The Hot Blog Archive for October, 2019

AppleTV+ Lands…

So, tomorrow is arrival day for AppleTV+. And Apple is doing everything right… except for delivering on content.

“The Morning Show” has been the stalking horse, with TV superstar Jennifer Aniston, Oscar-winning movie star Reese Witherspoon, and the well-loved crossover star, Steve Carell.

And they should have thrown away the first two episodes and started from scratch.

I don’t know about the drama of production and I don’t really care. Nor will any non-industry viewer. What people care about is the show. And what they get is, mostly, confused. Some shows take time to evolve. This has become the norm on PayTV, Netflix included. “Watch three or four and then it gets really good.”

The problem with “The Morning Show” is that the show starts by folding in on itself. The Carell character, as you have no doubt heard or seen if you are reading this, is accused of sexual malfeasance right away. And unless the first season is about him coming back, there is nowhere to go with this. And that does not seem to be where the show is going, as the next big story beat is the arrival of Reese Witherspoon’s character, who will replace Carell on the morning show. Her angle is the fish out of water. Meanwhile, the center is Aniston’s veteran morning star… who is seen as being on the way out as well.

The show is, allegedly, based on and reflective of Brian Stelter’s book about the real morning shows, but very little seems remotely realistic. It’s as though they took real-life characters and incidents and put them in a blender.

For instance, Mark Duplass’ morning show producer seems to be a riff on the guy from Live with Regis and Kelly (or whatever it is now… and the guy’s name is Gelman), who is a throw rug for his stars and network. But is the producer of the top-rated morning show really that weak?

Episode 3 shows more promise. There is the first truly great sequence of the series, with Marty Short guesting as a pal of Carell’s character. But even after their intense conversation about #MeToo, it leaves me wondering where this is going, and not in the good way.

Episode 3 also lays down track for the romantic relationship that seems likely to come near the end of season one. And Aniston’s character has taken, since episode two, a real take charge attitude, which seems excessive and unlikely to stick as her new partner on air (Witherspoon) will surely overcome complete inexperience to be the more popular of the duo. And Carell seems getting set to take a second fall before the season ends.

But this three-episode launch is a mess and leans heavily on the fact that we so like these three actors. If the show gets better, they should be starting with more than three.

“Dickinson” is either the best-timed or the worst=timed gimmick series ever. It’s like someone saw that Greta Gerwig was doing Little Women and rushed this into production to take advantage. It’s iconoclastic Emily Dickinson, acting like a bright young woman in this era stuck in the past. There’s rap music. There’s open cursing. There’s a gay Asian kid. There’s opium. There’s cunnilingus!

“She’s insane!” “Of course she’s insane… she’s Emily Dickinson!”


Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it drama? Who knows? It’s a mélange of wacky 1850s fun! By Episode 5, I expected them to have the kids start a band, adopt a talking cat, and use brief clips of their groovy music as a bumper between every scene.

Maybe “the kids’ will love this show. Anything is possible. They love “Riverdale.” The cast is young and sexy and deliver quality TV acting. Great costumes. Oy.

“Servant” is the most interesting of the eight launch shows. M. Night Shyamalan to the core, it is a high-concept thriller with an intriguing central idea. Problem is, it feels like it should have been over after an hour, maybe two.

I greedily watched the four episodes that were available, anxious to get to the answers that would come (many don’t arrive in those four episodes). The first episode sets things up, using the full 35 minutes to do so. The second episode deepens the side characters and adds more questions to the leads. Episode three, more more more. And episode four starts a turn that seems likely to dominate the next few episodes.

You know the old saw that works expand to justify the time one has to do it? This feels like that. A movie that feels free to go really, really slow and to linger on everything, when it is not necessary dramatically. I am both a fan of the show and irritated by the show for that reason. Acting is strong. Lauren Ambrose is particularly strong, playing an apparently mentally ill mother while we also get to see her public image as a TV newsperson and the split between the two sides of this woman are a joy to watch. Toby Kebbell doesn’t get a ton to do besides be moody, but he does it well. Rupert Grint may finally have the career-changing role he’s been looking for. Terrific. And Nell Tiger Free, who I don’t recognize from “Game of Thrones,” but was there, is perfect so far as the mysterious nanny.

Food is a theme, as the lead male is a chef and consultant. But mostly, it seems to be a kink. At least until we find out that it’s not in the penultimate episode.

“Servant” and “Dickinson,” feel like shows that might work well for Netflix. So they may work out great for AppleTV+.

I have more serious disconnections with the three other series on offer at AppleTV+, “For All Mankind,” “SEE,” and “Truth Be Told.” They are all perfectly well-made TV. But that is the low bar. All of the shows being made by all of these companies are beyond competent.

“For All Mankind” is an odd hybrid of history and drama and projection that demands a level of granular attention to care about the material. It’s like every NASA movie you have seen, but cleaner, less gritty, and on the whole, less focused. There is a legitimate chance that this is going to connect with a loving core like other Ronald D. Moore shows. I was never onboard with “Battlestar Galactica” (2004 – 2009), although I spent time on that set and tried to catch up. Whatever was beloved about that show, I didn’t get. On the other hand, I found “Outlander” very accessible, even with its complications. I didn’t watch every episode. But when I dipped into the early seasons, it was clear and accessible. I was with those characters instantly.

“SEE” just drove me nuts. A show about everyone in the world being blind… but the most vivid photography and a level of action that made no sense at all to me. When blindness came up, it seemed like a manipulative gimmick every single time. But again, I can’t say that my taste is a match with the very passionate audience base for action dramas like this. Every scene is just a series of people who seem to be pretending to be blind by looking away from everyone else, except when they are fighting.

“Truth Be Told” grabbed me in the first episode. I love the cast. The idea of a crime podcaster reconsidering her role in defining the lives of others. Great.

But it got weird for me quickly. There is something naturally conflictual about listening to someone tell a story and the series then showing the story. The longer this weird combination continued, the blurrier it got. In great part, this was an issue of there being such a thin line between the story telling and the real life of the show drama. I get that no one watches TV to listen to radio. But after a while, every scene feels like a series of scenes and not a sharply defined part of a whole.

Again, performances are quite good. Aaron Paul is as good as I have ever seen him outside of Jesse Pinkman. Elizabeth Perkins has big moments. Lizzy Caplan as twins!!! Actors like Tracie Thoms, Michael Beach and Ron Cephas Jones who I never get enough of. And Octavia Spencer has more than enough juice to hold it all together.

But like other AppleTV+ shows, it feels like the freedom of the form led to an overreach of that freedom. Maybe it will seem different in a complete context of a season. But for now, a few episodes in, I tend to bail out on shows like these.

AppleTV+ also offers three movies—we’re calling these “movies,” right? The Elephant Queen is a charming wildlife documentary with highs and lows, life and death… if it sounds good to you, you are sure to like it a lot.

Hala is a Sundance pick-up from young filmmaker Minhal Baig. Very Sundance.

And The Banker is a Sam Jackson-Anthony Mackie-Nicholas Hoult movie, directed by George Nolfi, best known as a screenwriter. Good tale. Based on a real story. Two mismatched black men try to build a real estate empire in Los Angeles, but were thwarted by open racism, so they bring on a white guy to front them.

It’s not a world-beater, but it is the kind of movie you run into flipping through channels on a weekend afternoon and enjoy a lot more than you would expect.

And that is the AppleTV+ line-up.

What’s odd is that it is a lot of content to push out all at once for a new distributor. On the other hand, its dwarfed by all the other new streamers rolling out in November and next spring.

Whatever your tastes – assuming they are not exclusively for high art – you are likely to enjoy a some of these new shows. And there will be more. But this is really a quiet launch.

I don’t think that Apple is going to be in the TV business for long, really. There are theories about them buying Netflix and that is possible, if Netflix’s stock price keeps dropping. But if that doesn’t happen, AppleTV+ is the weakest entrant in this field. Even taking away the original content on Amazon Prime, there is a deep enough licensed library of content to make it a place where most viewers would spend more time than here. And there is no “Mrs. Maisel” or “Handmaid’s Tale” or “House of Cards” in this batch. Just isn’t. “The Morning Show” could become one, but they have to find their focus and stick with it before I can make that leap.


Strategy Session: Getting Out Of The Way

The two titles that seem to be mortal locks for Best Picture nominations at this point are Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood and The Irishman.

Critics are on board. The Tarantino was a significant commercial hit and The Scorsese has pushed aside commerciality as a consideration by going to Netflix without a traditional theatrical window.

But playing from ahead can be more difficult than playing from behind, especially if your goal is a win and not just a participation trophy (aka, a bunch of nominations with few or no wins).

Obviously, once nominated, everyone wants to win, no matter how unlikely. But… sanity tends to roll up eventually.

This season, both of these front-running movies have an undercurrent t0 contend with… male privilege. I am not a believer that a filmmaker is obliged to make their films about other genders or races or political perspectives to be legitimate. And in both cases, these are period films with very specific perspectives.

In The Irishman, the most significant female character is The Daughter, who is nearly silent, and represents her father’s shame. It’s not a spoiler to say that the perspective of the film is the Irishman’s, so the sadness he feels about his daughter’s view of him doesn’t require words.

In Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, the Sharon Tate character’s relative silence is a strength. It’s an idealized view of Tate and some say that she is narrowed into being an object. But that is more a political analysis than a cinematic one. Her character is an ideal, and even in her private moments, she represents an image of a perceived moment of perfection in one’s life (albeit fake), where nothing can go wrong. Margot Robbie gives a great performance as the embodiment of sunshine, even while pregnant, as she lives this moment in an actor’s life, reflected in DiCaprio’s character feeling he is entering a eclipse.

Regardless, these issues need to be addressed in order to deflect ongoing negativity in the media and – ta-da!!! – Twitter.

Here is where the films diverge. Even though no one will acknowledge it – and once your film is nominated, anything seems possible – Once Upon is seen by most people as a participation trophy kind of movie. Lots of nominations. Hard to imagine fewer than seven or eight (Pitt, DiCaprio, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Costume, two Sound, maybe Robbie). But there are only three slots where it has a real shot at winning. Supporting Actor for Brad Pitt, Original Screenplay and Production Design. I think Leo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career. But he took one home recently and I lean towards a built-up love of Joaquin Phoenix or the newcomer award for Jonathan Pryce.

But the point is that Sony and consultant Strategy need to avoid missteps more than anything else at this point. Critics groups will help where they will. Globes, too. Sony is re-releasing the film with extra footage, which will help shore up those bases and get many to take another look at a film, which is almost a piece of nostalgia now, the angry oppositions long forgotten (all the way back in July). The movie was the first established serious contender this year and it’s not going anywhere.

The Irishman is trickier. It goes into a handful of theaters for its “theatrical run” this week. So everyone will see it. And if you are in New York, you will have the opportunity to see it in a special venue on Broadway. Netflix will have the butterfly net out to field any grumbles as the film screens more widely. Here we go.

There are already stories circulated about why the daughter is silent and how often Scorsese has made films with women being significant characters and even a lead once or twice (45 and 26 years ago). And new stories and reviews by critics should bolster the film.

It’s in. That isn’t the challenge. Netflix doesn’t want another participation award. They want the big win. And that is a different challenge.

What is hard for Netflix is that we are already pretty late in a short season and while narratives are being set for movies, it is still tough to get a read on what the narrative for the season will be.

Every season, writers get aroused by the idea of lifetime achievement wins, but recent history suggests that this is no longer a realistic selling point. Critics may wet themselves talking about how The Irishman wraps up Scorsese’s legacy of “goodfella” movies. And the film is loaded with history.

But there is a legitimate chance that the story will go in some other direction. Realistically, no one knows how the movie will play with real people yet. Sample is just too small and too selected. But it is fair to figure that there is some hardcore support for this as the film of the year. And it is fair to expect that there will be some “meh” response, driven by the length, the CG de-aging, and the lack of action that many expect from Scorsese gangster movies.

But what will be the response in a couple weeks… after another 5,000 people see it? Will the love remain as intense overall?

And Netflix — like everyone else — has to be very careful not to read the room when superstar talent is about to come out of the curtain as the last credit rolls. Most people are either likely to be overly kind or overly unkind at those screenings. Just the way it.

Irishman will get plenty of noms from the Globes, the BFCA, and probably the two top critics groups. But that really doesn’t mean anything. That is a given. An achievement. But a given.

The trick to having a real chance to win is to read the energy of the next six weeks and then to shift the energy of your campaign, even before Oscar nominations in that direction.

In this case, what is the weakest part of The Irishman for voters, what it the zeitgeist of November and December, and how does Netflix convince voters that the weak thing is a strength and that Irishman speaks to what their heart is leaning into at the end of this year?

Also, in this case, they are going to have to decide whether it is Pesci or Pacino. Both have a good chance of being nominated. But only one can win and if Netflix doesn’t commit, neither will win.

There is also another sticky problem for Netflix… people are less excited about De Niro than about his co-stars. And the streamer really wants Adam Driver for Best Actor and will end up with Jonathan Pryce taking another slot if he continues to work his ass off. Are actors going to mark the spot for three Netflix Best Actors while Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Antonio Banderas and Tom “Hard Working” Hanks fight for the last two slots (not even getting to Eddie Murphy, Ian McKellan, the kid in Jojo Rabbit, and dare I say it, Paul Walter Hauser)?

Getting De Niro is a statement nomination for this film. It could get 11 noms and if it doesn’t score De Niro, that could be sold in the media as ambivalence.

But here is the other thing… and it is true for both of these films.

You can’t get caught being smug or trying to hard when you are in this slot. Sometimes a great idea should just allowed to slip away, undone.

I would put the massive outdoor display they created for the Irishman premiere last week in that category. So wonderful on a conceptual level. But what does it say to the potential voters… who are all that really matter at this point? It says, “We don’t care about money.” It doesn’t capture the heart of this movie. It says to New Yorkers that Angelenos think they can recreate New York with brightly painted false fronts.

And what is it supposed to say to audiences? This is not a FUN movie. It’s not gimmicky. It’s not a fun time on the red carpet. But that display says the opposite.

Truth is, the only time I think a red carpet display that is A TON OF FUN is appropriate is when the movie is an amusement park ride or for kids.

Do I think this will matter? No. Neither way. No one is voting for a movie because you recreated Umberto’s on Hollywood Boulevard. And no one is trashing the film for it either.

But it is another little reminder that Netflix is different. And no one is voting for that either. I don’t think a win is impossible because it is Netflix. But I also don’t think there is a single vote – outside of Netflix employees – that will be given any movie because it comes from Netflix and they do things different.

It is a weird ask to chase something that is all about tradition (for those who see it that way… certainly most Academy members) and to keep saying, “We don’t honor your traditions.”

Like I said in the title…. Get out of the way.

The Irishman is a more likely Best Picture winner than Roma ever was. But part of the charm of Roma is that it was so iconoclastic. That is not the hook for The Irishman. It is about the end of an era of a kind of life. It is made for older members of The Academy, not the freshly invited young ones. It is made by a filmmaker who has liquid international celluloid running through his blood. Tradition.

The hard part is that when you think about it, the film is asking us to have sympathy for the devil. And that may be hard to overcome, when all is said and done.

And getting back to Once Upon, that film also has a self-indulgent fop and a stone-cold killer as its leads.

But they are clearly the two most deeply embraced films of this season so far, with only 1917 really left in the barrel. (I don’t know anyone who thinks Richard Jewell is going to be a late-game-changing Million Dollar Baby kind of movie, although it could get nods.)

They need to be managed, left loose to keep being loved, and pushed hard all at the same time. And that is the great challenge of keeping your frontrunner front running.

Review: Motherless Brooklyn (spoiler-free)

Motherless Brooklyn is perfect.

This is both a virtue and limitation.

My sense of the film is that it is in the spirit of Chinatown and The Man Who Knew Too Much and even a movie like Phantom Thread. It is an innocent’s (or a relative innocent’s) dive into a is well-established world that is unknown to “the straight world,” a world of power and human disposability and ugly truths.

The big twist in this story is that the eventual hero is Tourettic, which complicates his ability to be inexpressive or to lie effectively when need be. Interesting, huh? Yeah.

This has been a passion project for over a decade for Edward Norton. He eventually got enough money… but not really enough. His friends and colleagues showed and worked for minimal amounts. He had a writer-director-producer-star in himself.

And truly, what he pulls off is remarkable. He shot New York City as a period piece and found quite special locations, interior and exterior, to frame his story. The cleanness of this movie cannot be overstated as an incredible challenge. It looks like a much more expensive film than it is.

But for me, it is all just too perfect. This is a story we have seen, generally, but it feels like it desperately wants some kink. And not just period dialogue and a hero that swings between the artistic black community and the wealthy whites.

The kink that is missing is in the lead role. It’s not that Norton isn’t good. He’s never less than very, very good. But he’s not wildly unpredictable as he often has been. He does the Tourette’s well, but it misses danger and subtext. And I imagine this was a result of having so many jobs on the film.

My insta-casting would be Joaquin Phoenix, and he would be great. But it doesn’t need a Joker-type performance. It needs something that bends the beautiful conventionality of what Norton was able to deliver as a director and producer to take the story to the next level. Maybe a Shia LaBeouf. A younger Dafoe (who is great in the movie). Sam Rockwell. Tim Blake Nelson. A younger Giamatti. I don’t have THE answer. I would bet that an Edward Norton who was primarily there as an actor would have found another level to the characterization.

I could feel where the film wanted to take me. And there are moments, like Baldwin swimming laps, that were simple perfection. The performances are all good. Get terrific actors and let them work.

But even in early scenes, with Bruce Willis as the hero figure to his employees Norton and Ethan Suplee (which is pronounced with the emphasis on the LEE, I learned tonight), told me what they were, but I didn’t get the rush of sensing that Willis knows the hidden genius of Norton’s Lionel Essrog and puts his faith in it despite Lionel seeming impossibly weird and untrustworthy as a result. The disconnect didn’t connect, so when it changes, it didn’t feel like a change.

I saw the movie a second time to be sure that it wasn’t my imagination. And there are people who definitely disagree with me. But to me, it is crystal clear. The movie is so accomplished on many levels, but is missing the accelerant that makes for greatness.

In Chinatown, it wasn’t just the “mother/daughter” and “daughter/co-parent” thing, but the actors who played the roles. John Huston is so beautifully creepy and Faye Dunaway is so odd and even Nicholson as The Hero is untraditional in every way.

It reminds me of the story that Ronald Reagan almost starred in Casablanca and how his simple good looks and traditional male energy would have lowered the film.

For me, Motherless Brooklyn is the most frustrating kind of movie. So well made, but missing something.


Strategy Session: Eight Things (In No Particular Order) To Know About Oscar Season

1. The Best Picture Field Has Already Been Narrowed To 30 Movies Or Less By August 1.

Movies don’t happen overnight. Some of the horses get out of the gate pretty late. But distributors see where they are throughout the winter and spring. By the summer, priorities have been made, schedules have been set, festivals have been targeted, and your dream that there will be fresh discoveries is mostly out the door.

Even indie hipsters, like A24, have their targets in mind well before you, the public, know a Room from a Moonlight. Things speed up fast after the films start screening at the festivals, but there are people who know exactly what they are hoping for and working towards that coaxing surprised agreement from the audience.

2. Journalists Help Narrow The Field Early In The Season (Festival Window) And After Thanksgiving.

The idea that critics and feature writers and Oscar bloggers (oh my!) are meaningless is false. However, the main times when they matter is during the first festival window (Venice/Telluride/Toronto) and during the bubbling cauldron of “what to do” in late November and early December.

In the festival window, journalists narrow the field. Obviously, some of the narrowing would happen without us. But some of it would not. Also, journalists can expand the field, though one often wonders if we are suckers being led to something we think is unexpected (like The Two Popes at Telluride this year).

And journalists can be a very real part of defining the narrative of a movie. This can be good or bad, especially these days. So much of the chattering class is busy chattering about biases and perceived values that have little to do with the moviegoing experience of real people. When this kind of thing occurs, the people selling the movie can either overreact or underreact to this kind of narrative. Challenging.

Later, as we head into the heavy pre-Oscar voting period, many of the groups are trying to figure out what Oscar voters will end up doing because, no matter how they protest, most groups want to be seen as Oscar influencers, knowing full well that their specific awards will soon be a distant memory for most. The Battle of The HFPA is also going on, although it is quite remarkable how many paid experts in that field turn out to be wrong in the end. But back to journalists… narrowing, narrowing, narrowing.

3. Some Big Titles Are Regularly Excluded From Telluride & NY By Those Festivals And It Is A Big Secret.

Does it really matter whether a handful of people in Berkeley or Manhattan think your movie sucks? No. They are often dead wrong. But in those early days of the season, no one wants the stain of being rejected. They want to be seen as making an affirmative choice. But almost every single season, at least one of the eventual Best Picture nominees and, by my count, at least four of the last 10 Best Picture winners has been rejected by one of those 2 early fall festivals.

4. No One Really Cares About Your Stinkin’ Politics.

This one is simple. Everything in the world is political in some way for some people. But the annual fantasy that Oscar voters are going to get behind this movie or that because of the politics of the moment is dashed pretty much every single time. In the last 40 years, Crash is really the only example I can find… and honestly, I see that win as a response to a still very homophobic Academy membership as much as anything else. (It’s not that they hated gay people… it’s that they didn’t want a movie about gay love to represent Oscar to the world. I know it’s splitting hairs a bit, but it was the kind of genderism that was the norm in the last generation of voters, same as they saw black people as lesser, but not as bad. Please don’t kill the messenger.)

The Academy doesn’t send political messages in their voting. They can be convinced that something is not good for them.

Movies like Spotlight or 12 Years A Slave seem like “good for you” movies that may have a political edge, but I believe in cases like those, they are the default movies for those seasons and the few that could have win instead simply failed to close the sale. They didn’t find the hook that said, “a vote for this film instead will make you feel better.”

5. Gotham Awards, NBR Awards, And Many Other Awards Simply Do Not Matter To The Outcome Of Oscar.

Sorry. Lovely events. Wonderful winners. Great nominees. Happy crowds.

Don’t mean diddly.

Gotham, god bless it, doesn’t even really try. Four awards that match Oscar. Just not trying.

NBR is a shill machine and who really cares. Do you know who votes? No. Do you care for any reason other than they are the only ones announcing that early? No.

New York and LA critics… matter. Yes. They are not decisive. But they are respected enough to help a turtle over the hump.

6. It Is, In Most Situations, Much More Important To Not Be Left Out Than To Be Included.

This is basic. Why do so many crap events get so much talent? Because if one does it, everyone thinks they need to do it.

Do they? Not at all. Mostly meaningless. Some are quite lovely. Some are quite sincere. But I am waiting to see a single example of a Hollywood Film Award or a Festival X Award or a Top Contenders event that changes anything for anyone. Literally, five votes.

Now, they do confirm what people are already thinking when they occur. If the snowball is already headed downhill, no one wants to do anything to slow it down. And indeed, the magic things that make the snowball so big in the first place tend to continue to keep working.

On the other hand, if you are the only one not at The Big Event of the Week, the whispering starts… “they couldn’t even get this shitty award?” Petty. But if you aren’t on top, you are always worried about being shoved to the bottom. So the whore, the merrier.

7. The Significance Of Money is Absolute… Except When It Is Not.

You gotta spend The Cash. If you don’t have The Cash to spend, you are facing a mountain instead of a mole hill (and mole hills are already a challenge).

Everyone likes to believe money doesn’t matter. And in terms of box office, this is the one major change that was created with the birth of the expanded Best Picture field to as many as 10.

A24 is not a mega-spender… though they are a little less frugal than some think. Anyway, they didn’t go crazy spending into Moonlight. But they had a massive win in social media and that led to traditional media and that, I believe, took them to the big win.

So it is possible. And not just Dumb & Dumber possible.

But you need magic to happen. This season, the biggest chaser of magic is Parasite. Neon isn’t going to spend wildly. So they need everything – above and beyond having great movie – to even get a nomination. And after that, fate starts playing its hand.

On the other hand, a movie like Little Women will walk right into its nominations, fully supported by Sony. They may not spend like some, but spend they will. And that pushes a strong movie into a much better position to close the deal. Just the way it is.

Lady Bird also got its nominations. But that was the harder road with less money. And sometimes, that means that Beanie Feldman can’t get the second Supporting Actress slot.

Again… nothing to do with the quality of the movie. But as I have long said, you can spend like a maniac, but you have to have a movie that hits a certain level. You can’t get there without a movie. BUT… if you have a movie that is for real and a budget to take you on the journey comfortably, it is a massive advantage.

8. No One And No Amount Of Spending Can Force A Winner… But You Can Try To Prevent A Win By Undermining The Value Of The Frontrunner, Which Is Roughly A 50/50 Proposition.

Once the horses are in the gate for the final race, the rules change substantially. Part of it is that the marketing hands are tied a bit tighter than in Phase I. I have always thought this a bit idiotic, as a more narrowed field is, in my opinion, when the freedom to push hard should really occur. The field is evened by the nominations, while as in Phase I (pre-noms), it’s a wild rumpus.

People love to talk about how Harvey Weinstein screwed over poor Steven Spielberg for Best Picture. But people are being a bit melodramatic and taking advantage of the weak memories. Yes, Harvey is and was an ax murderer and a rapist and a horrible human. But he was not the first person to dare suggest that Saving Private Ryan was a bit schizo. Spielberg himself talked about how the intense, violent, heart-pounding landing was meant to take audiences to a different level of intensity before they settled into the main story. I think it was a brilliant choice.

However… there were TWO WW II movies that year. And I feel The Thin Red Line is the better of the two. There was also the brilliant Elizabeth, which was the major launch of Cate Blanchett into our American lives. And we had just been through a run of epics winning Best Picture. And Ryan had time to go stale from the summer, while Shakespeare in Love was a December release and had a lightness and.a freshness.

So did Harvey steal that win? I could argue either side.

But get past that and ask, has anyone bought a win since?

I don’t see one. Literally, not one.

I have seen competitive arguments in which what likely seemed the winner ended up losing. But that is part of the ebb and flow of any season.

If you are fortunate to be in the top group that seems like a potential winner, find the thing that people love about your competitor and bring that thing to the perception of your movie. Take it away from theirs.

You can’t buy it. You need to feel it.


BYO Autumn Anticipation




CG Man Showdown: The Irishman v Gemini Man

I’m not interested in reviewing The Irishman or Gemini Man right now. What fascinates me is the Computer Graphics of it all. Two master filmmakers approaching a significant amount of this technology, deeply embedded in the storytelling of each film. But two very different approaches, which define how each film will be remembered.

Martin Scorsese – whose film I am anxious to see again before reviewing – basically made a film from a script as though he wasn’t making an effects film at all. This includes having the actors of a certain age give the physical performances that the age-reduced faces will be laid over. And the choice has fallen just right for a lot of film critics.

Ang Lee, on the other hand, does double, maybe triple, in comparison, duty on the cutting edge train. First, he continues to experiment with the 120-frame-per-second format. And it has a real effect on his work behind the camera. All the limitations of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk have clearly been measured, considered, and in many ways corrected this time out. The Big Two are the close-up and darkness.

120fps works much better – perhaps the only time in which it is superior to 24fps – in a tight shot of someone’s face. So we get a lot more of that in Gemini Man than we did in Billy Lynn’s. There is a lot of space in action… and that is fine… although it really looks like you shot it on your iPhone. But when you get emotional moments, fill that screen with face.

Darkness is also key… and a huge part of Gemini Man. It’s not all nighttime. And darkness doesn’t always eliminate the TV look. But when there is subtlety and variation in the light, the picture just looks much better in 120fps than when it is bright.

Darkness is also a key to the CG work in Gemini Man. The only time the CG character in the film screams that it is false is in the final scene – no spoilers here – in which the character is walking through a sunlit space in normal (not black, not camo) clothing. And it looks horrible. It’s almost as though Lee is trying to tell the audience, “Wasn’t that cool for most of the movie? Here is what we still can’t do well. So look forward to my next movie because we plan on fixing it by then.”

But overall, the creation of Young Will Smith on Gemini Man, is technically superior to the de-aging work on The Irishman. What is the measure? How distracting is the effect?

Simply, the “Junior” character is more realistic as a living being than the de-aged character faces in Irishman. And that is really because Lee & WETA built “Junior” to be the character in every frame. I am betting that there were also body doubles doing a lot of work for both “Junior” and Will. So there was likely some “adding the face” in stunts. (There was actually a shot in the motorcycle chase where I felt like I saw the stuntman’s face instead of Will Smith’s, which was kind of shocking given the amount of CG work here.). But mostly, they built “Junior” and his physicality and movement (lots of it close) and there were rare moments where the effect was obvious.

That said, there were many moments in Gemini Man that I know would have been better if Ang Lee were not leaning into the limitations of both the CG and the 120fps. I don’t think it’s arguable. Yes, I agree that limitations are of great value to forcing an artist to raise the bar even further than originally intended (see: Jaws), but some things were off. Particularly in sequences that should have connected emotionally – not the close-up talking, of which there is a lot – but within action sequences.

As for Scorsese and The Irishman, Marty clearly wasn’t going to adjust much for technology. In fact, he actually made a film that was slower and less visually flashy than he has in years. He kind of invites the scrutiny of the not-always-perfect CG work.

As I wrote earlier, he shot the movie… he cut the movie… they added the de-aging effects. When a 75-year-old body with a 50-year-old face throws a gun, you can read it as a misstep or subtext.

And the dichotomy of making his slowest-paced mainstream film while also engaging more computer graphics work – by far – than he ever as before is fascinating. And again, different people read that different ways.

As a result, many critics connect to The Irishman as one of Scorsese’s best. Not only that, as a career summation.

I don’t think anyone will see Gemini Man as one of Ang Lee’s best films. Unlike the effects-heavy Life of Pi, Lee seems to adjust to the effects rather than demanding that the effects – ironically, a lot easier to create a lion than a human – come to his directing choices.

Scorsese could have made The Irishman in the era before computer effects. In fact, DeNiro did a similar role in a film that I think Scorsese was paying great homage to, Once Upon A Time in America. They did use other actors to play the group in their early teens. But the group of actors was also aged up and down.

Gemini Man could also have been made, though there would have been a key concession, in that no matter how much the young Will Smith looked like Will Smith, he wouldn’t seem to be an exact match. Additionally, the stunt work would have been infinitely more complicated, unless somehow the best match was also a high-end stuntperson.

For me, the CG and 120fps efforts in both films come up short. We are still in the early days of this kind of digital actor replacement/enhancement technology. When used in abundance, it shows itself and distracts. Sorry. Wish it was not so. We can all see the remarkable progress that has been made. WETA and ILM continue to battle it out. And in some uses, the tech has seemed perfect. It helps when faces are obfuscated in some way.

But these two examples of this tech are not the same at all. The approach is very different. The purpose is different. And the results are very different. Both films will be seen as landmarks along the way to seamless work in the future.




Review: Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (spoilers)

I’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s 9th Film, Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood three times so far. I usually watch his films twice before writing, checking my most intense reactions against a second view. This time, I must admit that I have been trying to connect to a clearer reaction and I still am.

The easy stuff seems easy. DiCaprio and Pitt are both skilled actors and iconic movie stars and this is on display in all kinds of ways. Pitt, in some ways, recreates the spirit what is perhaps his most beloved character, Floyd of the Tarantino-written True Romance, about a decade older and living 25 years earlier in American history. He’s still a natural couch surfer and stoner. He is still indestructible through the power of his personality. But he also has been weaponized by a war and a miserable marriage. Unlike Rick, Cliff doesn’t seem to actually be a bigot. But he is wary. He embodies many of the ideals of white male strength with which a child of World War II would have been raised, the prime exception being success.

Rick is a mirror reflection of Cliff, as their roles as actor and stunt double would suggest. He has not been weaponized. He is soft. And he has magic… but he works incredibly hard to prove it, somehow so ashamed by the ease of it that he can’t relax into its pleasures. What Cliff can do with his bare hands and his well-trained dog, Rick needs a flame thrower to not quite match. He is the successful but aggrieved by the coming future that he has no control over.


Speaking of The Dog… this too is a doppelgänger match between dog and master. Cliff has been tamed, to a degree. But like his dog, Brandy, he is able to deliver lethal, perfect violence on demand in an instant.

And this is why Once Upon A Time … is hard to dismiss as an empty vessel for Quentin’s kitsch obsessions. Just setting up the foundations of the two leads and the dog requires three full paragraphs.

The third major character in this film is Sharon Tate. Margot Robbie’s performance of pure, seemingly unconsidered sunlight is the best of the film. Yes, it is nearly a silent role. But it is critically so. Lovingly so. She isn’t playing dumb. But she isn’t showing herself to be particularly smart. She just is. There isn’t a moment without a light coming from her eyes and literally a rhythmic bounce in her step, whether music is playing or not.

The fourth major character is The Manson Family. All of it. But mostly, the women/girls. Charles is barely a part of the movie, except as a threatening idea. And with the women/girls of Manson comes the question of whether they are meant to be a flip side to the Sharon Tate character, as Rick is to Cliff. They share her youth and some of her exuberance. When we meet them, they are singing a camp song in unison. But while Tate is wanted and desired endlessly, these young women have had to find a place to feel at peace with themselves.

The great question around the film is how this all fits together.

The real-life murder of Tate and the rest (barely footnotes in the film) symbolize an end of the hope and love of the 60s era to many people. In the fictionalized narrative of this film, the focus of this element seems to be on the women, not the men. The young and aggrieved women are on their way to kill the hope and love that they were not so lucky to obtain as a matter of fate.

There really is no explanation in the film why the group, led by a weak, fearful boy in Fictionalized Tex Watson, veers off to Rick’s house instead of the house they were sent to by Manson. It could just be a mistake. He could be wanting revenge for the humiliation of being sent away by “Jake Cahill.” The plan could be to kill Cahill and then head up the hill to kill the residents of the Tate/Polanski residence. There is no yellow Cadillac to suggest that Tex or the women/girls recognize that Cliff, who “escaped” Tex’s threat of gun violence at The Spawn Ranch might be there. The audience just isn’t told why.

(I am writing off the illogic that Cliff somehow returns to the house without seeing the car full of Mansonians or the trio walking up the hill to Rick’s house. But I would not be shocked to find out that this and the lack of an explanation of the diversion by the Manson Trio were lost in an edit, things that could have slowed the pace and/or been too clear for QT’s tastes at that point.)

But there is no question that the violent, male machismo of the late Greatest Generation, stops the incursion of the grievance part of hippiedom on the hope and love part of hippiedom. And for no other reason but its own survival.

But what does that mean? Is it meaningful or is it just Tarantino fantasizing and amusing himself (and audiences)?

Of course, Rick gets to be the hero of the erasure of the Manson threat, just moments after Cliff is carted off in the ambulance, having basically taken on all three of the attackers. Rick thinks of himself as a key participant, as he fried a young lady who may well have already been mortally wounded by Cliff and Brandy.

There are dozens of other doppelganger moments in the film. There is the repetition of “I never had a chance,” which is spoken by Steve McQueen about having a relationship with Sharon Tate and by Rick about almost maybe getting the role in The Great Escape that transformed McQueen a couple years after Wanted: Dead or Alive, which seems to be the reference for Rick’s TV series in the film, Bounty Law, that Rick leaves for a failed film career.

We open with a look at Bounty Law, but the actual start of the movie is after the show is gone and Rick’s movie career has stalled out. So is Rick a winner or a loser? Are we meant to think that the offer by Pacino’s Marvin Schwarzs is a good sign or a bad sign, given that we in the audience know that the spaghetti westerns propelled Clint Eastwood to his run with Don Siegal that made him a full-on movie star? Even at the end of the movie, Rick has made 4 films in 6 months in Italy, but sees it as the end of his road.

Rick tells the young actress, Trudi, the story of his western novel, which is pretty precisely the story of Cliff, though he thinks it is his own story. This is made more evident late in the movie when Cliff takes a knife to the hip, which will surely not kill him, but will likely slow him down from the physical skills he shows (especially getting to the roof of Rick’s house).

Pitt is a too-good-looking-to-be-a-stuntman stuntman while Kurt Russell is too… but Kurt’s character still has the wife who keeps his manhood in a sack hanging from her belt.

Jay Underwood and Roman Polanski are Sharon Tate’s doppelganger short, handsome waif men.

James Stacy, who is a real actor (played here by Timothy Olyphant), whose real series, Lancer, was piloted around the time of the movie’s timeline and actually directed by Sam Wanamaker aspires to what Rick has achieved. And in historic fact, Lancer ran 51 episodes before Stacy became a perennial bit TV player. So he got what Rick had then unlike Rick, never took a next step of significance.

We don’t know at the end of Once Upon A Time …  whether Rick will find his Don Siegel or even if Roman Polanski will end up being that to him or if he will still end up selling his house, buying a condo, losing the Italian starlet, and disappearing into obscurity.

We can also wonder whether Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel would have had the successes they had together (Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry) had it not been for the Manson family sending the flower power era into a more conservative direction (as has been suggested by Joan Didion and others, leaving your sense of hyperbole to decide).

Like I wrote before… there is plenty of kitsch – and I have barely scratched that surface – but there is other stuff bubbling beneath it which isn’t clear, but is interesting.

And there is the very real possibility that Quentin is just doing what Quentin does… reconsider genres, whether one at a time or a few at a time. Go down the list… the heist movie, the Blaxploitation romance, the chop socky, the grindhouse, the Nazi war movie, the action slave movie, and the Agatha Christie. Of course, they are all twisted up with other genre conceits. The two that are the hardest to categorize (and are not in that list) are Pulp Fiction and Once Upon A Time …, which are both closer to being anthology movies. For me, when I think of directors that are emulated in OUATIH, I think Altman first. QT has none of the specific Altman quirks. But there is a rambling quality and an emphasis on performance that reminds me of Altman.

I haven’t addressed the physical abuse of women in this film and throughout his history. I can’t make an argument against the anger of some about this. Men take a lot of abuse in this film and all the others as well. But Tarantino was created by the heat of an era when women were objectified in much of film by an endless parade of white male directors. I don’t find it misogynistic. Zoe Bell is right. Sharon Tate is a goddess here. One could say that Squeaky Fromme comes off as strong and clear and smart and in control, however ugly her circumstances. So I am not outraged.

I haven’t spoken to the relative silence of the Sharon Tate character because I think the silence performance is brilliant and speaks quite directly to what he was trying to achieve, which was to deify her. She is the only pure thing in the film.

I haven’t mentioned one of the best sequences in the film, which is Rick’s day on Lancer, from his arrival to his encounter with Trudi (amazing child actor turn) to his self-abuse to a true movie star performance in a shitty little western TV show that rises beyond the way it does sometimes and you know a guest star on Law & Order is going to be a star for real. From that section, the audience knows what Rick really is and what he isn’t, no matter how he feels about himself.

And of course, that sequenced is intercut with Cliff at the Spawn Ranch, also showing us everything about who he is.

But discussing how much I like any sequence doesn’t seem to be the point here.

So how do I feel about the movie?

I don’t really have an answer. Still. It sure felt to me like I was building to a statement of believe in writing this piece. But no.

I don’t think it is a masterpiece.

I do think Quentin is a mad cinematic genius.

I don’t seek easy answers from movies, but I am also not expecting chaos from masterpieces unless that is clearly the means to an end.

I do think this is the most complex cinematic experience of the year-to-date from a major studio.

I will see it again. Maybe more than once (making 4).

I could write a whole 1500-word piece about all the things that push me out of the movie. But that doesn‘t seem helpful. Still, they exist.

This is a movie that people who love movies have to see. It will evolve in time. For a lot of people. For me. Maybe for you.

There is so much to chew on and so many blind alleys and misdirections. Perhaps that is just the nature of the beast.

Acid-dipped cigarette, anyone?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon