Movies: Vice

Honestly, I didn’t know half of what this movie told me. I mean, I knew Dick Cheney was, well, a dick. Unapologetic and shady. But the way he laid the groundwork for our nation to nosedive the way it has? I had no idea.

Not that I’m surprised either.

I won’t say I’m any big fan of Adam McKay films. I like them okay—Moneyball, The Big Short—but they usually feel like lessons. Which I think is kind of the point. McKay wants to teach us things, and he’s looking for interesting ways to do that… I think? And I don’t mind that aspect at all. So I have to wonder why his movies are just okay for me. Is it because I don’t find the actual subjects that interesting? Is it because his sense of humor doesn’t entirely align with mine? Or that I feel like I’m being talked down to a bit?

So… yeah. This is a good movie, and informative. I can definitely see why it won makeup awards, and why Bale took home an Academy Award. But as with other McKay movies, I still walked away with a bit of a shrug.

And yet… Maybe because I do pay attention to politics now (and baseball and mortgages don’t particularly interest me), I was also quite amazed by how much damage and undermining Cheney managed to do and get away with. How many loopholes he sniffed out and exploited that, to this day, are being stretched to fit as many of these assholes through as possible. If nothing else, Vice is a call for major political reform.

It’s a little long and jumps around a bit; I found myself skimming Wikipedia partway through to get an understanding of the timeline. But also I’d been drinking wine, so maybe my issues were not universal.

Do I recommend it? Sure, to people with interest in politics and/or a hatred of Republicans. In case you needed fuel for that fire. I mean, Vice is entertaining in its own right, but… I wouldn’t say it’s entertaining enough for just the average, indifferent viewer to sit through and enjoy.

Movies: Captain Marvel

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, four cats
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenplay by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Marvel/Disney, 2019
PG-13; 124 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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First, a little housekeeping: sorry I’ve been absent. I had abdominal surgery last Thursday and am only now to the point where I can sit up for any length of time.

Okay, now this movie. I really didn’t care for the first, oh, twenty minutes or so, though I understand why they were necessary. But I sat through those minutes thinking I’d made a terrible mistake. For me, it really wasn’t until Vers/Carol/Captain Marvel reached Earth that things got interesting.

An overview (no spoilers): During a mission, Kree warrior Vers is captured by the Skrull and ends up on Earth. So do the Skrull, so now she must save the world from them and find a way home. Things get complicated when Nick Fury arrives at the site of Vers’ crash landing.

All this is set in… 1995(?) btw.

I loved, loved, loved seeing Nick Fury get some real screen time, and Jackson and Larson work well together. I also really liked Ben Mendelsohn in this, and I felt the comedy in this movie was well done and balanced the action nicely. Plus, great soundtrack.

One thing that’s really just a personal issue: to me Brie Larson looked a bit like Pam from The Office (Jenna Fischer)? I found that weirdly distracting.

I also didn’t find any of the twists to be very surprising. That + the somewhat dull start to the movie is the reason I shaved a little starlight off my rating. But not much because the rest of the film more than makes up for its shortcomings. That is to say, even with the minor problems, this is better than pretty much every other Marvel movie I’ve seen.

Should Streaming Movies be Oscar Eligible?

When I saw Steven Spielberg was a streaming topic on Twitter, I worried. I’m at that age, after all, when my idols are aging and dying off. But as it turns out, the chatter is just about how Spielberg plans to push an anti-Netflix agenda at the next Academy board meeting.

The question on the table: What should be the basic minimum requirements for a film to be eligible for an Oscar?

To be fair, the rules were originally made when the world of film could not conceive of streaming, and when the distribution channel was one clear tunnel of release in cinemas, then release on video (once video was a thing), then show some edited version on television (until movie channels came along and did not require ADR to mask the curse words). Now movies can be released in cinemas and on streaming simultaneously.

So maybe the deeper question is: What makes a movie a movie?

That may sound weird, but bear with me. We’ve long had a division between film and television. Movies that show on television are called television movies, just to differentiate. And television movies can win Emmys but not Oscars.

So is a movie a movie because it shows in a cinema? What if it only shows once? What if it shows in a cinema and on television at the same time? These are the questions the Academy needs to address.

And a large portion of the argument comes down to politics. Campaign finance to be precise. In this instance, it’s the fact that Netflix has a ton of money to throw into campaigning for films like Roma. Netflix can buy a few cinema screens outside of the usual distribution channels and therefore meet a bare minimum requirement that allows its films to qualify for an Oscar. So… should there be a cap on what can be spent on campaigning?

Another bone of contention is that Roma only spent three weeks in cinemas before moving to Netflix streaming. Should the Academy demand a longer period between theatrical and streaming?

It’s all a matter of opinion and perspective. I haven’t seen Roma, though I’m sure, based on all the enthusiastic feedback, that it is a lovely film. However, I’m inclined to agree that there should be more definitive guidelines regarding what is Oscar eligible. I don’t think of Netflix as a film studio. I don’t think of Amazon as one either. Or Hulu. And maybe I’m old-fashioned in that. I honestly don’t know.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are bringing out content very different from all the superheroes the studios keep churning out. They’re making quality products. But… Are they movies? Or television movies?

Used to be, movies were either made to be shown in cinemas or made to be shown on television. The processes themselves were different. The quality of the film, the aspect ratios—different. Now people have televisions that are almost as large as movie screens. Now the quality of what’s being made for television is as good or better than what’s being made for cinemas. Everything is blurred.

There’s a certain amount of snobbery involved, too, of course. We can accept that FOX studios decided to have a television channel. We have a harder time thinking of Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu—all of which started out showing second-hand content on television—as a legitimate film studio. I mean, if HBO produced a movie and sent it to cinemas for a couple weeks then aired it on their own channel… Would it be up for Oscars or Emmys? Both?

It’s a knotty problem and one I don’t have an answer to. While I’m inclined to agree with Steven Spielberg, the bottom line is the Academy has to lay out some very clear criteria. A lot of it will look and feel arbitrary because it pretty much is. But without lines and guardrails on these roads, the situation is headed for a crash.

Movies: Searching

Here is a little film that I’m so glad I stumbled across. John Cho plays David Kim, a single father forced to delve into his teen daughter’s social media life when she goes missing. This is a movie for the digital, short-attention-span era. It mimics our online lives by making it all so familiar: text messaging, logging into things, checking email. That may make this sound dull, but it’s not at all. It’s the unraveling of a mystery as the audience nods in agreement: Yes, that’s what I’d do, too.

One must ignore some of the obvious issues, such as the fact a police detective would not leave it to a family member to search for clues and reach out to people. However, if you’re able to overlook these weaknesses, the overall experience is a good one. The film moves quickly, with many blind turns to keep it interesting.

I learned about Searching from Lessons From the Screenplay, which covers the way the writers had to create new formats for writing all the digital content. If you’re interested, the video is here. You may want to watch the movie first, though, if you don’t want a few things spoiled. (Though having watched Lessons first did not ruin the movie for me at all.)

This is a film I can wholly recommend. Well worth the time.

Movies: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy is an actress I feel I would enjoy as a person, and as an actress in general, except that she tends to star in the kinds of movies I don’t like at all, by which I mean raunchy comedies. I’m not a bathroom humor kind of girl. I did see that Ghostbusters remake, however. It wasn’t anything special in my book, but it wasn’t as terrible as everyone made it out to be (in my opinion, though perhaps my nearly nil expectations made it easy for the movie to surpass them).

I say all this as preface to the fact that I think McCarthy does a very fine job here in a dark dramedy. In CYEFM, she portrays Lee Israel, an author-turned-forger. This is based on a true story, mind. Israel had been a biographer who, in the 90s, couldn’t seem to keep up with trends. In desperation, she turned to creating fake letters supposedly written by famous people. After being caught, she went on to write the book this film is based on.

Did I enjoy this movie? Actually, it incited quite a bit of anxiety in me, mostly because there is a pet cat being semi-neglected. What’s remarkable, though, and worth admiring is the way McCarthy makes Israel both unlikable and still sympathetic. I know the writing and directing have something to do with that, too, but the result inhabits that very tenuous space, which is a requirement to pull the movie off at all.

Likewise, Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner in crime Jack is equally spot on.

CYEFM is well done. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a “good” movie because that would depend upon your personal criteria, but it is well written, well directed, and well acted. It’s a movie that will probably stay with me longer than the typical popcorn flick. If you count any of those things as “good,” then this fits the bill.

Movie: Bohemian Rhapsody

I like the music of Queen, and I find Freddie Mercury a very interesting person. What I’d really like to do right now is dig up a good biography of him because this movie… falls short.

Bohemian Rhapsody skims the surface of the formation and rise to fame of Queen, with a focus on Mercury. Yet that focus does not delve, and what the movie mostly serves up is a series of vignettes about how some of their best-known songs were conceived. That’s fine, I suppose, and there are some great musical moments, but it doesn’t do much to create tension.

From what I can tell, they tried to manufacture some tension by:

  • showing some record execs that didn’t believe “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be a hit
  • showing Freddie being in love with Mary, even slightly jealous about her falling in love with someone else and having a baby… except that really wasn’t explored very much
  • showing Freddie partying hard while the rest of the band wanted to go home to their families (in, like, one or two scenes)
  • showing Freddie often being late for things
  • showing Freddie being offered a solo contract and the band reacting badly
  • showing Freddie breaking the news of his illness to the band

None of the above is deeply examined by the movie; each is a mere plot point in what really is just a kind of film timeline of events. And timelines aren’t all that interesting to watch.

Nor is this timeline accurate. I won’t bother to list it all here; Wikipedia has done it for me. And while Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the first (or last) movie to play fast and loose with the truth, the fact that it does so in order to up the tension—and yet the tension remains nil—is part of what makes the film fail in my eyes.

Yet I know many who love this movie. And I will say the actors do a tremendous job with what they’re given. I was a teensy bit distracted by Malek’s false teeth at first, but I got used to them as the film went on. Yet, despite that toothiness, I’d say this movie is largely toothless.

Movies: The Favourite

Political intrigue. Backstabbing. Sex. And big costumes. What more could anyone want from a film?

The Favourite is a take on Queen Anne of Britain’s (r. 1707-1714) relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail [Hill] Masham. While most historians believe that Anne was not a lesbian, this film depicts otherwise. I don’t know if this is simply to titillate the viewers or to create a fulcrum of tension, but I guess it’s entertaining anyway.

Sarah is Anne’s right-hand lady-in-waiting, and she’s taken it on herself to issue orders not only in the Queen’s stead, but to the Queen directly as well! One wonders why Anne would have allowed someone to behave in such a way towards her, but Olivia Colman’s portrayal is wonderfully nuanced. In this take, Anne is insecure as well as ill and leans on the more forceful Sarah for support. Sarah accepts this responsibility—indeed, she nurses Anne’s self-doubts by undercutting her confidence, all the while saying it proves she is a true friend because she will not lie to make Anne feel better. Well, this may be accurate to some extent, but there are ways to be truthful and kind. Sarah is not the latter.

Along comes Abigail, who is kind, and who learns at the hand of Sarah how to also be false. You can see where this is going.

What’s interesting to watch is the way the scales tip as the movie goes on. At first Sarah is the clear villain, but then she becomes the victim of Abigail’s growing ambition. Did she get what she deserved? The real casualty here is, of course, poor Anne, who loses a dear friend (and, in this version, lover). Again, one wonders however whether she is better off without Sarah as her shield/crutch.

So is the movie as good as the hype? I enjoyed it very much, though felt it was gratuitous in some places. Well, costume dramas often can be. And I loved the bunnies. Colman definitely merits the accolades she’s received, and I’d give Weisz an edge over Stone, but both are very good in this film. It helps to know a bit of the political history in order to follow the plot, but even if you don’t, you can get the gist of things. Overall, if asked to give a star rating, I’d say 4.5.

Movies: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Voices by: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (screenplay); Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Matthew Fogel (story)
Warner Bros., 2019
PG; 106 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)

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I’ve often said that the real problem with making an excellent movie (or television show, or writing an excellent book) is that it sets an expectation for everything after to be at least as good or better. And that level of excellence is impossible to sustain. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a saying for a reason.

Hollywood, however, has zero sense of going out while on top. It likes to run franchises into the ground, eking out every last bit of money from movie goers. In fact, even when things are terrible, it will keep making more of them if people keep paying to see them.

Don’t be afraid. The second Lego movie is not terrible. It’s just not as good as the first one, and that’s not at all surprising. The first one was fresh and unexpected. This one had a lot—perhaps too much—to live up to.

If you recall the end of the first film, little sister and her Duplo blocks had invaded Bricksburg. This movie picks up five years later and tackles the theme of growing up, losing one’s imagination, and sibling rivals. It’s a lot to pack in. But basically, Bianca (that’s the sister) takes some of Finn’s (that’s the brother) Legos and he goes on a quest to get them back. This quest takes the shape of Emmet having to rescue his abducted friends.

That’s as much as I’ll tell you; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. I will say there are a number of references (such as new character Rex being billed as a “raptor trainer” a la Chris Pratt’s Owen in the Jurassic World franchise… Oh, and yes, there are raptors).

Bottom line is that I did laugh a few times, and I did find the movie super cute. But it also felt like it was trying a little too hard in its themes, leaning a little too much on the music, and it just doesn’t breathe. The new characters aren’t given much development, and the familiar ones are too one-note here.

Still, my kids loved it, and they came home and *gasp* went to play Legos together. So… that’s a win.

Movie: Abducted in Plain Sight

Okay, I don’t want to make these people feel any worse than they already do, and as the old saying goes, “Times were different then,” but geez.

This documentary is about a woman named Jan who, as a little girl, was abducted and sexual abused by a family friend—twice. The friend’s name was Robert, but everyone refers to him as “B” (for “Bob,” I think). B set up a long con that involved seducing Jan’s mother and also tricking Jan’s father into some homosexual situations… That right there leaves you to wonder, doesn’t it? That and the fact that B also convinced the parents to let him sleep in Jan’s bed as part of some ongoing “therapy” he was going through? I can’t imagine any circumstance—any friendship strong enough—that I’d let a grown man (or anyone, for that matter) sleep in my daughter’s bed. So, you know, it’s really difficult to not just yell at your television while watching this: “What are you thinking? How stupid are you?”

Now, they insist B was a master manipulator, super charming. Proof of this is provided in the fact he was a great car salesman, I guess? And not having been there, in these people’s shoes, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But the documentary does little to help that. The parents, in interviews, give limp excuses and explanations for their actions. An FBI agent calls them “naive,” which feels like an insane understatement. I’d say there’s a mixture of naiveté and just utter lack of judgement. Like, complete inability to accurately judge character. And/or a huge helping of denial. After all, no one wants to believe a family friend is preying on one’s child. But where were the protective instincts? Apparently they had none?

I will say that B clearly planned things out. He created an entire story to compel Jan’s cooperation and silence. In that much, he really was a master manipulator.

This documentary is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. It left me with a sense of disbelief and “what just happened?” I feel for Jan and her family; their pain is clear and evident in their interviews. What a wreckage. No matter how naive, no one deserves what was done to them. I’m glad they’ve been able to unburden, even if it was difficult for them to step up and speak out, knowing how the world might judge them in kind. Good on them for their courage.

Movies: Fyre Fraud

Okay, so this is the documentary about the Fyre Festival that’s on Hulu. (I wrote about the Netflix one a couple posts back; scroll down to read it if you’re interested.)

Again, a short recap of what the Fyre Festival was intended to be: a major, exclusive music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. What it actually was: a horrendous mess. Billy McFarland helmed the whole thing, the idea being that this festival would bring attention to the Fyre app he had developed (with Ja Rule). But McFarland is a compulsive liar and scammer who comes up with big ideas, gets people to pour money into them, and then the ideas go nowhere. So after creating a cool viral video advertising everything Fyre Festival was going to be, and after getting many “social media influencers” (because that’s a job title now, apparently) to tweet or post on Instagram or whatever, he sold a ton of expensive tickets to this event that had zero planning behind it. He made promises of villas and yachts and getting to hang out with models and musicians, but he couldn’t back any of these up with, you know, reality.

Things got really bad when McFarland basically began making up numbers about how much money they already had, thus encouraging more investors to toss cash in the pot. That’s where the “fraud” part comes in.

Fyre Fraud has a bit of an edge over the Netflix documentary because it actually features an interview with McFarland, and we get to watch him (a) make up lies on the spot, and (b) squirm when he can’t lie his way out of the questions being asked. This film also talks to some of those social media influencers, the self-centered little do-nothings whose whole “jobs” are to… exist? Tell people their opinions? This is definitely the one to watch if you’re a little older and hate millennials. (For the record, I don’t hate them, but many seem to think the best way to contribute to the world is to film themselves constantly, as though the world is simply waiting to get a glimpse or hear what they have to say. Blame the technology, I guess—YouTube, Instagram, etc.—but I think there’s some fault in them, too. The need for perpetual attention and validation is a kind of illness, and they would benefit from a social media diet.)

That said, the other documentary interviewed a wider variety of people and looked more closely at the people trying to make the festival happen, while this one focused on McFarland’s fraud, hence the title. So watching both is not entirely redundant. In fact, I’d certainly start with the Netflix one as a base of information. But Fyre Fraud is a bit more laughable, so it’s a good way to finish off the pair. Think of one as the wine you drink with your main course and the other as a dessert wine. Different, but all part of the bigger meal.