but about the specific events he covered over his life. Some of this is incredibly specific -- his work in Pakistan directly following 9/11 and the opening scenes in Liberia tell the stories of those places and conflicts economically and without feeling like a history lesson.

  • The film also benefits from interviews of Hondros talking about his work. In these glimpses, Hondros shows to be the personable and driven artist that matches the kind of man we are told about. It is also easy to see how he displayed such a humanistic eye.

  • Hondros reminds of other documentaries made by and about war journalists, such as Restrepo and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, and Hondros stands with the best of them. The intimacy and ability to bring people into these extraordinary environments tend to make these types of films work, as long as there is authenticity in the work [as opposed to fictionalized films like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which can't compare].

  • But there are other challenges that Hondros has to compete with in order to be a fully rounded and engaging documentary. Seeing the incredible images and hearing people talk about them can be enough to create an insightful and emotional core. Hearing people talk about Chris Hondros, though, adds something invaluable, because it adds context to how these images came to be. Without the profile, the film would have been emotionally complex, sad, stirring, enraging, but everything becomes a little deeper by learning just a little about the man behind the camera.

File Under 2018 #75: Back to Burgundy


What it's about: Jean is the adult son of a French winemaker who escaped to Australia to start his own family and tend his own grape fields. With his father in poor health, Jean returns home to Burgundy. He isn't exactly welcomed back openly by his brother and sister, who have stayed through the pain of watching their mother and now father die. The three siblings not only need to put their past quibbles behind them, but now work together to secure their family business. A €500,000 inheritance tax on their farm house and grape fields is too steep for them to pay, so a decision has to be made. Can they bare to sell off the family's legacy? Jean has a similar decision: Will he again run away from his family for his responsibilities thousands of miles away?

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As an American with assumptions about wine made in France, Back to Burgundy does an interesting job playing with these preconceptions, though not perfectly. In a lot of ways, the film feels like an American farm drama -- not exactly an established genre, but the tropes of hard work, a connection to the Earth, etc. all easily come to mind.

  • Back to Burgundy is structured into alternating parts of family drama and wine-making process. Not as the filmmakers likely intended, I found the process much more compelling. It isn't overly complicated, I'm sure that more goes into the growing and picking of the grapes, but there is something pastoral about how the process is filmed. That said, it doesn't have a documentary feel, which could have been an interesting stylistic take, and I wish there was more to learn about the turning of grapes into wine.

  • On the other hand, there isn't much unique about the family strife drama. The film doesn't exposition itself through their history, which is probably a good thing even if it doesn't build much of the characters.

  • The setting is what gives the film and the family its flavor. The hard work we see the characters do in the fields connects them to the space and their family better than any of the arguments they have.

  • Still, there is a sense of privileged white problems that I couldn't quite get easily past. The characters are all so milquetoast -- one of the field workers directly calls them "bourgeois" which I take as the same. Back to Burgundy does a lot to show they are genuinely struggling with finances and family, but it can't clear the issue. I'm not exactly sure what the film could have done differently, if there is any way to set a drama in this idyllic place and make it primarily about financial struggle. Unfortunately, I just cared too little for the three leads and their problems.

  • Karidja Touré, who broke out in 2014 with Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, makes an appearance as a young woman who is hired to work in the fields. Jean takes interest in her [not in a romantic way] and they seem to be building to an interesting relationship. But then the character completely disappears after the first act. As Touré hasn't done much since Girlhood, it was really exciting to see her, but I wish it didn't completely waste her -- especially because this relationship could have led to an interesting spark that the film didn't really have otherwise.

  • I don't normally comment on movie music because it is far from my expertise -- I often don't even actively notice the music as I'm watching a film. I have to say that the music in Back to Burgundy is pretty bad. It was distracting in the quiet emotional moments and the montages in the field.

  • Hot take: stomping on grapes in the big barrels looks grotesque and I'd never want to do it.

File Under 2018 #74: Believer


What it's about: Dan Reynolds is the frontman of one of the world's most popular bands, Imagine Dragons, winners of one Grammy, three American Music Awards, and nine Billboard Music Awards. Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Mormon, his faith has long been very important to him. But throughout his life, he's had a hard time justifying the Church's stance on the gay and lesbian community. Now with the profile, resources, and will, he goes on a mission to change the minds of followers, that LGBTQ people aren't sinners and they deserve a place in the Church.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I'm not a fan of Imagine Dragons. I've heard plenty of their songs given their immense popularity and presence throughout popular culture. I have no issues with their art. You could probably call me Imagine Dragons agnostic.

  • I feared how much Believer would be a puff piece to advertise Imagine Dragons and Dan Reynolds. Certainly, there is a lot of their music in the film -- by informal count, I noted four Imagine Dragons songs about 15 minutes into the film. There isn't much biography of the band, but it does touch on their quick rise to fame. The film is named after an Imagine Dragons song that doesn't have any real descriptive meaning for what the film actually is.

  • And eventually, Believer becomes just as much a film about a rock concert [one with a message, surely] than the specific issues of its message.

  • A scene where Reynolds goes through fan e-mails, many from young Mormons who look up to him as one of the few famous pop culture figures that shares their faith. Some of them come out to him as gay, as well, noting their inner struggle. The way Reynolds addresses this with emotion and what seems to be genuine thought, some of those concerns are relieved. Yeah, Believer can't escape being just as much about Reynolds and his band than about the issues, but it proves to come from the right place.

  • Another figure who is profiled in the documentary is Tyler Glenn, the frontman of another popular pop band, Neon Trees. Glenn was also raised Mormon and, unlike Reynolds, is openly gay. Listening to him talk about his story is immediately more complicated and resonant. I understand why a film was made following Reynolds instead of Glenn and I'm glad that Glenn's story was told, but it creates a strange imbalance.

  • Seeing Reynolds call Glenn to talk about the issue [Glenn is not seen on camera during this scene] crystallizes that Believer is Reynolds's story. An LGBTQ film focused on an ally is fine. It can be a valuable story to tell. But only as a supplement to the first-person stories on the subject.

  • So my thoughts on Believer are complicated. It talks about incredibly important issues, such as appalling Mormon teen suicide rates that coincided with the introduction of Prop 8. The stories of people coming out within the Mormon church are heard [with Reynolds intently listening face shown with shot-reverse-shot].

  • But telling this story in this way certainly has its drawbacks. Believer has an uphill battle to prove that it isn't the kind of puff piece that many will assume going in. I can absolutely see some viewers being completely turned off by the film's structure, not able to get past any focus on Reynolds and his band. We see Reynolds write new songs, organize a music festival for his band to perform in Utah, there is a countdown leading up to the festival and how many tickets have been sold. Most egregiously, there is a scene where Reynolds accepts an award for his LGBTQ activism, so it is a little hard to dispute the film doesn't do any self-promoting back-patting.

  • Would Believer have more impact if it was simply a film about the relationship between LDS and LGBTQ? All the same stories, all the same statistics, without the [for lack of a better word] gimmick of Reynolds's own journey. Maybe Reynolds would be just another of the talking heads sharing their experience. It might not be totally fair, but yes, I think so.

  • The "Music By" credit for Hans Zimmer, shown over concert performance of Imagine Dragons, I assume wasn't a joke, but was funny.

  • Streaming from my HBO Now app, preceding Believer was a montage/trailer of important gay characters from HBO shows and movies, from LookingSix Feet UnderThe Normal HeartGame of ThronesGirls, and many, many more. Though it was totally self-serving, it was pretty cool to see the context of dozens of LGBTQ characters and moments that have been such a big part of the entertainment platform for more than two decades.

File Under 2018 #73: Summer 1993


What it's about: Frida is a young girl growing up in the Catalonia region of Spain. When both of her parents die of AIDS, she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a small community. She explores her new environment, her younger cousin always following behind, while getting in plenty of childhood trouble. As the summer goes on, Frida begins to wonder more about what happened to her parents, causing her to rebel against her new guardians. But she is stuck. This is her family now and she must learn to accept that.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I saw Carla Simón's Summer 1993 late last year during the height of awards screener season as it was part of the slate sent to critics from Oscilloscope Laboratories. Seeing Summer 1993 in the midst of a catch-up cram session is not ideal and I hadn't retained much of the slow-paced story. When the film received a limited theatrical release a few weeks back I decided it was worth shaking the dust off the screener and revisit the film. I'm glad I did. Summer 1993 is a beautiful, tender, and distinct film.

  • Because the film is told through its young, quiet, shy protagonist, it takes on a curious, observational tone. Much of the spoken dialogue early on doesn't feel produced or scripted, instead something more natural that isn't necessarily directed at anyone -- it's as if Frida hears the adults talking but really isn't listening.

  • There are many moments of wonder that approach something like Beasts of the Southern Wild without the obvious fantasy. The opening scene, which is really one of great tragedy, is beautifully captured with Frida being driven away with fireworks going off visible through the rear window. Frida coming across a religious statue in the forest has an air of mystery.

  • Until the ending of the film, where Frida opens up with her aunt about what happened to her mother, the implications of her death are gently explored, rarely vocalized. The most heartbreaking scene where this bubbles up happens when Frida scrapes her knee during a game of tag with other kids; one of the mothers reacts aggressively, making sure her child keeps away from the blood. It isn't overstated and Frida is oblivious to what is happening.

  • Summer 1993's premiere shot is a mid-closeup from the side of Frida, with the open environment surrounding her just out of focus. Shots like this are used throughout the film and help build its hazy tone.

  • I'm a few years older than what Frida is here though the film is set in a time without the same rapid tech explosion, so it feels like the kind of world I grew up in. It is quiet, a lot of time spent out side, exploration, the need for an imagination to survive. The summer felt slow and big. I don't know if 1993 has any specific significance, but it is a distinct time and it is captured perfectly.

  • Laia Artigas, who plays Frida, is the star and she's fantastic, but I can't not mention Paula Robles as her younger cousin, the one who gets the brunt of all of Frida's mischief.

  • Summer 1993 ends with another touching moment, one that completes the arc of her new family. From the start, Marga and Esteve try their best to bring Frida into a comfortable and happy life. They certainly are in a tough position and they are clearly trying their best, but they are emotionally removed. The film frames them in the story in an interesting way -- Aunt Marga is more integrated, but both are really only at the edges. As I mentioned before, in the scenes where Frida is integrating into her new life, they seem to be barely seen or heard. In the final moments, however, they show clearly that they love Frida as their own daughter.

File Under 2018 #72: Incredibles 2


What it's about: Bob and Ellen Parr are two of the most powerful superheroes in a world where superheroes have become illegal. The public can't trust those with super powers, they seem to do more damage than good. The power couple is approached by a wealthy entrepreneur who has a plan to change the perspective of the public by equipping their suits with cameras to record all their good deeds. For their first mission, however, only Elastigirl is needed. She's more likeable for the general public and her style of crime fighting doesn't cause so much collateral damage. That leaves Mr. Incredible to stay home with perhaps an even more difficult task: raise their three kids, their moody teenage girl, their over-active boy, and the baby whose incredible powers are just coming of age.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • With the release of Incredibles 2, I recently went back and revisited the original 2004 film for the first time in more than 10 years. Brad Bird's first work with Pixar is still renowned as one of the animation studio's best work and it was released in its heyday. In recent years, I've become less enthused and less enthused by each Pixar film's release. The work is still good -- they make beautifully artistic stories -- but they've lost some of their magic.

  • A lot has changed in the superhero genre since 2004. Marvel Studios hadn't yet started their reign at the release of The Incredibles, though films in the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises had already established the forms of the genre. I wondered if Incredibles 2 would have much to say about the increasing popularity and presence of superhero films. Really, though, Incredibles 2 isn't concerned with that. Much like the original film, the major thematic focus is on raising a family.

  • All that said, Incredibles 2 isn't a great film or transcendent like the best of Pixar. For me, it isn't a film that puts the studio back on top. It is, however, incredibly fun. When it is an action focused superhero film, it really zooms.

  • The thematic ground that the film covers is important and interesting within the narrative, but it makes the film feel super stuffed. There is so much going on, core characters are separated for large sections of the film, every character gets their own subplot which leaves them underwhelming or undercooked [looking at you, Tony Rydinger].

  • When Elastigirl is first recruited for a crime-fighting gig instead of Mr. Incredible, his disappointment is a bit overplayed -- I can see the character being offended that he isn't the first hero chosen, but to be so indignant toward his wife didn't seem right. This leads to the "Mr. Mom" narrative, which is definitely a lot of fun -- and a little scary as a soon-to-be father.

  • Meanwhile, Ellen finds an ally in Evelyn, the sister of her new benefactor and the brains behind the operation. Evelyn, like Elastigirl, is unsung, in the background compared to their male counterparts, even though they have greater claims on glory.

  • In the past few years of superhero films, a major trend has emerged: villains, though bad and needing to be stopped, have a point. Incredibles 2 tries to get there but the messages of the big bad are completely jumbled through misdirections and twists. Without giving too much away, the mystery centered around Screenslaver is pretty easy to suss out early on. This takes a lot away from the surprise and the important messages that a certain character [both the villain and the alter-ego] make.

  • There are two big improvements from The Incredibles. The simplest is the animation, which has taken a big step forward over the long 14 years -- Pixar has figured out how human mouths move. The more interesting improvement is in introducing a number of new super-powered characters with cool and creative powers.

  • The highlight among the new characters is Voyd [voiced by Sophia Bush], a super-fan of Elastigirl who has the power to create portals that matter can pass through -- it is basically the premise of the video game Portal with a bit of Doctor Strange mixed in. The visual of her power is really amazing. I can't imagine a live-action film being able to nail this power with as much clarity while maintaining its quickness. Other new characters include a guy who can crush things with his mind [but don't ask him to un-crush them] and an old man who vomits lava.

  • Elastigirl, as the plot suggests, gets more to do throughout and the breadth of her powers are also pretty great. A sequence where she stops a runaway train on a modified motorcycle that compliments her powers in a particularly clever way is another example that the film is at its best in pure action sequences.

  • Jack-Jack isn't a new character technically, though Incredibles 2 gives him much more of a direct impact on the narrative. His variety of powers offer a lot of entertaining hijincks. I was confused by his family's reaction to gaining his abilities, though, as they are unveiled in the finale of the original -- I could definitely be missing something here.

  • The screening opened with a short message from the actors, similar to other blockbusters thanking fans for coming out to see the film on the big screen. Strangely, this one acted more as an apology than a thank you, which was a weird tone to set. It tried to come across as a highlight of the hard work of so many people over the past 14 years, but I wish this message was hit harder.

  • Like all Pixar theatrical releases, the presentation opened with a short film, Bao, directed by Domee Shi. This was one of Pixar's best shorts, a beautiful, emotionally resonant, and surprising story of parenting and letting go. Strangely enough, this is thematic ground also covered in Incredibles 2, but told infinitely better. Incredibles 2 is fun enough to warrant a trip to the theater, Bao is worth the price of admission in itself.

File Under 2018 #71: American Animals


What it's about: Warren Lipka [Evan Peters] is a college student at the University of Kentucky on an athletic scholarship that is a bit of a bad apple. After hearing about a collection of rare books worth millions from his friend Spencer [Barry Keoghan], the two hatch a plan for a heist. They enlist two other college friends [Eric, the brains, and Chase, the rich getaway driver] and put together the logistics for this complicated job. In order to pull it off, they'll have to do it in plain sight, under heavy security, and they might have to hurt someone. And it'll only get more difficult once they have their treasure out.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Director Bart Layton made a splash with his debut in 2012 with the twisty, insane documentary The Imposter. Doc filmmakers don't typically jump into narrative feature films, but the incredible story of The Imposter showed Layton could weave an excellent tale [I remember hearing about the film being remade as a narrative but I guess that never got traction]. I was curious if this stylish heist film would be a good fit for his transition.

  • Turns out, it wasn't much of a transition, as despite not being marketed as such American Animals is an intriguing blend of documentary and narrative film forms. Very early into the movie, a voice-over is heard and then the movie cuts to a traditional talking head of someone identified as the "true" version of the character. Throughout American Animals, the story is told by the people who lived it, including the four young men at the center of the heist, their families, and those who knew them.

  • The talking heads have two basic purposes: to unfold the story through their recollections and to fill in the narrative with their inner-thoughts, motivations, etc. which helps inform the film's themes.

  • This creates a very strange, though not entirely unique movie. It's balance of documentary and recreation is something like the inverse of Errol Morris's 2017 Netflix mini-series Wormwood, which was primarily a documentary with splashes of narrative filmmaking sprinkled in. A majority of American Animals is the core narrative story, but the talking heads prove to be an important guide and Layton uses them for entertaining and cross-genre effect.

  • The documentary form gives the narrative a more performative breaking of the line between supposed reality and fiction. Most "based on true events" films are told at a distance but in a way that tries to grab something real -- many of these films go to the lengths of telling the audience that no matter the crazy things that are going to happen, please believe this is a true story. Here, it is never really a question that the story taking place is a version of the story as these individuals lived it.

  • In fact, the film liberally plays with the inconsistencies in memory and story. The narrators occasionally break into the story to refute or revise what is shown. There are even moments when the true versions come into the narrative -- the first is a funny, self-referential beat where Evan Peters asks his real life counter-part if this is how the moment actually went down, the second instance is even a bit haunting, like a sad warning from a future self.

  • The real versions of the characters are truly characters themselves. American Animals wouldn't be nearly as purely entertaining with their commentary. Through the editing of their talking head segments, they interact with each other, showing their personalities through their individual recollections of their stories.

  • The actors are extraordinarily cast. Not only are they fine young actors, but they match their real-life counterparts incredibly well. One of the worst cliches of true-life stories is how they end with photographs of the real people being played -- this is supposed to remind us that this is a real story but usually the first response is something like "Ben Affleck is supposed to be *that* guy?" Here, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson are all convincing versions of Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric. Peters gets the highest marks for both a really good performance and a very good match to Warren, who has the same strange energy in his interview.

  • Near the end of the film, there is a revelation that maybe we're not supposed to believe the story of one of its storytellers. This is a really interesting idea and plays well within the way American Animals is explicitly told, but it is pretty undercooked. It might be enough to raise an eyebrow but doesn't really hold any actual stakes. If Layton had made a pure documentary with this story, I imagine this final takeaway would have been a bigger key to the story.

  • As for the narrative side of the film, which I haven't talked much about, it is fine. The heist set-up is pretty standard heist film fun and there is plenty of tension when the heist is actually going down -- interestingly, the narrators go away for this large section of the film, which does give it a more cinematic feel. A different version of American Animals could have probably sustained itself going through the numbers. This version is definitely given an added spark because of the way it is told. It is a notable and worthy gimmick.

File Under 2018 #70: An Ordinary Man


What it's about: An unnamed General [Ben Kingsley] is hiding out in a small apartment following the Yugoslavia civil war. The General is suspected of countless atrocities against his own people, now a fugitive hiding in plain sight. He slowly passes his days playing table tennis against himself and risking his safety by walking down to a small shop to buy some vegetables. One day a young woman walks through his door, the maid of the apartment's former occupant. Though the General doesn't immediately trust the woman, he offers to buy her out, giving him some contact with the world again. Their relationship blossoms as his security is in increasing danger.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • An Ordinary Man is primarily a two-hander, with long stretches of the film focuses on the General and Tanja, keeping them away from the world in his small apartment. I typically tend to appreciate these kinds of films because they can focus solely on character and relationship. As is the case with most two-hander films, An Ordinary Man is small and intimate among a giant backdrop. The film unfortunately doesn't use the Yugoslavia Civil War story particularly effectively in a few different ways and that hurts the narrative impact of its characters.

  • The tone of the film is pretty difficult to take. The General is supposed to be feared, condemned for the horrible war crimes he committed, but he also comes off as the cool 90s-era cinematic gangster -- like Kingsley's turn as Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Kingsley is so damned charismatic that this is hard to avoid.

  • Across from Kingsley is Icelandic born actress Hera Hilmar, who is up to the task of carrying the film with her iconic co-star. There is something both mysterious and innocent about her presence as soon as she comes into the film, which is paid off in an interesting way.

  • The scene where the General and Tanja meet is the film's best but also its most complicated. The film takes on a literal male gaze as the General orders Tanja to strip down [to prove she isn't a hired assassin come to get him] and both he and the camera leer at her body. Perhaps appropriately, it is one of the only times in the film where the General behaves like a villain.

  • Purposefully keeping the General without a name comes off as cutesy, which I don't think was the intended purpose.

  • This is one of those films where British accents stand in for foreign ones, which I usually have no problem with, but it creates a strange disconnect. The actors come off as tourists in the civil war backdrop of the story. It actually took me a while to realize that the General wasn't hiding out in a small British town, which screwed with the stakes of his precarious situation.

  • An Ordinary Man eventually becomes a redemption story. But should someone who has done the things the film tells be able to find redemption? Should the character be relatable or light hearted? If the film were more dramatically dynamic or serious in its tone, perhaps there could be some sort of profound arc.

  • As the film moves into its second half, after specific character revelations change the dynamic between the core relationship, it becomes strangely stale. While the General and Tanja's introduction may have been problematic, there was a narrative spark to watching these two disparate characters build a relationship. An Ordinary Man becomes less entertaining as it tries to have more resonance.

File Under 2018 #69: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

What it's about: Fred Rogers created, produced, and starred in the public broadcasting series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for 31 seasons, 912 episodes in total. An ordained minister, Rogers spread his simple messages of love, kindness, and self-worth to children across the country through the television screen. But he also used his platform to teach children about emotionally complex issues like race, divorce, and death in a sensitive way. His legacy has lived on in the hearts and minds of all who grew up with him as their guiding light, even as the media landscape and world at large seems to value his spirit less and less.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Though I'm well within the age range of someone who grew up with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, it wasn't a program I remember watching regularly -- I was more into action cartoons and Nickelodeon game shows, the kind of content Rogers wasn't a big fan of [I turned out OK]. Of course, his influence has become much bigger than the show, a genuine cultural touchstone. Still, I was interested in watching Won't You Be My Neighbor? as someone who doesn't have an emotional connection to him, knowing that those who do have responded incredibly well to the film. Would I be struck in the same way without the nostalgia?

  • Mostly, yes. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is an extraordinarily well made documentary. It is exceptionally edited. It features a fantastically moving score. The footage, including episodes of the show, archival interviews, and behind-the-scenes, creates a real intimate base.

  • Morgan Neville is entrenched as one of the best documentarians working today, but I've never loved one of his films. To me, they all have limitations because of his style. 20 Feet from Stardom [which won an Oscar], for example, is a great and moving profile of artists that don't get recognition, but it is a piece of pop filmmaking -- Neville doesn't typically do anything interesting with the form and uses a very mainstream approach. This isn't bad, the docs I tend to really fall for have a sharper edge. Ultimately, this style works for a loving profile of a man with little controversy. In fact, when the film brushes up against potential conflict, it doesn't quite fit.

  • I'm not sure how better it would have made Won't You Be My Neighbor?, if it should have at all, but it pulls away from three potentially difficult aspects of Rogers' life: the conservative media retroactively bashing his message that every child is special, Rogers asking an employee to stay in the closet, and rumors about Rogers' own sexual orientation [and, to a lesser extent, if he was really this kind of man away from the cameras]. It is undoubtedly important to touch on these aspects of his story in order to avoid being a total puff piece, but they come in so late in the film and feel pretty unresolved questions.

  • Similarly, Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't spend all that much time and focus on any one topic or issue. It ultimately works out fine as a pastiche of his message.

  • The most effective footage used in the film are a few unidentified interviews with Rogers late in his career. Unsurprisingly, Rogers gives perfect context to his message and his work. His passion really comes across. It must have made Neville's work in building the themes of the film incredibly easy.

  • Of the various talking heads that pop up, the most insightful are a few who worked on the show, as they knew how the man worked the most and have plenty of fun stories. One particular gem is a man who worked on the exclusively 70s-style hippie crew, people who couldn't be more different from Rogers in terms of politics, style, or mentality. The love between them, though, built strong quickly and Rogers wasn't so out of place with the rough-and-tumble crew based on some of the stories that are shared.

  • One nice touch I really liked is adding cards with episode numbers and premiere dates before notable moments from the show. Neville doesn't over-use it, either.

  • Won't You Be My Neighbor? is undeniably at its best simply watching Rogers. Seeing him interact with children, seeing the landmark moments of his show, seeing him have fun or be serious. It is a really tender portrait. I loved the man without knowing all that much about him, really. When the film strives to make bigger cultural points, it does so concisely and compellingly. But the biggest joys of Won't You Be My Neighbor? are the simple ones.