Words on the Internet

these are my stream of consciousness reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof 

DON'T THINK TWICE (2016)

dont think twice review

It’s fun to see a niche community represented in a movie almost always. It provides some patois that’s excited and educational. 

The film moves nicely with some heartfelt moments, but unfortunately you’re not sure if the character’s hearts are the right place. 

It sort of felt like the story should have been the exact same, but everyone in the movie should have been 10 years younger. Not only would the story make a bit more sense, but the immature behavior of the characters would make more sense. They all seemed a bit selfish, which is excusable (see: Seinfeld) but what I struggled with is some of their motivations. 

In particular, they all seemed a little naive. Naive in the sense that the naivete was written into the story to drive conflict. Each character is a sort of less savvy version of a friend you’d find in your own life. You get the dream writing gig? Hey here’s my script. 

There are a few moments like this that seem a little under-developed and make me wish the characters were portrayed a bit smarter. 

In that way it felt a bit sketch-y. Characters acting how they needed to serve the story rather than who they might have been as people. It’s a tough problem to crack given the tone - somewhere between comedy and drama. Though I think this is the problem with a lot of modern comedies, the inclusion of characters acting to serve the plot over themselves - it leads to a weird tone and rings as untrue simultaneously. 

What the movie did have going is some nice charming moments. The pace and cinematography felt appropriate, and some nice moments captured of their improv (although obviously scripted in this case). 

In the end they all seem to reside to doing improv in a small theater in Philly. This was ultimately unsatisfying because it was the final departure from any heart or realism that was left. In reality, each of these characters should have moved on - in the end it actually seems like they’re back where they started - together, broke, not famous. Rather than chase the dream of success they seem to have resigned to continue with improv in obscurity. Nice as a tribute to the art form of improv but leads to some head scratching as far as character development. 

For a movie about characters I just wish I bough into these a bit more. 

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

rogue-one-a-star-wars-story-felicity-jones-diego-luna.jpg

Hmm. Ok. Maybe my expectations of what a Star Wars movie could be and what it is are not aligned.

With the new Rogue franchise I was hoping there’d be a tonally or structurally different approach to the Star Wars story — nope. Just more of the same.

On one hand it makes plenty of sense — people love it and the box office reflects that. On the other, here we are in an endlessly vicious cycle of basic hero-quest-redemption story lines.

It all just seems so predictable. Like there are only a few possible types of stories in the Star Wars universe and they all play out and compliment each other. I find it uninteresting.

Also the premise of this particular story lacked a lot of drama. We can’t upload the plans to the satellite? It reads more like a Dropbox syncing issue than the driving plot for a Star Wars film.

The direction also felt loose and lacked a certain empathy I was expecting. In human moments where Felicity Jones may be scared or hesitant, rather than resting for a beat on her face to show us, they simple move fluidly through the action. She jumps onto the server tower and up through the deadly fan in a blur. No hesitation, no concern for her safety. Not only do we lose a moment with the character but we lose significant tension in the scene.

Some great special effects, but some terrible CGI characters. The main bad dude looked plastic. Not only did it ruin those scenes, it scares me for the future of movie making. Are we going to let CGI humans play alongside real humans? We’re going to lose the nuance and empathy. There will no longer be actors making choices but directors and animators. Bad news for the industry. Granted these were special cases of reviving dead / aged actors, but still huge thumbs down.

Overall it felt like a new skin on an old dog. Fine to look at but you already know its tricks. 

Also Deigo Luna does nothing for me. I just don’t get him as a lead. 

 

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY (2016)

Something about modern comedies makes you feel like they should always be 15-30 minutes shorter. Not because comedies need to be shorter or because they’re any less valid of a genre than others, but it feels like they often phone in several chunks of the story. 

Office Christmas Party falls into this same trap. Why are we watching a dance party for several minutes? There isn’t gags or jokes so lets save us all the time and establish the energy in the room and move on. 

The movie has some charming moments but never hits a laugh out loud moments. Not surprised but just a simple reminder of how tough the modern comedy has become. 

They often lean on overly dramatized characters. Jennifer Aniston here is so mean that it borders on absurd.  Kate McKinnon is similarly over the top but on the doofus end of the spectrum. The result is characters that feel like plot devices or bad jokes rather than people. Too often comedies like OCP rely on wacky dialogue and heighten characters to try for laughs but never really give the characters any emotion. What made Dumb and Dumber so effective is all the characters cared SO MUCH. We need our characters to be real, emotional, goal oriented people to be able to laugh with and at them. 

My last point of beef was that the love story between Olivia Munn and Jason Bateman was thin at best and far too easy. They essentially said “I like you” “I like you too” and kissed. No drama, no complexity. Total after thought. 

Would love to see a tighter edit, more relatable characters, and more attention to pacing. 

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

nocturnal animals tom ford

One of the most gripping films I’ve seen - for the first 90% of it. 

Sexy, dark, beautiful, mysterious, tense - FUCKING TENSE - and complex. Unfortunately the payoff wasn’t there. Or I didn’t get it. But either way is that my fault or the filmmakers? Hard to tell. Regardless it was working for me but didn’t meet at the end - like watching beautiful ribbons dance in the wind then instead of a beautiful flowery ribbon they tie together in a square not. That’s it?

The performances were noir-esque but more grounded. Dark, quirky, with more than a few moments of melodrama. The characters - while unique feeling and flawed, never really became humans - perhaps another loyal nod to noir. 

The look of the film is clean, bold, contrasty, and sexy. Makes sense that Tom Ford is behind it. Dark blacks and bright reds. Sharp. Saturated. Well composed and at times striking images. Not afraid of simply having a head and a solid color background as a composition - simple but effective. 

A bit reliant on the shot reverse shot for conversations - locked into medium close ups for most of the exchanges. That can be ok but when the dialogue comes off as repetitive (it often does) you really feel it. I think the editor could have lost a lot of the dialogue in the conversations - it felt often like we were hearing things twice. A sharper knife would have made the film feel smarter and shorter - and I think the audience could have kept up. 

The content was a bit low brow but presented in fashionable high brow - murder, rape, cops and derelicts, revenge, abortion. An interesting contrast to the highbrow art world that it echoes. The subject matter is engaging if not particularly fresh or novel. The subjects listed are dramatic low hanging fruits but everything looks so good it comes off as fresh. 

The ending, unfortunately, is what lost me. I didn’t get it. Was it a twist, an underscoring of the theme? I’m unsure. Normally I can guess or contrive the meaning but here I’m left a bit befuddled. Maybe I missed something. Maybe it’s open intentionally. 

To come back to that ribbon analogy - it was almost like the two ribbons were just laying next to each other, they didn’t tie together at all. Gorgeous and intriguing, but of little lasting power or use. Too bad - they’re so pretty!

LA LA LAND (2016)

Fun, quirky, and a nice blend of novel and nostalgic that together feels fresh. 

The only main criticism I have of La La Land is that it thematically feels a bit light. Some statements and ideas about professional ambition over love and for what cost are prevalent throughout - and thus the movie ends on an emotional down note - but I wish there was a bit more to chew on conceptually. 

Other than that, a great ride. Fun song and dance, amazing chemistry and charisma from both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and ambitious storytelling and camera work. Surprisingly, a lot of the camera work had significant moments of soft focus, but I suppose with long takes and shooting on film with an ambitious schedule, sometimes you’re left in the camp of what you get is what you get. It’s nice in a way to see a major Hollywood production have some obvious technical production flaws. 

Loved the occasional moments of comedy and LA commentary, even if they felt well worn at times (we’ve already heard the joke thousands of times that LA peeps drive Prius’s). There’s even a charm in the well tread parts though, as if through heightened musical this film is codifying that culture - making it classic by surrounding it with song and dance. 

The color and choreography were show stealers and the performances carried the movie. A fun love-torn whirlwind that’s a fun watch. The film nicely portrayed the bushy-tailed optimism that’s necessary in LA, as well as the relationships that you don’t settle in, but that still very much define you. The “one that got away” may be better traded out for the “one I loved before I was famous.”

The concept resonates with the modern ambitious romantic in myself I think - the balance between self actualization and love are often at odds. Which do we pick? If there a right answer? La La land seems to tell us to pick love, but acknowledges that happiness and success can happen either way. So it matters, but at the same time it doesn’t because all it takes is that one nostalgic song to remember what you had and what you could have had. It’s the imagination and optimism that’s baked into show business that keeps us coming back. 

Music holds all the promise of love - exciting and fleeting and unfortunately short lived. La La land does a nice job of compressing the appeal of show business and the difficulties of love and reminding us that love and life stings but that’s why we sing. 

Too syrupy of a take? Possibly. But that’s the movie. It’s optimism even through bitter turns. 

JACKIE (2016)

Jackie - Natalie Portman

Image is everything.

An interesting look at Jackie’s manipulation of the post-death events that led to her not only establishing her husband’s legacy but also her own. I loved the theme and messages of the movie but somehow it didn’t resonate with me.

Maybe too many close ups of Natalie Portman’s sad eyes for too long. Maybe it was the stilted accent of Jackie or the plastered smile. While all accurate (I assume) I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded of the construction of the film itself.

Given the themes of ‘image is everything’ and acting in one’s own self-interest, maybe the audience’s self awareness was intended but I have trouble thinking that was the intent.

There are some brilliant moments, no doubt. Jackie and Bobby exchange some caustic words — out of personal grief and brandished at each other but backed in truth. Jackie also has some nice moments with a priest where we get some of her more honest, if still robotic, moments.

Thematically, the idea of self-promotion-as-preservation rang loud and clear. JFK’s ideas around his presidency being more inspiring than the action he took in office, and Jackie’s interest in making a large dramatic procession, the new television camera’s and presentation of the whitehouse. It’s all brilliantly woven. Jackie herself as the first great “marketer” of ideas to a mass market. Her central question: Will anyone remember my husband and I? She decides yes, they will. I will make them. It’s an interesting choice and one that feels both noble and empty.

Timely theme too — with Trump as a classic example of marketing and message of substance and content. Own the screen time and own the history. Jackie makes an interesting comment about history need no longer be written, because now we have television.

The story and the themes work — if a bit heavy handed at times.

I think where the movie falls flat is the acting and dialogue. The acting maybe as a result of the dialogue — often, and especially towards the end (when Jackie and the priest are talking before burying her kids), the dialogue begins to feel overtly philosophical and like a spoon with which to feed us the themes. In its defense, death and burials are the times when the ‘meaning of life’ conversations tend to emerge, yet the philosophizing back and forth felt read-off-the-page and lacked a reality that the moment called for.

Structurally bouncing between the newspaper interview, the tour of the whitehouse, and the period immediately around the assassination all reinforced each other and provided enough respite. The interview felt a bit dry at times and could have been a bit tighter.

Whiffs of greatness but a looser interpretation of her persona may have lead to a more dynamic performance. I wanted her angrier, a bit less controlled. Her isolation was portrayed well and I think the extreme close ups reinforced that. Even when she was surrounded by people she’s alone.

Stilted and stiff performances. Sexy but isolated. Image over content. Manipulative and smart but self serving. Maybe the movie echoed Jackie as a person and that’s the point?

maybe globalization is anti-evolution.

if diversity is the key to survival on the macro level, unification and gentrification is making us as whole less fit and more susceptible to getting wiped out. if we had diversity, maybe there would be survivors.

there’s been no beehive loss in cuba because they’ve been unable to import pesticides due to the embargo. so their cultural vacuum actually allowed their bee population to survive. said another way, their culture was ‘more fit’ for bees. so the more diversity of culture we have in the world the more likely we have a variety of ‘fitnesses’ that will help our species survive.

the question: is there an existing ‘pesticide’ among us that we’re unaware of today that will wipe us out? and is that “pesticide” fully globalized? to use a concrete hypothetical: perhaps the next generation of cellphones gives each owner incurable cancer. then, only those without cell phones would survive — they were more fit, not physically, but culturally.

if we’re still on board with this logic, then the history of humanity can be seen as ironic. from our time as apes we’ve been constantly learning and communicating about the world — trying to decipher methods of living and tool making that made us the most fit. more example, the way Facebook reimagined human socialization and went viral was likely very similar to the way the bow and arrow became popular (granted over different timelines). “have you heard of this thing that lets you kill food without chasing it? it’s way easier to get meat. it helps you meet girls.” i can’t be that far off.

another concerning antievolution consideration stemming from globalization is the homogeny of thought and experience. the lack of diversity of thought stemming from a homogenous pool of instantly available and centrally located information (think your Facebook feed) leads to — not group think — but ‘species think.’ So if we understand the benefits of biological diversity (Darwin’s fitness of species), and cultural diversity (the cuban honey bees) then what about intellectual diversity?

Let’s consider the potential lack of diversity of collective human thought over time as a result of globalization (i.e. global access to the internet). The more Japan and the US and India and others become similar, our thought processes and perspectives become homogenous. The less different we are, the more similar our ideas will be. The more People Magazine we read, the less Tolstoy. (I’ve never read either, haha).

When brainstorming how to save our species in a hypothetical dooms day event in thousands of years, we probably don’t want to be a large group of (i guess tan-skinned) people who all have all similar life experiences likely inhabiting our sustainable hydroponiclly farmed high-rises. We’d probably want a diverse group of thinkers tackling the problem in different, creative ways. A homogeny of ideas and communication of ideas leads to singular ideas (or at least those within a narrow track). We’d likely arrive at a local maximum rather than a global maximum (pun!).

If we start from the idea that all of life emerged from a single evolved prokaryote (my biology is rusty), and spread out from there, like a fire work, then it feels like that firework, at some point, may collapse in on itself. we go from singularity to diversity back to singularity.

it’s like we as a species are all, biologically and now culturally, searching for the highest ground. once we find it, we’ll gather there and rejoice on the peak. all of us together. but what, then, if lightning strikes that peak? will there be “lowlanders” to carry on? or maybe humans go the way of dinosaurs. maybe the dinosaurs saw the comet coming, but they didn’t have the intellectual diversity to solve the problem.

evolutionary fitness and intellectual similarity seem to be at odds.

a sad but rationale thought from this line of thinking is that racism is actually evolutionary instinct to preserve our diversity. why do some people fear or hate other races? it surely isn’t from a place of sound logic.

looking forward — how do we preserve variety of ideas while continuing to find the best path for our cultural and social evolution? can we? does it make sense to embrace a schism of ideology on a high level as a means of human preservation?

imagine if all trump supporters or all clinton supporters moved to different halves of the US and embraced their beliefs moving forward in isolation. fast forward tens of thousands of years — perhaps one group is more fit than the other. not unlikely.

cultural homogeneity and globalization seems to be at odds with survival of the fittest. thinking down that path we can pick a couple easy examples like ‘educated people have fewer children’ and ‘lesser educated are more racist’ — maybe the smartest among us are the least promoting of diversity and procreation? the most “sophisticated” are the least “fit,” in this example. ironic.

lots of open questions here but human existence as one long twisted joke with a beginning, middle, end with a dark punchline feels pretty spot on to me. primordial soup leads to biological singularity leads to biological diversity leads to intellectual diversity. globalization brings is back to intellectual singularity. then back to primordial soup?

what’s the point of life, then? there is no point, life is joke! lighten up. and, like a joke, it’s just supposed to be entertaining and funny.

LOVE WITCH (2016)

Stylistically fun… for the first half. Then you're over it and wondering where the story's substance is. 

It’s a dryly acted, colorfully designed, super weird satire on what women do to appeal to men. It focuses on a witch who focuses on ‘sex magic’ - which is a loose idea surrounding women focusing on femininity and sexuality to appeal to men. 

While the satirical premise is interesting, the protagonist wasn’t likable - either as a result of the extremely stilted acting or the fact that her goals seemed malicious (seducing men, that often results in their death). 

For satires to be effective, I think you need to have the protagonist as the foil to the situation - they almost provide the commentary or represent the audience. However in Love Witch, the protagonist is the thing being satirized. So you’re not (and i don’t think the filmmaker wants you to be) rooting for her, which is a weird thing to do as a viewer for 90 minutes. 

Additionally, I would have loved to see more humor in the situations and dialogue. The movie seems to rest on theme and production design, then sort of ‘mail in’ the dialogue. It’s quirky in moments but general dry. You want to laugh and are in the mood to given the acting and the production design, but they leave you hanging most of the time. 

Not sure if the film’s missteps are easy corrections or at the core. Would love to see the same story told from a different character’s perspective (not the Love Witch). Then we could see the Love Witch’s character as a more acute satirical messenger: a girl who’s evil but just trying to do her best with the rules that society has laid out. Maybe we focus on the detective?

Glad I saw it because stylistically it was a refreshing reminder as to what films can be but wouldn’t rank this one very highly. 

SEARCH PARTY (SERIES, 2016)

SEARCH PARTY (SERIES, 2016)

We’re living in a cocktail of grief culture mixed with entrepreneurial self absorption and Search Party puts it on the rocks and says drink up. And it’s funny when you do.

Every episode follows 4 co-leads as they deal with their own personal issues, with the main driving force being the search for a missing classmate.

The acting absolutely carries the show. Charismatic and pointed — almost to caricature levels — the four friends’ banter and interactions are simply delightful. They feed into each other’s fun and neurosis, and are selfish people that you can’t help but love to watch and root for (reminiscent of Seinfeld, here). Their selfish motives are just because, well, they’re all selfish. It’s sort of like what I’ve heard about lining up in China — it’s not rude if everyone’s pushing to the front, it’s just the way it is. Fair is fair. 

The clan of 4 lives in their own ultra-dramatic bubble, with the outside world sometimes providing a grounded foil to their hijinx and sometimes escalating them. You never know which it’ll be, which keeps the show both fun and leaning enough into realism that the plot and social commentary feel real and justified.

Maybe because I’ve been watching more ‘real-life’ / mumble core based comedy lately, but I found the occasional network style punchlines refreshing and often hilarious.

On a thematic level, the show seems to be attempting to both portray the self absorbed, apathetic millennial and justify their existence in the same breath. By the end of the season, we have the full picture: we’re all just self absorbed and creating meaning out of nothing. There’s nothing bigger than what we see, so we might as well do right by ourselves, who cares if some people get hurt along the way.

It’s honest in a dark way — which makes the comedy hit harder and deserve that much more attention. No one learns from their mistakes, and even though there are striking emotional moments, the characters seem to rebound from them with little more than scratches or a good natured guffaw. Of course the last episode is an exception, but the tone remains — it all seems like it’ll be fine in the end.

Crossing my finger for more seasons. In season 2, maybe Dory opens her own PI firm? The actors are so charismatic and fun — characters without quite hitting cliche — that I could watch them for a long time.

Search Party seems to highlight the modern outlook that everything matters and nothing matters, everything is serious and nothing is serious. Great show. I want more.

ARRIVAL (2016)

arrival-2016-film-trailer.jpg

Complex and it works. Not quite the most complex of swiss-clock-storytelling, but definitely highly engineered. The story is complex and has a nice reveal and payoff, but it never quite reaches the complexity or emotional satisfaction of, for example, a Nolan film like Interstellar (which I think serves as a recent genre comparison). 

Without knowing too much about the movie walking in, I was immediately drawn in by the premise: If aliens were to land, how would we make communication inroads? This leads us to the role of our protagonist - Amy Adams - who’s helped the government before but obviously not at this level of importance to humanity. 

My suspension of disbelief was held pretty much intact, in what was a slow burn of a film. I love when directors take the time to live with the characters in the lead up to an intense moment: putting on the hazmat suit, riding in the pick up trucks to the ‘shell’, going up in the flat-bed riser into the belly of the shell. It’s these moments where Arrival is strongest - in the anticipation and the observation of a transformational event for all of humanity. 

Amy Adams is brilliant. Renner is always fun. 

Where the film stumbles just a bit is its reveal of the ‘weapon’ - that, by learning the language of the Heptapods, you can start to see time as a collection of moments rather than a linear progression. Amy Adams can then use events (which we slowly learn are future events and not past events) to solve problems in the present. 

It’s a fascinating premise and I wish it had been introduced as the midpoint instead of the break into the third act. Not that this film isn’t ambitious both conceptually and structurally, but I’d love to explore that time-travel-through-memory concept more thoroughly. By the time it’s introduced there’s so much as stake we lose the ability to explore the power as we’re too busy watching it save humanity. 

Overall, it’s a small gripe with the film as it is and more of a plea for what the film could have been. 

Another note - visually - the focus was absurdly shallow and specific for a lot of the film. Maybe to highlight and underscore the specificity of memory and how our mind works. Either way, I found it a bit over used and distracting. We find ourselves in some spectacular landscapes or multi-character scenes and only one person’s face is in focus. It’s interesting visually, but prevents the viewer from scanning the frame - which I find not only annoying but limiting to the storytelling (in contrast to a film like Citizen Cane where the use of background, foreground, and center each tell a different story). 

Loved the premise of language as the Rosetta stone for humanity’s first contact with Aliens, and Arrival almost perfectly lives up to the premise. After this and Sicario I’m excited to not only go back and watch Prisoners, but for what Denis Villeneuve will do next. 

NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

Sometimes you wish a movie tried to do less. A little less glossy, a little less CGI, a little less canned dialogue, a few less characters. 

Trade the list above out for a bit more character development, a bit more world building, and a bit slower pacing and you can have a great heist genre film. Instead we have a shiny rollercoaster, that while fun to watch, leaves you feeling much like you just, well, rode a rollercoaster: fun and twisty but you wouldn’t think much about it after you’re off the ride. 

Specifically when it comes to twisty, “bet you didn’t see this coming”movies like this one, often times the reveal calls into question the motivation of characters up until that point. That’s the case here. If Mark Ruffalo is in fact the magician, why does he react so strongly to the tip that his partner might be a plant? He’s playing the part? I don’t really buy it. In this way I think the writers manipulate the audience through character to serve the plot, rather than using the plot to reveal the character. It’s a sort of dishonest storytelling in a way. 

The camera movement borders on maniacal - some of the sequences when they’re performing on stage feel like they were captured by strapping a go-pro to a drone and letting a professional drone racer whip around the auditorium. It was a lot. I think locking off shots on a tripod - even if just a few, can build tension and allow the audience to focus on the situation rather than the setting. Camera movement connotes action and undermines empathy (perhaps because as humans we see things from a generally “static” view? this is a working thesis :)). 

The premise is great - four magicians come together to rob banks and give the score to the poor. Just wish it was dealt with a little more honesty. The ‘magic’ performed by the four horseman is explained once, which helps with the sense of realism, but a lot of their smaller tricks rely on CGI and don’t have the feeling that they’re possible. Accordingly, the universe that they build feels a little fantastical and, once again, undercuts the reality and empathy. 

We don’t know anything about the characters really, other than they’re magicians (cool!), but without some flaws, hopes, dreams, or backstory, we’re just watching them toss around zingers without caring if they succeed or fail. The four leads are likable because they’re charismatic actors, but not for any tangible story reasons. 

In a lot of ways the film reminds me of Ocean’s Eleven (vegas-centric ensemble heist), but lacks the whimsy or likability. Here the plot is too twisty and the audience’s perspective and allegiance too divided to be fully effective. Are we on the side of the four horseman or the detective? Both, is the answer, so we don’t root for either side very strongly - if they succeed great, if the detective succeeds, ok. Whenever there’s a fork in the road we’re apathetic as to the direction we take. 

Fun, twisty ride. A crunchy funnel-cake of a movie - an entertaining activity but not very nourishing. 

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (2016)

Plane Movie!

I feel like I just ate a big bag of popcorn - it’s that feeling where you know you ate something, but you’re not really full or nourished. It’s more an activity that a meal. The first few handfuls taste good, but by the end of the bag you’re just mindlessly reaching for more even though the bag is mostly just kernels at this point. 

Central Intelligence is like that. It’s fun at first, but wears on you quickly. 

In particular, Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock’s performance was very very weird. He’s not a bad actor, I don’t think. But in this case - whether it was his or the director’s choices - he came off as a goofy over actor. Not relatable and not a character - something else. An unrealistic persona that didn’t quite know who he was. Perhaps as a result of the writing - trying to make this person a potential double agent - so he had to play some “unpredictable but nice” blend. Either way, it felt like I was watching an underdeveloped bad improv character. So far from realism. So very far. 

I’m not sure why - story-wise - that you make the “buddy” in the buddy cop story a potential antagonist. The audience is smart enough to know they could never be the case, so we’re watching a movie unfold where the outcome is already set. Instead of getting to see The Rock and Kevin Hart banter as teammates, we get a lot of screen time of Hart being skeptical of The Rock. That doesn’t get us anywhere, emotionally. 

The action was clunky and manufactured, and a lot of the settings felt ‘studio comedy’. Just not that interesting and very predictable. 

MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES (2016)

Plane movie!

Four charismatic leads in a high-gloss production. We want it to be great, but we know it won’t be for some reason. 

That’s the case here. While the leads are indeed charismatic and charming enough to get us through the end and enjoy ourselves at moments, the story is missing some very key elements. 

The premise is fun, but the motivations of the characters are unclear, who they are as people is underdeveloped, and the central goal or conflict seems to be wholly absent. 

By the time we’re in Hawaii with the foursome, we’re not sure what the motivations are. The girls are just trying to have a fun vacation, the guys are trying to have the girls be good dates. This isn’t a conflict as much as very slightly different outlooks on the trip (I would argue there’s a ton of overlap here - wedding are fun, especially if you’re a drinker / partier like these girls). 

So we have some fun and games but it’s unclear why we’re invested. The only story point that remains a thin thread of plot is the knowledge that the girls will be found out as liars. They are, it’s by their own admission. Not clever, not interesting. 

It seems that whenever there was an story issue that needing solving, the characters got in a room, bantered, then agreed. This happened with the boys pushing back on the suggestion of wedding dates, then with Tatiana admitting they were liars, then with the sister deciding to get married. These are all potentially meaty turning points that essentially just get talked out. 

I wish these characters were developed, the motivation and conflict clear, and the story twists more plot-based. Without that we don’t get emotionally invested and when that’s the case we’re left unsatisfied. There are some nice moments of characters ‘revealing’ themselves to each other, but we don’t know where they started or who they are. 

I’d beef up the pre-hawaii plot also - the finding of wedding dates (as well as the girls getting “nice”) was montaged over and there’s tons of room for comedy there. We can learn about our characters and have fun - instead we’re hanging out in Hawaii too soon with no real direction. 

This reminds me - I need to rewatch Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In contrast, that movie establishes the main character’s relationship and state of mind. We’re on board with him and want him to heal. It’s emotional, and because it is the jokes hit harder.

 

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

Plane Movie! 

Heartfelt, unique, made a statement, and entertaining. Loved it. 

Checked all the boxes a movie should. Very few missteps. 

It followed the ‘save the cat’ structure pretty closely and it makes sense - i notice it but when i do i tend to enjoy the movies. The catalyst, the debate, the fun and games, the midpoint (in this case a false low), the bad guys close in (fighting with grandparents and losing the kids), dark night of the soul (when he’s alone at the campfire), finale (they did up mom and burn her). And they end with some nice character change. 

The opening image was sprawling mountains and the final was Ben looking out the window longingly. He became domesticated, slightly, in order to better serve his children. 

The argument of the film seems to surround the effectiveness of our current method of raising kids, but as a mirror for society as a whole. The angelic lifestyle created by Ben and his family forces you to consider it as an alternative option to our current urban way of life. 

Maybe we all should just read and hunt in the woods? The end of the film seems to suggest that maybe somewhere in between is the best - I tend to agree. 

Viggo Mortensen does a great job with thoughtful, restrained, and confident charisma. And the kids all look like they were pulled from a j crew commercial then thrown through the mud. Beautiful kids and amazing casting. Super fun to watch and great acting. 

There are a few amazing moments - one of my favorites is when Ben (Viggo) crashes the funeral and reads his wife’s will. It felt real and dramatic. 

The stakes in the film were established early and the conflict in the debate was amazing - a tough decision (go to mom’s funeral and risk losing dad) that is fun to consider. 

Grandpa is also a great antagonist - he’s a bit over the top but he also calcifies and represents a very real view: that Ben’s way of raising kids is dangerous and alienating. It’s not untrue and that’s what makes the conflict engaging. 

The story remains whimsical and fantastic while rooted in our modern reality - this combination is rare and wonderful to see. 

The script and story also reek of intellectual research and the patina the dialogue from the hyper-educated kids is a delight to listen to. 

The oldest boys interactions with girls was a little on the absurd (him proposing to the girl in the trailer park was unrealistic - they get modern magazines and he was applying to college - he would know he was moving too quickly). Despite that, I loved the scene. His confusion was well played and fun - even though my disbelief wasn’t fully suspended in that moment. 

A satisfying, modern-but-timeless story that holds a mirror up to society and asks the question: Are we going in the right direction? 

The best movies are art, and the best art encapsulates an idea in an entertaining package. 

Captain Fantastic did just that. Oh, it should have a better name. Captain Fantastic makes it sound like a cheeseball family drama, which it is in some ways, but it’s a whole lot more. Especially rated R, they should have gone with something a bit more provocative. Captain Fantastic plus the fact that it’s about a father and his kids makes it seem watery and empty. That’s not the case. Plus it sounds like a superhero movie (which is maybe the point - the Ben is a modern day superhero - but that’s a bit meta I think and probably unlikely). Maybe a name like ‘In the Mountains we Yell”. 

 

On National Politics

Some stream-of-consciousness rambles on a new system of government written on the subway the day after the election.

I’m not sure if the entire system is broken and we should throw it out or if it’s primarily the election process. We have a situation where only picking between two parties seems insufficient — not inherently, but because they don’t fully (or even adequately) represent constituents’ views.

Speaking in silly analogies, if we think about a political party as a mixed fruit basket, the electorate are only given two fruit baskets to choose from. And unfortunately there are a few fruits in each basket (ie agendas or policies) that you may not like. Instead of providing the electorate the ability to switch out the fruits and create their own fruit basket, we act like there can only be two baskets.

We need more baskets to choose from. More fruit baskets. You get it.

So how do we better elect candidates that are competing based on issues that constituents care about and not competing based on who’s a sexist bigot and who is corrupt with private email servers. It’s mud slinging and a failed opportunity to focus on issues. The schism between the two parties is so big that elections can be nothing but insult filled exercises in psychology and rhetoric (with Trumps experience in reality TV, he’s right at home and scary good. He essentially speaks in tongues and it works).

The President at this point has started to feel like an unnecessary middle man in a world where I can inform myself on issues that need deciding on. Sure, he or she as President should have the nuclear codes but for Supreme Court justice why is the President our guy? Can’t we take more ownership of the decisions and process?

Our current system — namely the representative vote and the electoral college — is pre-internet. I have a supercomputer in my pocket I don’t need to give my vote away to someone in a room in Washington who by definition has other interests in mind.

This line of thought makes me want to dissolve the government almost entirely and replace it with a software program that allows constituents to vote, pay taxes, see where their taxes are going, and get healthcare.

A system like this could allow you to vote on issues directly, or even align with a party rep that you “follow” — the way they vote, you vote also. Simple and powerful.

So imagine a system where you can be as involved as you’d like, and the “representatives” can represent any number of people — from their small group of friends to their local community to an entire state. You’re busy and you think your friend Shirley is up on the issues? Let her be your rep (and your votes align with hers).

What are the flaws in this system? Not sure there are any at it’s core but plenty of operating concerns. How do you make the platform secure, free, and unbiased? Maybe it’s financed by taxes the same way our government is.

So in broad strokes we replace our government with a software program that’s financed through taxes.

But we need people to build and maintain this software. Definitely. So we use the software itself to elect people to work on the software.

So the software enables a democracy and the democracy enables the software to be managed by a representative group of people. Those who’d work on the software wouldn’t actually be responsible for legislation, they’re responsible for maintaining the system that allows for legislation. Stewards, sort of. We’d pay them tremendously and could have it be a term-limit position. We’d compartmentalize the work they do so they can manipulate the system from the inside.

What makes this idea strong is that it abstracts the “government” (in this case software) from the issues while bringing the issues closer to the people.

Once we have the electorate voting directly for issues, the question of regional legislation emerges. Do we need states? Do we need a country? How do we define shared infrastructure and national interest? Highways seem like a national issue along with trade. Does healthcare and reproductive rights need to be? Can they be local to states or counties or even cities? Is population density actually an indicator of different outlooks and lifestyles and therefore should be the dividing line?

Would it be possible to split the nation by urban and rural and have those two “factions” live in harmony? I don’t really know. Eliminate that friction by dividing those interests. However, this maybe a dangerous separation between the wealthy elite and the middle class. Would need to know the urban / suburban economic make up to know the viability. Perhaps the economic and social ties between cities and their suburban and rural surroundings are too strong or lines too blurry to separate. On the high level dividing the governing lines along social and “lifestyle” lines (rather than geographic) seems to make sense.

The key question? How do we align the ideology of the people with the ideology of the system within which they live? How do we create a government that truly caters to its constituents? Government should be active, effective, reflexive, and participatory.

Or in rebuttal to that, is it even the solution? Maybe what happened in the latest election is what’s supposed to happen. The educated elite were apathetic and complacent and were overtaken by the angry and disenfranchised (but passionate!) Are we supposed to swing back and forth and over decades head the right direction — like a sailboat heading upwind that has to tack east and west when heading into wind from the north. Maybe this is democracy working.

And here we get into ideas of individualism vs populism and whether my self interest is best for me or whether the collection of self interests is better.

Intrinsically tied into our society are businesses and institutions — employers more generally speaking. Aren’t they some of the primary drivers of both social and economic livelihood of the population ( i.e. Having direct control of the economics and lifestyles of their employees)? It seems they have a unique opportunity and responsibility here to be deeply ingratiated in whatever governing system is optimal.

If we assume work and maximizing your skills and utility is fundamental to happiness, how do we lean into that using corporate entities. Already they’re linked to taxes and healthcare and geography and housing and social impact. Could full employment by micro corporate “nations” result in the right social economic climate at large? Corporations are already relocating employees and sponsoring meals, healthcare, continued education — what’s the logical extreme of that?

In this thought experiment, where you work can define your lifestyle and governing body. Companies become the levers by which policy is implemented. There are lots of interesting questions here. Do you work for a company based on your role or the company’s policies (policies = company’s politics)? Interestingly, I believe the companies that will continue to be successful are those that are truly mission driven, what if we gave them the tools to more fully govern employees? What if you work at a pro-choice company or a pro-life company? It’s not a geographic one but an employment one. The companies who want to have a certain culture will define their politics accordingly.

In this way there seems to be a bit of clarity and purity. Let companies govern on the micro and let the software govern the companies on the macro. Or maybe these are two separate governmental options.

The checks and balances are established because the employees set the rules under which businesses can operate (by voting on a national and state level) and then the business manage the employees social rights, healthcare, etc. The same rules that apply to business — in the competitive sense — then apply to the rules they implement socially. The companies that want to retain the best employees with continue to implement the best policy. This feels messy and lot would have to be worked through.

The danger is each company becomes a homogenous subculture — but I suppose that’s already the case in many ways.

If people love their work they’re happy so how do we more strongly align that with our system of government.

So in this model we’d want stricter control over companies, who then define civil liberties. The companies are then policed by laws and regulations that are voted on by their employees in some sort of regional sense. There are still lots of open questions on regions or territories of governing here. But maybe it could be as simple as the company? A company is a governing entity whereby the employees have direct control over policy and leadership? The employees that take advantage of the system then drive their company into the ground and eliminate themselves. Could this be a way to both maximize profit and happiness and quality of life? The model may shatter for smaller companies — they may not have the infrastructure. Small companies could band together as coalitions to provide infrastructure and benefits. That could work.

Maybe this is a version of the coop / kibbutz model. Ideally keeping upward movement as real tangible possibilities (as well as preventing cohabitation and pooled income) prevents the downfall here.

Public infrastructure is an open question — but perhaps private companies could fill those gaps. Then they’re competing for the business of the other companies. Roads are always an interesting example — maybe they could all be toll roads? Or some amount of government is preserved for infrastructure and public safety. Taxes go there. Or perhaps more in the vein of public utilities. Private companies with strong regulation providing infrastructure level services.

Definitely lots of open question but fun to rethink things from the ground up. Need a longer subway ride.

THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)

Everything a movie should be. Walked in without knowing what to expect, and when the lights came up my friend and I turned to each other grinning. Impressive, fun, and unexpected. 

There’s a lot to love here. Great composition, fun 3 part story structure that’s nonlinear but heightens the story and complexity each time, empowered females, and good dark humor. Oh - and big props for a feminist movie that didn’t feel like that was the goal (some people may argue the sex scenes take away from it, but I read it as normalizing gay sex. Of course, they’re very good looking women and I’m a straight guy so what do I know). 

The camera movements are lavish, dramatic, and frequent. They’re unmotivated, which I often take issue with, but because the plot is twisty and the tone somewhat whimsical, it underscored and added to the universe, if still a bit distracting at times.

The story reminds me of GONE GIRL where the information is perfectly managed and doled out. You’re within a particular characters perspective each time, so you never feel manipulated as the story unravels. If that perspective is not well managed or respected it can come off uninteresting storytelling in the best case and as patronizing in the worst. Not an issue here. It’s the type of movie that you want to rewatch once you've seen it the first time through. There are enough visual easter eggs planted early that I'm sure it will feel super satisfying. 

The composition and production design are world class. The Japanese universe that’s built (with considerable influence from Korea and England - as exposited by the characters early on) is rich, textured, and fun. Even though the Japanese aesthetic of Zen gardens and paper walls has been seen on film many times before, ere it seems especially vibrant, sexy, and mysterious - maybe helped by the camera’s movement and often-times POV perspective. 

The POV perspective gives hints to the plot twist - in that each character’s perspective has a slightly different set of information available - and upon which the entire plot rests. The camera movement and storytelling leans into this, by repeating the same scene with different shots or different parts of a scene. 

The humor and levity of the production keeps the sometimes heavy content (an uncle who makes his niece read dirty stories to his friends) from feeling depressing or like a chore. Highly effective, because as opposed to coming off as a dark drama, the tone is more of a psychological thriller meets a blockbuster heist meets a romantic comedy. What a combo! 

The tone itself perhaps feels the freshest of all - you’re intrigued and uncovering plot points and laughing and invested in each character’s struggle. It’s both cinematic and relatable. There’s also a ton of lesbian sex - which, lacking either narrator’s cliff notes - gives the feeling of honesty and relief for the female protagonists in a world where they’re otherwise manipulating those around them and living under a false identity. Maybe we're most honest ourselves and those around us in throes of passion?

The film’s strongest theme seems to be identity. Each character is dealing with their own identity crisis in different ways - from the uncle (“I just want to read dirty stories”) to the male con artist (“I just want to order wine without worrying about the price”) to the female leads who are both escaping their gender roles and trying to express their love freely. It’s only appropriate that they have to pose as a male-female couple as the final step to escaping the oppressive control of the uncle (and Japan at large?). 

Further underscoring the theme of identity are the conversations around Korea and Japan. I don’t know too much about the relationship between the countries, but the uncle wanting to be Japanese and the mixture of Japanese and Korean language left me wanting to know more. Regardless, the theme of identity was central and pervasive throughout. 

And when you get a theme (identity) that complements a story (three con artists pretending to be people they’re not) that complements a plot (the story told in 3 parts, each from a different point of view and information set) that is complemented by the cinematography (specific framing, movement, POV shots, and perspective) you have a brilliant, tightly wound, swiss clock of a film. Each component of the film thoughtful and intentional. That's how it should be. 

Impressive and delightful. One of my favorites of the year. 

MOONLIGHT (2016)

Yawn. A big ‘ol yawn. 

I’m not saying yawn to the subject - a very closeted gay black man with no parents or social support system who gets bullied. I’m not saying yawn to the importance of telling the story and putting characters who are rarely seen in the spotlight. It’s important. I’m glad this movie was made and that it’s getting attention. 

It’s just really boring to watch. It’s slow, which can be fine. It’s acted with restraint and little dialogue, which can work. But it’s not entertaining. How can we embrace your theme or message if the artistic package within which you’re carrying it is not worthy of our attention. 

The main character takes no action and almost has no reaction to the events that unfold around him. Is it a real depiction of how someone oppressed may behave in this situation? Perhaps. But it’s also bad storytelling. We don’t care about this character and can’t empathize - the one goal of a film like this. And if we’re not getting the empathy then through the audience a bone with some entertainment. But we don’t get that either. 

Make the protagonist likable, have them change over the course of the film, have them take action to get what they want (if they fail, that’s fine), have them react to their environment. 

Moonlight did NONE of these. I’m all for challenging the pillars of traditional storytelling but when you do you risk making a 110 minute exercise in frustration. Maybe that was the point?

Was the audience supposed to feel uncomfortable in the silence the same way the supporting characters did? I think that gives the film too much credit. Watching someone pout into their mac n cheese isn’t a movie. I’m not empathizing, I’m checking my watch. 

It’s upsetting because, as mentioned, it’s an important and timely subject matter. If the film was better, it’d have a chance of being a true cultural staple. Instead I’m guessing it ends up as intellectual fodder for it’s educated liberal limited release and quietly moves onto VOD. The acting and directing, while definitely bold, was too restrained to make any award season impact, if I have to guess (still don’t know how those nominations fully work, either way). 

One of my biggest issues with the film was it’s ‘3 chapter’ approach. Maybe we’ll see a different version or evolution of the character in each chapter? Nope! He’s the same quiet, stare-down-at-my-plate-and-not-speak boy for the first 60 minutes of the movie. Fuck that. It’s offensive and frustrating to the audience. The first two chapters were the exact same stories - lack of a father figure, crack mom, bullied, quiet. Establish those things in the first 20 minutes and let’s move the fuck on to how the character deals and copes and changes and learns. 

Moonlight feels to me like the subject matter and themes got in the way of the storytelling, or perhaps were confused for story themselves. Good films aren’t stories about people who simply exist, they’re stories about people who struggle and change, regardless of if they win or lose. Did Chiron change by the end of the film? Maybe his resting his head on his friend’s shoulder is that moment. But why then?

Visually the camera work was roaming and aggressive. Too aggressive at times. Some nice follow shots but occasionally you’re wondering why the camera is spinning around. The visual flair seems to distract from the acting, which in this unique case wasn’t always a bad thing. Hey if the main character isn’t doing anything we might as well watch some camera tricks. 

I loved the skin tones and saturation at times - maybe they cranked up the sharpness? The downside is a lot of the plant life came off as a sickly, otherworldly yellow. The style definitely relied more on color and texture than composition. It’s too bad because well composed shots serve the acting and the story better, while providing a quieter way to have visual flair and intrigue. 

Glad I saw it but so frustrated because the subject matter had so much potential. 

AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

A beautiful analogy for the American experience even though you likely didn’t have one quite like the one we see on screen. It’s a movie about the American dream and how its promise often comes up short, but you realize that even though you’re miserable we’re all miserable together.

We have our American girl, Star, leaving a bad situation to be free - travel with a group of friends, make money, see the world (or at least some of the ugly middle parts of the US).

She realizes that the workplace isn’t as rosy as she hoped, with lying, deceit, and self interest being the only rules by which people play. Eventually she embraces these ideals herself and finds success doing so.

By the end of the film the “freedom” of the new opportunity doesn’t feel entirely so free anymore. There’s risk to leaving - financial and physical, but maybe most importantly: emotional. Once you’re a part of a system and a community, even though it’s flawed, it’s very hard to leave.

AMERICAN HONEY provides an amazing comment on the lock-in of the American system - are we “free” or is this version of communal suffering simply the best we have to choose from? There’s freedom - the road trip analogy in the case of the film - but there’s really no escape. Being free simultaneously means you’re left alone if you don’t adhere to the rules.

Krystal - the leader of the magazine selling tribe - delivers most of the framework and logic for how and why the group operates, if her own motivations aren’t entirely clear (a downside of the film). She threatens to out you if you don’t play by the rules, considers you lucky to be a part of the group, emphasizes the importance of capitalism, and has a unapologetic sexiness about her. If that isn’t a metaphor for America I don’t know what is.

Further underscoring the feeling of being “trapped” in this fake freedom is the 4:3 aspect ratio, making the van and conflicts feel additionally claustrophobic - a brilliant contrast to the open spaces long roads. Even in the great wide open these kids are trapped in this life.

Are they traveling the country or do they simply have nowhere else to go? By the end of the movie it’s clearly the latter.

Star is a charismatic lead, if one dimensional and often making the uneducated decisions we wish she wouldn’t. She make she the decisions your parents warn you about, and perhaps that make sense as her parents are absent scumbags. One of the brilliant story telling choices in the film is putting Star into situations where the worst is possible but it doesn’t happen. “She could be raped or killed!” you’re thinking as she dips her toe into prostitution. That thought is all you need to make the scene dramatic and tense. The filmmakers understand the audience will assume the worst, so the avoidance of telling a more melodramatic version (where she gets beaten or raped - both fair within this universe) is actually more daunting and powerful. It’s the vulnerability that strikes a true chord.

I didn’t fully buy into the relationship between Jake and Star - maybe that was the point. But when they were fighting or making love (some amazing love making scenes - very real in the grass with jerky gonzo style camera movements) I didn’t really care what the outcome would be. Our we meant to think their connection was more lust than love or was it ineffective storytelling? I think the ambiguity was intended but it would have served for them to connect about something deeper than money or Jake’s bag of stolen jewelry.

Star’s role as the attractor of all things animal - both animals and humans - serves to humanize her and make her likable. Some people just seem to attract the wild and try to care for it and she falls into that camp. There also was a ridiculous, over the top scene where a bear yells in her face then wanders off but I mean fuck it why not. Cinema!

The cinematography was close up, yellow, saturated, shallow focus, and often felt documentary-esque. An interesting mixed bag that made the film feel grounded and raw, but still cinematic and striking. A tough line to walk but one that they managed mostly with success.

The music was low-brow-rap-pop (not a genre, i know) - but essentially songs that are more for their catch phrases and beats than their ideas. Brilliant choice considering the overall message of the film is that America is just one big bag of cheetos and we’re just living in it.

Walking out of the movie I was a fan, but after unpacking it a bit more I think it’s a brilliant effort.

Great world building, ambitious themes, and unique story telling. That’s good movie making. If this long and rambling post is any indication it’s thought provoking to boot.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

An all in drama that could have risked being syrupy or over dramatic and was tonally perfect.

He's a janitor who's responsible for his kids death in a fire then his brother dies which makes him return home to where he lived when the tragedy occurred. It's dark subject matter that instead of coming across as morbid becomes an exploration of the human experience and emotional survival.

The result is a feeling of survival and triumph of life over grief. Nothing is perfect or notably better in terms of circumstances, but rather the tools for coping with the circumstances are shaper.

That's the story we're told and it's a really good one.

Equal parts touching, sad, and funny - this flick works. The runtime of 2:15 doesn't feel slow and is necessary to fully capture the emotional arc and growth of the characters.

The cinematographer is gorgeous - restrained in movement, well composed frames, a touch over exposed and over saturated led to gorgeous dreaming-or-not vibes without feeling at all stylized.

The story structure is brilliant also - rather than having us slog through a linear progression of the misery of Lee, we're given consistent flashbacks to his relationship with his brother and wife and the loss of his kids. It breaks us from the dry events (visiting lawyer and funeral home) while underscoring and heightening the complexity of Lees situation.

Acting was perfect. Cast perfect. They were believable and their words -  and often the pregnant pauses between them - were captivating and entertaining and endearing and realistic. A hard combo.

One of the best edited films I've seen. Managing the tone (making it severe without depressing), the humor, the pregnant pauses in conversations, the flashbacks, and the gorgeous scenic insert. It felt methodical and spacious without feeling slow. Brilliant.

Loved this one.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

Great modern day bank heist movie set against the gorgeous and grimy West Texas prairie.

Loved Ben Foster as the loose cannon criminal though bought less Chris Pines as his straight-edge-but-mastermind brother - maybe he was too pretty?

Jeff Bridges is always fun even if his growl is unintelligible half the time.

The scenic landscapes were great and the characters were unique and charismatic. Overall liked the story with a subtext of ‘the banks are killing America.’

The cinematography - while beautiful at times - felt a bit off to me. The exposure and colors seemed a bit harsh or imbalanced at times, but most vexing was unmotivated camera moves. I love a flow dolly in, but big dramatic dolly moves when the characters are having a conversation are distracting and unwarranted. It makes it seem like the filmmakers aren’t confident in the dialogue (and rightfully so, some of the dialogue feels a bit on the nose - like TV sitcom style “zingers”).

Fun energy and felt like a fresh take on bank heist, where our protagonists have specific goals - one’s in it for the outcome and one’s in it for the ride.

The shootout at the end was gripping and felt original - a stand off where everyone loses. Whether or not Ben Foster’s character would have made that choice is an open question - but portraying it as they did forces the audience to question ‘going out in a blaze’ not by circumstance but by choice. It’s something we see on the news everyday and as been normalized through exposure, if not fully understood.

Rich movie that was just shy of phenomenal - but still very very good.