All You Need To Know About mother!

mother! is the kind of movie that someone’s probably going to end up getting fired for approving.

mother! is the kind of movie that represents someone getting studio money and lighting it afire, as any director worth a damn should.

mother! is a movie that will actually manage to change the image of Jennifer Lawrence, a star so big that she won an Oscar before most of us graduated college.

mother! is a movie that no commercial or trailer has come close to selling, a movie that’s better if you don’t know a damn thing about it going in.

mother! is a movie that will have 20 people in the theater and only 2 of them will end up walking out liking it.

mother! is a movie that has already spurred pretty much the starkest divide between the people who love it and people who hate it since Boyhood, with even less middle ground.

mother! is a movie that everyone will walk out totally 100% assured that they know what it’s about. They will disagree with everyone around them.

mother! may be a gritty reboot of the Giving Tree. That also may be the least insane interpretation of this film.

mother! is a movie that is made with supreme confidence, chilling thought, and immense skill.

mother! is a movie that had my jaw on the floor for the entire last half hour. That is when I wasn’t cackling in disbelief.

mother! is the best thing I’ve seen all year and I don’t think I can recommend it to any one without a million caveats up front.

I’ll have a full review Monday, but for now, let this basically be something that sells you on the film and absolves me of responsibility for your reaction.

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IT terrifies both as a portrait of the pains of childhood and as a movie where a clown jumps out at you

Summary: The town of Derry has a secret. Every 27 years, a great evil strikes, a tragedy happens. In 1988, children begin disappearing, including young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). His brother, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), begins to pursue Georgie’s disappearance which leads him and his friends into a collision course with the great evils of Derry, all embodied in Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a monstrous clown who can embody the personal demons of the children.

There’s something powerful about seeing great depictions of childhood on screen, something eternally evocative. The memories may be fuzzy, but the feelings burn as strong as ever. The joy of leaving school. The exhilaration of playing with your friends. The sadness at that parent fight you overheard. The anger at the bully. The pangs of first love. The terror as an ageless clown monster opens his gaping maw and tries to eat your flesh in his murder dungeon.

Okay, so director Andy Muschietti’s IT may have a few childhood events that may have never happened to you.

But that absolutely doesn’t take away from the heart of what works about the latest Stephen King adaptation. Perhaps as much (some would say more, but I am not some) a character study of the children its about as a shock-and-awe supernatural movie, IT takes an incredibly strong central cast and a steady hand at the camera to craft a story as much about the fears and traumas of youth as it is about the terror of the unknown stalking monster.

Adapted from what is likely the ur-Stephen King text, IT takes the liberty of adjusting the timeline, now putting the child Loser’s Club and their battle against Pennywise in the unsettling town of Derry, Maine in the late 80s.

I will say it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. As evocative as the time period is aesthetically, IT does little to place its children within a cultural sense of the 80s, a sense of losing themselves to a fracturing and greedy culture. King’s work evokes the 50s very specifically, and outside of a few music cues and posters, this Derry loses that place in time.

Maybe I’m chastising the film for something it isn’t trying to do. For Muschietti, Derry isn’t about its place, but rather what it is. For this IT, Derry is reflection of the evil that inhabits it and what it does to those who succumb. You get the feeling that at any time, the grotesque adults who inhabit the town could turn into some horrifying monster…or maybe they already are. The leering pharmacist, the abusive father, the program on the television that seems to speak directly to you. All of these things create a world that makes it hard to understand and makes it even harder to feel safe.

You know, like being a kid. You never understand why anyone is the way they are, you’re at the mercy of powerful people and stronger people who choose not to use their power in your favor or even choose to use it to harm you.

What perhaps works better about IT than anything else is how accurate a portrait it is of being a child. Of that sense of adventure, that sense of mystery, and that sense of how terrifying the world around you is. Of how important your friends are to you and how they can mean everything when the world is hostile to you. The movie brings you back to those primal feelings of childhood, ones you maybe didn’t have a name for.

It also helps that the movie has an extraordinary child cast. It’s rare to cast one kid that works well in a movie, it’s a bonafide miracle to make a whole cast work. Enough ink has already spilled on them, but I must emphasize how extraordinary Jaeden Liberher (Bill) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly) are. Both give legitimately strong performances that transcend “for a kid.” Liberher plays the obsessiveness and pain of someone who can’t get over a loss so well and Lillis is a powerhouse performer, a surprise who manages to do so much with just a look or a moment where she says nothing at all.

There’s plenty of praise to spread around though. Finn Wolfhard (the most “experienced” member of the cast in this mode, coming off Stranger Things) as Richie manages to thread the needle between totally likeable and impossibly irritating (he also definitely gets the movie’s best applause line). Jeremy Ray Taylor does really sweet work as Ben and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie plays through one of the film’s best character arcs.

You don’t want to just hear about the kids though. The big question looming over this work: How’s Pennywise? Tim Curry’s take on Stephen King’s most iconic monster (don’t @ me) is legendary and so I’m happy to report that Skarsgard really does avoid trying to echo or copy it and instead carves his own take on the character. Curry played his Pennywise all too human, something like John Wayne Gacy or Dahmer, the mocking charm giving way to monster only at the last second.

Skargard chooses to play on the Lovecraftian undertones of the character and makes Pennywise, for lack of a better term,a thing that should not be. His Pennywise is very much a thing that pretends to be human. His eyes drifting away from each other, his movements distorting the very reality around him, his body a twisted tangle barely kept together for appearances. Some dodgy CGI and a bit of overdesign play a role, but there’s even something deeply disturbing about those moments too, when his jaw unhinges to reveal rows of teeth that seem to briefly distort reality.

Is it scary? I’m not the best to ask here, but I certainly thought so. Of course the movie rests mostly on jump scares for its most direct moments, getting a couple of truly effective ones in. But there’s a dread, a paranoia that sets in throughout the film that adds a layer of terror. At any time the monster can appear, it could be anyone or anything. We can never quite trust our eyes, Pennywise seems to make it a mission to challenge our perception.

A film like that requires a lot of confidence behind the camera and the team here is more than up to is challenge. I’ve thrown enough praise to Muschietti’s vision that I need to throw praise behind his collaborators. Writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (originally intended to direct), and Gary Dauberman do a fine job of pulling King’s vision into coherent cinema, a surprisingly rare and difficult achievement. Benjamin Wallfisch crafts a beautiful score that infuses a little mysticism and wonder into the terrifying proceedings. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (famous for his work on Oldboy) gives the camera a distorted and constantly moving look at its world that befits a paranoid air and gives Derry and its residents and its underworld a perfectly grimy and shadowy sheen.

IT is the kind of film that is a collective experience, the kind of film that everyone’s gonna see and everyone will see themselves in. Terror and tragedy all told in the time that everyone’s gone through.

Grade: A-

 

 

Oscars Watch 2018 (Preview): What To Keep An Eye On This Year

Yes, this is probably too early.

But to be fair, this isn’t really a set of predictions. We don’t even begin to know what’s for sure getting released this year, much less what’s getting pushed and what will be successful outside of the festivals where these things live and even less what the political atmosphere will be surrounding this.

Think of this more as a trend piece. What should you be keeping an eye out for? If you want to keep up on what’s hot in the film world, what should you be grabbing tickets for? Basically, it’s a Fall preview, but only for the “respectable stuff.” You already know about Blade Runner 2049 (which actually does stand a good chance of getting technical nominations), Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Justice League. What else?

This is also by NO means a comprehensive list. This’ll be missing stuff like Wonderstruck, Logan, The Greatest Showman, Molly’s Game, Wonder, Last Flag Flying, Professor Marston & The Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman, A Ghost Story, and all the potential nominees for Foreign/Animated/Documentary.

So, right now, we’ll divide the fall festival films/Oscar hopefuls (insofar as they have a good chance, not all prestige bait necessarily) into three categories: Great Guesses, Don’t Count Them Out, and Count Them Out.

Also, I’m gonna use my standard rule for previews that I’m only gonna talk about movies we actually have seen something from, anywhere from a release to reviews out of a film festival. So sorry Phantom Thread and The Post, you’ll have to wait until later. The films here are the ones that are gonna play big roles. Best Picture is kind of the assumption, but there may be other awards I’m expecting, which I’ll note below.

Great Guesses

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name seems to be the most direct response to last year’s surprise victory in Moonlight. A queer story, though one that seems to revolve much more around its romance, Call Me By Your Name is walking the path that Moonlight really blazed for it, a space that seemed unfriendly to a previously much more conservative Academy.

But even beyond that, Call Me By Your Name has received almost universal raves since its debut at Sundance. Luca Guadagnino (a long time critical favorite) has been called a beautifully written, gorgeously shot, and masterfully acted story that’s specific and universally relatable. With an apparent breakout performance for Armie Hammer as young star Timothee Chalamet and a score from Sufjan Stevens, there’s a lot to get excited about here and a lot for voters to latch onto.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score/Best Original Song

Dunkirk/Darkest Hour

Is there another year we’ve had two films functionally about the same event that have both attracted as much attention as these two have? Two films about the Evacuation of Dunkirk, one on the ground and one back in London making the decisions, both attracting huge Oscar attention. Dunkirk for Nolan’s visceral, “You Are There” filmmaking and sheer towering technical achievement, Darkest Hour as a more traditional chamber prestige drama rotating around its dialogue and the huge, flashy lead performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

Maybe (Both)?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score
Maybe (Dunkirk)?: Just name a technical award
Maybe (Darkest Hour)?: Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Original Screenplay

The Shape of Water

With its Golden Lion win at Venice Film Festival, The Shape of Water technically becomes the first “Oscar season” picture to put some points on the board. Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fairy tale of the love between a mute woman and a fish man has been getting gushing love throughout the critical spectrum. So far, the film has been praised for its sensuality and sensitivity as well as performances from lead Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as well as supporting work from Richard Jenkins. That the design and directorial work is also extremely strong should surprise no one.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Original Screenplay, All Technical Awards

Battle of the Sexes

The kind of film that will play like gangbusters for Hollywood and the critical audience (given every piece was “This is the election, but not the election”), it will be no surprise when Battle of the Sexes gets to be a huge crowd-pleaser coasting on that love to plenty of safe nominations. The sitting Best Actress winner apparently turns out another exceptional performance, so it’ll be interesting to see if she can pull it off again.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Actor (Steve Carrell), Best Original Screenplay

Mudbound

Netflix’s attempt to get Oscar prestige has been, at least for me, the most quietly fascinating story in Hollywood. Not content being at this point synonymous with watching things on streaming and not content with being a player in just the TV awards, Netflix has been buying up prestige pics and projects right and left. Dee Rees’ post-WWII story of race and family has attracted a lot of attention and seems well up the Academy’s alley as one of the few Black films this year getting any attention.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jason Mitchell), Best Supporting Actor (Garret Hedlund), Best Supporting Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Original Screenplay

Don’t Count Them Out

The Films of A24

A24, having won last year’s Best Picture in one of the most dramatic Oscar moments ever, shows no intention on slowing down. While none of the three below are sure things, A24 has a really solid marketing and schmoozing department and the attention and love these have been getting mean that you absolutely shouldn’t count any out. Plus, the fact that these are three of the films that are getting very little division in a divisive year should be worth paying attention to.

Greta Gerwig making a story about women by women that apparently features an incredibly strong performance from lead Saiorse Ronan (already an Oscar darling). Melting everyone’s hearts.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan)

Director of Tangerine makes a working class comedy with a confident directorial style. Amazing Willem Dafoe, great child performances, tapping into stories about the poor and working class.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe), Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography

And here’s my “Dark Horse” pick. Almost universally well-reviewed right now, a film about the passion and love of filmmaking from a director and star who can apparently surprise with a story that has a huge amount of appeal to the newly young Academy. A story about Hollywood anchored by a performance digging into the heart of someone that seems larger than life. I think we should prepare for a lot from The Disaster Artist.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actor (James Franco), Best Adapted Screenplay

Get Out

One of this year’s bonafide cultural phenomenons, Get Out is the kind of populist blockbuster hit that also has a serious brain, its ideas quickly passing into the cultural aether. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut tapped a vein that a smart studio could easily turn into legitimate Oscar gold. And, given how great this movie is, it really does deserve it and the recognition that we need more stories like this could be good for the industry.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Supporting Actress (Lil Rel Howery), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay

The Big Sick

Another romantic and bonafide crowd pleaser, the success of The Big Sick seems primed to wedge its way into the Oscar race. Amazon showed off its Oscar prowess with Manchester by The Sea last year and the industry seems to have absolutely fallen for the story of how writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, already cult favorites, fell in love.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay

I, Tonya

itonya_02-useforannouncement

A very recent entry into the consideration category, this one really just comes down to whether it’s released this year or not. Just picked up by NEON, they could choose to hold it for a 2018 release. If they don’t, the true story of one of the most bizarre stories in sports, apparently told with a 4th-wall breaking Coen-esque flair. Plus, Margot Robbie is just about at the point in her career where it’s time for her to win an Oscar and Allison Janney is apparently stealing the show at every turn.

Maybe?: Best Picture, Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Best Original Screenplay

3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh has never exactly been one for a lot of prestige success, his seriously sweary scripts attract a lot of niche and critical love but are rarely going past recognition for screenplays. But between Frances McDormand’s tornado performance and an incredibly stacked cast in a film that seems to have a little heart alongside its caustic nature might go well for this film.

Maybe?: Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell)

Count Them Out

Suburbicon

Boy, George Clooney sure can whiff ’em. Reactions seem to be generally negative on this one, a film too divided between a dark comedy and an attempt at a social issues picture to work at either. If no one likes it, nothing is gonna stick.

mother!

What’s the opposite of a crowd pleaser? Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-horror mother! is getting a lot of great reviews and I’m dying to see it, but even the most positive word has cautioned that this movie will absolutely not be for everyone with one of the most verifiably insane third acts. The kind of movie that promises to “Mess. You. Up.” is gonna have a really difficult time getting its claws into an Academy Award.

Roman J. Israel, Esq

A chance for Denzel to win another award, but early word seems way too divided on this movie, mostly saying that it just doesn’t ever end up coming together, a lot of raw material that doesn’t quite work. Denzel could rise above, but if no one likes the movie, that’ll be hard. Nightcrawler didn’t exactly light up the Academy either.

Downsizing

While early word out of Venice was positive, this mostly seems to be getting slammed once it gets to American shores. A premise that mostly feels wasted and Payne maybe over-extending his reach a little bit. The word about the Vietnamese refugee character really doesn’t seem to help.

The Current War

The honorary winner of the trailer with the SINGLE LOUDEST CAMERA I’VE EVER SEEN, the constant bag of tricks apparently didn’t mean anything for this film. Reviews say that this is the same bland prestige biopic that always stars Benedict Cumberbatch…just with the camera spinning basically everywhere.

Bojack Horseman season 4 is the best season of one of television’s most surprising achievements

We’re gonna do things a little differently. I tried and struggled to write a full season review and everything sounded kind of hollow. So I’m gonna do deep down what I want to do and write a review of two episodes. This is going to be Episode 2 and Episode 11 of this season, the ones that most heavily feature the storyline revolving around Beatrice (Wendie Malick), Bojack’s mother, and her slide into dementia. 

Let me just go ahead and endorse every other aspect of this show. This season is wickedly funny, emotionally brilliant, and one of the best pieces of animation running on television right now. But for now, we’re going to focus on the most striking part of it.

When are you doomed?

Perhaps more precisely, when can you never go back? When have the circumstances of your birth and decisions made that you never had a hand in kept you from ever being what you want to be?

It’s easy to say that we never are. That we are the masters of our own fates and there’s no point where the sins of the father are insurmountable. But how often is that true? Deep down, there’s some imprint on us that we’ll never really understand and that we can only hope won’t fuck us up too deeply.

And now we bring in the funny talking animal cartoon about Horse Bob Saget.

I don’t mean to be flippant to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation, but there’s a part of me that will never not be amused that a show that started so ridiculously has become so deeply wounding and identifiable. Five episodes of animal puns before it took a quick dive into one celebrity horse and his desperate desire to be a good person and quit making the same mistakes.

All while still making the same animal puns and wacky schemes and generally being willing to indulge in parody just as often.

That’s not what we’re gonna end up focusing on here. We’re going to specifically focus on season 4’s richest dramatic vein on the two episodes that center around it. That would be the story of Beatrice (Wendy Malick), Bojack’s (Will Arnett) mother, and the history she can barely remember.

Beatrice has always been something of a background character, the sort of figure there to give a very basic explanation. “Oh, that’s why he is the way he is.” Her denial of affection there to basically make it clear that Bojack is just seeking some kind of love or connection in anyway. A stock that normally wouldn’t be filled out.

Bojack’s secret weapon this season is understanding that people aren’t just their stock. To understand the nuance lying at the core of despair, you have to get into the roots. In other words, for Bojack Horseman, it’s not simply enough to understand that Beatrice denied affection. It’s understanding why she decided to deny it, why she never felt it herself.

We get the first inklings in episode 2. Bojack escapes from LA to the family home in Michigan that he used to spend summers in. The house, falling apart, seems to have a memory that lets us peek into the past.

Beatrice comes from the Sugarman family, wealthy owners of a sugarcube company headed by Joseph Sugarman (Matthew Broderick). Honey (Jane Krakowski), her mother, keeps a tight ship as her brother Crackerjack (Lin Manuel-Miranda) is about to go off to war. It’s as idyllic a 40s life as you could imagine. Sure Joseph is a little backwards, but who wasn’t?

And then Crackerjack is killed in war. Honey loses her oldest son and loses her grip. We see flashes. As Bojack breaks down reliving his personal tragedy, Honey is living hers. Any attempt to make it better, any attempt to rewrite what happened. Honey goes wild in public and crashes a car. Joseph has her lobotomized, as one would do at the time. The fiery, sassy woman is gone, replaced with a zombie.

It’s almost worse than losing your parent. At least when they die, they’re gone. For a parent to be there, but to be a shell? It’s like being reminded every day that they’re not there.

There’s some really brilliant animation work here connecting the timelines. The show blurs the lines between them, allowing for something that almost appears to be interaction, connecting that past to the present and helping the understanding of how these things reverberate.

The next time we see young Beatrice, in episode 11, it’s through the dementia-riddled recollections of her older self. Disconnected from reality, she seems to try desperately to recall her life, most of the faces blurred, some forcibly removed from her thoughts. The narrative is there, but the associations are more powerful, pulling her through her life.

She’s a young girl, sick with scarlet fever. She’s a young woman, finally debuting at her ball when a roguish young horse sweeps her off her feet and gives her a son. She’s moved to San Francisco, barely able to take care of her child. She’s older now, her husband finally quitting his dream and giving her what she wants, some semblance of stability. No love, all of her dreams out the window for mistakes made and pain inflicted on people who can’t understand it. Betrayal by her husband and the hope that someone else won’t do what she did. A flashback to her father taking everything and holding the spectre of her mother over her.

The show draws these connections to weave the tapestry. She’s the withholding mother, yes. But she withholds because the decisions that were made for her took everything from her. The love of her mother taken by some far away war. Her father is a product of the times which made everything he did acceptable. Her dreams taken by some one night fling. Even her marriage’s sanctity taken by another. She may have done unforgivable things, but did she ever really have a chance to feel the love she needed? Did Bojack? Was that family doomed from the moment Crackerjack went off to war?

The brilliance of Bojack Horseman lies in a lot of things. But chiefly, it lies in a storyline like this, that understand why people do the things they do, why the decisions they make stick and reverberate through lives and generations. That try as we might, the traumas of our parents will be ours and will be our childrens, even if we never understand why. People are bad, but people are broken just as often.

That’s why the final moment of episode 11 is so important. Beatrice gets a moment of lucidity, realizing that Bojack is with her. She asks where she is and rather than getting the tell-off he wanted, Bojack simply offers her one final comforting delusion.

She’s back home. With all her family. In the house she was in before everything went wrong. And everything is okay. Bojack hates her, but he can’t give her that pain, because in the end she was just as doomed as he is.

 

Tulip Fever Dream

Gather ’round. Let me tell you a tale.

In the year 2000, Deborah Moggach wrote a novel. That novel was called Tulip Fever. Based on the true story of the Dutch Tulip Mania, a real and hilarious thing, the novel set a tale of class, lust, and tragedy (apparently) against one of the most truly bizarre economic collapses in European history.

But even before that book came out, it was ready to be a movie. Dreamworks bought it in the proof stage (meaning they knew the idea was primed for lurid prestige) with the eventual intention of direction by John Madden, somewhat hot off Shakespeare in Love, for a film starring Jude Law, Keira Knightley, and Jim Broadbent. This was gonna be a big budget (for the time) production at about 48 million. Remember, it’s Dreamworks, that means this thing once had Spielberg money.

However, in the first of many curses that would befall this project, the British government closed a tax loophole that helped the film’s funding. Production shut down, though not after planting 12,000 tulip bulbs for the film.

More than a decade after that initial attempt, interest remained. After all, Moggach had Hollywood connections (wrote the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and had another novel adapted into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).

Then, in about 2013, comes in Harvey Weinstein. A tighter budget, about 25 million, but it still managed to get a fairly deep cast with Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan starring and also featuring Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench! He also got a script from Tom Fuckin’ Stoppard and direction from Justin Chadwick, best known for The Other Boleyn Girl. Weinstein actually managed to get the film made and wrapped in 2014.

Which…would normally be the end of that.

After the release of Ex Machina, where Vikander’s jaw-dropper performance made her a huge commodity, Weinstein saw room to get Tulip Fever even more attention. So Tulip Fever was promoted at Cannes and slotted for a November release, up against The Danish Girl, another period prestige piece that would end up winning Vikander her Oscar.

It was then pulled and moved to July 2016 (signaling a lack of awards-season hopes). Then to February 24th, then August 25th, then finally to September 1st to capitalize on a totally empty Labor Day weekend, the only major wide release.

In the meantime, the film became something of a legend. The film was test screened for the first time in November 2014 and recut time and time and time and time again. Critics saw it at multiple stages and began doubt that they ever had and indeed, if the film actually existed. It was even pulled shortly before a WGA screening, only contributing o the legend.

The film industry only became sure of Death, Taxes, and that Tulip Fever would never come out. It took so long that star Dane DeHaan actually managed to shoot a massive space epic with Luc Besson alongside fellow eyebrow-endowed-American Cara Delevingne in the meantime.

Then, on September 1st, the film finally came out. The marketing had shifted from a prestige play to a steamy erotic thriller. Didn’t help the film, which ended up being the centerpiece of the worst holiday weekend since 1998.

So, what happened? Was the film really worth all that fuss?

Well, I tell you the story because it ultimately ends up being more interesting than Tulip Fever itself. This thing is ultimately more interesting as a legendary curio than an actual movie.

It’s not horribly campy enough or horrendously terrible to recommend for a hatewatch. It certainly doesn’t have the prestige to be good or the luridness to be entertaining. It’s just embarrassing for most of the people involved, this stack of moments cut to the bone from years of retooling and attempts to make worthwhile.

The actual story is reasonably bog standard. Set against the Dutch Tulip Mania, Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) is an orphan married off to a wealthy Dutch businessman, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz).

Cornelis commissions a painting from artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), who quickly falls in love with Sophia. The two start a torrid affair and get into the tulip market in the hopes of being able to start a new life together.

Perhaps the biggest sin of this movie is its wasting of the backdrop. The Tulip Mania is truly one of history’s weirder incidents and the film seems largely uninterested in any of it besides functioning as a backdrop. Had this film been set in the 90s about Beanie Babies, it’s hard to imagine any appreciable difference, outside of perhaps wearing some stranger costumes.

I get it, it’s a hard thing to make a whole movie about. But when it’s the only notable thing in your movie and you don’t use it, it’s hard to overlook how bland the rest of the story is. You see where this movie tried over and over again to pull something lurid out of this story or even something entertaining and it just ends up in a bizarre tonal mishmash. Part screwball comedy, part sex thriller, yet none of it is compelling. None of this is funny, none of this is erotic.

Much of that is on its leads. Vikander is absolutely fine here, doing great silent work while reading the dialogue about as fine as anyone does in this movie. But Dane DeHaan is not a leading man. His nonexistent charisma and lack of chemistry with Vikander leaves me feeling that had the producers ended up drawing eyebrows on a plank of wood, the effect of having Vikander mime sweet tender love with it would have been functionally the same.

To be fair, DeHaan is really the only bad performance here, just not selling anything. Everyone else is totally fine, not rising past totally fine though. It’s just that they have almost no material to work with. Everything is telegraphed and everything is a slog to get through. No character is given any substance or motivation or anything short of action descriptions, so no drama means anything.

I found myself giggling more often than not, nothing feels appropriately pitched or placed right. It’s just a trainwreck, stacking up bad decision after premature moment. It’s the kind of film that reeks of excessive trimming, cleaving all the connective tissue in the hopes of creating a lean, mean sex movie machine. In the end, they just created a movie that can never live up to the legend surrounding it.

Grade: D

Obsession and Class from Coast to Coast: Good Time and Ingrid Goes West

In case any of you are worried, this isn’t a thinkpiece connecting these two movies. I know nothing about New York or LA as I’ve spent my entire life in the South and have spent a grand total of 5 days in both cities combined. I just wanted a “smart” way to connect two movies that I’ve seen and wanted to talk about because the content gods demand it.

Without further adieu…

Good Time

Good Time is less a movie than an adrenaline shot straight into the bloodstream. The Safdie Brothers have crafted a breathless descent into the underworld built out of tension and neon underlined by pulsing synth and captured with a camera that can’t seem to calm down.

It’s the story of a day and a night. A botched bank robbery lands Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) in hot water as his mentally handicapped brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is put in jail. The money Constantine got is basically useless (thanks to a dye pack), so he has to find 10,000 dollars in a night to get his brother bailed out and back under his care.

Good Time is the kind of propulsive and brutal thriller that only works like it does because it has a human heart beating at its core. This is an unfliching film, undoubtedly. It’s a grimy underbelly, an urban center that’s sprawling and unromantic, a poor side of New York that you don’t really see in films more often concerned with the artists and the wealthy of the city.

Yet, this is a movie that has an undeniable empathy for the people just trying to get along, just making something out of whatever they can find. Constantine is a criminal and a destructive person, ruining things for basically everyone he touches. But there’s no malice, he doesn’t carry a gun, everything feels like an animal lashing out for survival. And at the core, there’s a care, wanting his brother to be okay and healthy in the way that only he thinks is right.

That’s the animating impulse of Good Time, seeing what happens when fundamentally decent people are put into circumstances that make them into criminals and bad people. What survival really does take.

That animating impulse is also at the core of a career-best performance for leading man Robert Pattinson. His Constantine is constant, nervous energy, barreling forward constantly through every space, controlling and trying to control the situation in the hopes that he can finally pull his life together. Far from his normal reserve, Pattinson is all twitch, following along with the propulsive energy of the film and occupying every bit with breathless abandon. His final shot is a small masterpiece.

Credit must also be given to Benny Safdie, who takes on a tricky role (one that perhaps should go to an actual disabled actor) and does it with far more grace and sensitivity than anyone could expect. A man who just wants to live his life and do his best, who wants someone to care, Safdie pulls out a phenomenally reserved performance balanced against Pattinson’s constant motion.

It’s a film that balances those ideas. Moments of silence followed by moments of violence, all lit by neon. There’s not a blacklight or tube that the Safdie and Cinematographer Sean Price Williams don’t love and it gives the film an eerie alien glow, the feeling of looking into a world that isn’t your own. The score by composer Oneohtrix Point Never contributes, a beautiful and deafening synth that overwhelms the senses. This is a movie that patently refuses to back off you until the bitter end.

Outside of its final shots, the movie has trouble sticking the landing and has issues pulling its meaning. There’s also a thinkpiece to be had on its sterotype-based women characters. Good Time‘s never-stop, never-let-up, never-surrender imagery makes it hard to let that sink to deep in while you’re watching.

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West

Like if The Social Network was a cringe comedy instead of a sickeningly prophetic drama (that and Silicon Valley and you get all the problems with the tech industry octopus), Ingrid Goes West basically is one of the few movies to talk about “kids and their technology these days” without feeling technophobic, without feeling outdated already, but actually managing to dig under the surface of the place that public social media exhibition has taken in our lives.

After the death of her mother, an incident at the wedding of a friend/acquaintance/probably total stranger, and a stay in a mental hospital, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) decides to make a change and move out West to Los Angeles, California! Of course, it’s to follow and become best friends with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer, so it’s not all necessarily better.

Ingrid Goes West is something of a cringe drama. There’s plenty of dry, sharp comedy, but it’s not so much playing the cringe for comedy. This isn’t necessarily something like The Office. The cringe is revealing, the discomfort is about the people living through it. It’s like pulling your fingernails, it’s designed to make you talk.

Aubrey Plaza has never had a role that, while being slightly out of her wheelhouse, seemed more perfect for her. Rather than playing someone who doesn’t give a fuck, Ingrid gives entirely too many fucks. She’s desperate for approval and there’s this underlying sinister note to basically everything Plaza does that makes her a great villain and an even better broken person.

Plaza owns every bit of this film, scary and deeply relatable and making a frustratingly undynamic character feel like she’s going through the gamut, but by no means is she the only strong performance. Olsen is pitch-perfect casting as Taylor Sloane and she does a great job with the material given. O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing Batman-obsessed Dan, her landlord and confusing crush, is pitch-perfect, is playing the one truly decent human being in the film and projecting every ounce of that in a bonafide star turn.

There’s a lot to admire here, a strong and critical look at social media without indulging in technophobia or kids these days-ism is rare enough. I just wish director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith might have pulled a little more out of the material.

The raw materials are great and well-crafted, but it never quite feels pulled into a cohesive whole. The story goes in and implies a lot of different directions, but they never really end up going anywhere. Ingrid is incredibly well-explored and Dan is given plenty of nuance, but Taylor ends up one note for most of the movie, really underplaying Olsen’s skill. There’s an inherent frustration to a movie where no one learns, but it feels difficult to find the coherent ideology underlying everything.

Grade: B+

 

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 7: The Wolf and the Dragon

Where Is Everybody?

  • King’s Landing
    • The Targaryen-Stark team finally meets with the Lannisters to prove Climate Change the forces of the Night King are real. Cersei “agrees” to help. Jaime finds out she won’t and FINALLY tells her to fuck off.
  • Dragonstone
    • Theon goes on a journey to find his sister.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya and Sansa finally get their shit together and get on the same page. Littlefinger can finally no longer talk.
  • Narrow Sea
    • BOATSEX.
  • Eastwatch
    • And down comes the Wall.

What Worked?

For a finale to a show that spent so much time in the throws and thralls of intense action and breathless forward momentum, it seemed shocking that the finale would be undoubtedly the season’s slowest episode. Focused on a few bigger interactions and operating by and away as the chattiest episode of the season so far, this was an episode moving its final relationships and plot points into place and focusing on the drama that’s pushed these people into this situation.

To be frank we haven’t had a real talky episode in a while. Especially in the last couple seasons, more focused on a traditional fantasy operation, the show has lost its sense of the politics, of how to persuade with words rather than with action. While no worse, it’s certainly a different show, so I was curious to see what would be of an episode that focused on the earlier diplomatic mode.

So, keeping that in mind, “The Wolf and the Dragon” is a show that has transformed those discussions and dialogues into essentially a form of action, something direct and driving. It’s not always brilliant plotting, but the show is so clear about its characters and how to sell their performance and their needs that it ends up working regardless.

I think specifically here of the scene between Tyrion and Cersei, their first confrontation since Tyrion fled King’s Landing at the end of Season 4. It’s Emmy-worthy work from both Dinklage and Headey, Dinklage’s open and raw pain and sadness and the way he twists and holds every line like a weapon impacting just the right way clashing against the seething rage that Headey barely holds underneath her dagger eyes and strugglingly-stiff upper lip.

Beyond just the performance, it’s the negotiation within the scene. Admittedly, it’s blunt, this part of the show is going to be blunt basically no matter what. But the two dance and prod and push back against each other, Tyrion laying out and breaking down defenses and Cersei throwing them back up. It’s exciting and direct drama that pushes the momentum forward even without the more immediate adrenaline thrills of a huge battle sequence.

This episode’s willingness to take the time is an asset, executing a lot of important things in the little time they’ve had this whole season (an extra long episode is still making up for 3 missing hours) in ways that are largely satisfying to see.

I’m of course speaking about the resolution to “Littlefinger tries to put one last wedge in the Stark Family.” Whether you like the way it’s been doled out this season or not, the finale here is a remarkably cathartic moment of television. I nearly lept out of my seat when “Lord Baelish” came out of Sansa’s mouth and seeing someone like Littlefinger finally punished for every wrong he’s visited is exactly the kind of win the show ended up needing.

Finally, the sequence at the Wall easily explained the rest of the episode’s relative low cost. The Wall coming down was a huge moment that had to be done right and done right it definitely was. The Night King riding in on the Ice Dragon is just one of the coolest images this show’s ever had.

This is an episode of completion, resolving the threads to pull onto two sides for the final showdown. It worked, it did that, and it did that with a lot of strong and impressive character work.

 

What Didn’t?

This season’s tendency for circumventing the A to B paths never stood out worse than in this episode. Twice, we essentially saw the results of something the show had never set up, Cersei deciding to pledge her help and Sansa/Arya’s final collaboration. While it never feels false to the moment, the show’s expedience is feeling more like slack than a need to rush through.

Your mileage will definitely vary on seeing Jon and Dany get it on, especially being here underscored as an act of incest. The reveal? Cool. The incest? Not as palatable per se.

 

Who Got A Win?

  1. The Night King
    • Brought down the wall with a sweet-ass Ice Dragon pretty much accomplishing his main thing. Westeros is fucked.
  2. Arya and Sansa
    • Finally learned to trust each other and got the sower of dissent out of their midst.
  3. Jon and Dany
    • Made some pretty important alliances and solidified their power structure, we’ll see how well that goes.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. Littlefinger
    • Overplayed his hand with Arya and Sansa and he’s dead now.
  2. Cersei
    • Lost Jaime, her last real thinking ally. Sycophants and zombies are all she has, which isn’t good for holding on to power.
  3. Jon and Dany
    • Probably fell into a trap with Cersei. Got into incest. Oops.

SEASON OVERALL

Episode Ranking

  1. The Spoils of War
  2. The Dragon and the Wolf
  3. The Queen’s Justice
  4. Dragonstone
  5. Stormborn
  6. Eastwatch
  7. Beyond the Wall

Season MVPs

The Season MVPs aren’t necessarily the most important parts or the consistently best parts of the show. Emilia Clarke or Kit Harrington wouldn’t necessarily be the best contender for a spot like this, nor would Lena Headey or Peter Dinklage or supporting actors like Liam Cunningham or Gwendoline Christie or Kristofer Hivju.

It’s a mix of both importance and quality confined to this specific season, the people who’s work in Season 7 made it particularly special or interesting. Whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Season 7 wouldn’t fit together without what this MVP did.

  1. Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau
    • Jaime has definitely been a character that fluctuates with the season and how interested any given set of writers is in him, but Season 7 has almost certainly been Coster-Waldeau’s finest hour. Partially because it took him out of the sidequest hole and partially because it took him out of the hole of only ever really being involved with Cersei, Coster-Waldeau did some of his best work this season, including his confrontation with Olenna, his reunion with Tyrion, and (I know I just shit-talked this) his final scene with Cersei.Coster-Waldeau gives Jaime a principled nobility that’s rare, a man of his times blinded by a thousand allegiances and willing to do what he thinks is right at the end of the day. It’s a compelling character to watch and rarely has that mattered as much as in Season 7.
  2. Matt Shakman
    • Director of “The Spoils of War” and “Eastwatch,” Shakman is probably the best large setpiece crafter not named Sapochnik the show has. His direction on “The Spoils of War” made for a strong and well-crafted piece of television up until its final battle, which kicked it over the top. Field of Fire 2.0 is one of the most thrilling bits of televised warfare ever from the arrival of the Dothraki to Jaime plummeting into the lake and it is Shakman’s direction that made it so exciting.
  3. Sophie Turner
    • Sansa is done being kicked around. Turner’s performance this season was the transformation fans have been waiting for. Even with her uneven decision making, Turner pulls off a calculating and icy-cold performance as much Stark as it is Lannister and Baelish. The moments of warmth only amplify how good it is to finally see Sansa take control of things for once.
  4. The Night King
    • This one is going to the character rather than the incredibly able performer behind the makeup and effects. The Night King provides the show a thematic and narrative focus that it’s never quite had, moving towards an existential threat of evil that overrides the pettier human concerns. The menace he conveys in a few short moments is what Game of Thrones needs in these last moments, a common enemy to bring these warring factions together.
  5. The Special Effects Team
    • This was an expensive and fucking MASSIVE season to pull together, near unprecedented in television. So kudos to the hardworking Visual and Special Effects teams that had to make demon kings and dragons and wolves and massive hordes and collapsing walls all real and all convincing.

What’s Worked on the Whole?

On the whole, the buzzword of this season was “forward momentum.” The show has long left its political drama roots behind in favor of a high fantasy narrative, a show about struggle between kingdoms and the ultimate defeat of an evil at the root of our souls.

Yet, Game of Thrones really has ultimately shone under that lens. The show feels fun and propulsive in a way it never has and feels epic and grandiose on a scale no television show has. The reason this show has such a hold on the zeitgeist is how impressively it has clasped to our imaginations, how much it wonders and amazes with the images it can show us.

This is a show now of legacies and mythologies, a show letting a deep well of history show all of its excitement before us. The sense of this season of Game of Thrones is that almost nothing has been like it and that it’ll be hard to imagine anything will be quite the same after.

All the stuff that has worked throughout the run of this show still works here. This is still a cast, though no one pulls all the focus, that is an impressive and endlessly remixable ensemble. Everyone works together, feels natural together. No one’s work is incredible, but everyone’s work is strong. Watching Dinklage in concert with Clarke and Harrington and Headey and whoever else come along is a rare delight and every permutation this show has pulled off remains worth watching.

This is an action show now, defined by its move towards the end. Even when it’s slow, you feel the machine churning everything towards an ultimate end. That works, that’s compelling. That’s the stories that need to be told and they way it need to be told.

What Needs To Get Fixed?

I’ve been remarkably positive about this season, so let it not shock you too much that I do have criticisms and misgivings. Things that have worked on an individual basis about Season 7 are troubling trends when pulled to a larger whole.

I think much of the negativity towards this season (what’s been out there in at least my critical bubble) is directed towards this show going towards a more traditional high fantasy direction. The show has become decidedly less Martin and Tolkien going more towards Peter Jackson or Dungeons and Dragons.

While the bones of that change I’m in favor of (and also believe it was the only way this story could actually end), it’s definitely meant a lot of writing and narrative decisions that have altered the storytelling qualities of the show.

The dialogue has definitely suffered. Without the Martin material to pull from, this show has definitely moved towards functionality and lost its grace and intelligence in speaking. Characters used to weave wars with words, now they beat each other down. It’s a change reflecting a more functional storytelling style and a greater sense of momentum, but it’s a change I am sad to see.

More concerning is the narrative convenience this show has become too quick to indulge in. While the timeline stuff mostly feels like the concern of continuity geeks and internet commenters seeking clicks, the show’s lack of connective tissue is a bigger problem.

It felt like a lot of stuff just…happens in this show. Characters make decisions to justify narrative choices, narrative choices are made without set-up or follow-through, and point D is reached from point A. It’s lazy, frankly. The show has a lot to get through, I understand, but it needs to get there.

Tyrion can’t make mistakes just because the show needs him to. Jon can’t almost die and get saved just because the show needs him to. Sansa and Arya can’t fight just to trick the audience. This show needs justification and purpose and what’s been happening threatens to make for an unsatisfying ending.

At its best, Game of Thrones peers into a world. At its worst, Game of Thrones reveals the strings manipulating it. In the books, it’s every side quest and artificial reason that Martin has taken to prevent getting to its end. In the show, it’s every artful dodge and slight of hand that Benioff and Weiss have taken to speed to its end.

A show written without an ending needs to avoid the missteps when it’s finally there. Let’s hope there’s some time taken, or at least some though, with the last season.

Where’s This Going?

We’re in the final stretch, so what has this all been about?

For me, Game of Thrones is a show about power and how badly human nature fucks it up. That we’re trapped in these petty struggles that function as a cycle. Power cannot change, power can only put new people wielding it. Breaking the wheel, as Dany often says she will do, requires a fundamental altering of the system, not just a different hand guiding it.

Time and time again, this show has been about the mistakes of legacy. Of people repeating the same mistakes of their mentors, their parents, their ancestors, and their predecessors. Of seeing the same patterns and doing nothing to stop it. Tyrion seeks to prevent a Mad Queen as Dany teeters towards burning those who will not submit, Jon seeks to not become Ned again as he makes the same honorably foolhardy decisions, Cersei seeks to prevent her family falling apart as she pushes the last members of it away.

Power corrupts and institutions are no match for those who seek to use them. The only thing that can interrupt is understanding the larger threats the world faces. The existential threat of the Night King, something more insurmountable than any individual one of them. Game of Thrones’ ultimate question is “Can humanity put their nature aside and work for a collective good? Or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes again and again until we all die together?”

The Night King is climate change, The Night King is nuclear warfare. The Night is anything and everything that has ever threatened us as a whole and asks whether our politics will ultimately be enough to save us.

So where does this show go? How does this show do that?

I don’t know for sure is the honest answer. Game of Thrones is undeniably pessimistic and unsure that we can escape that cycle. A few standing up loudly is not enough to overwhelm the forces who would do nothing but their own interest. There’s a part of me that suspects any broken wheel would lead to the creation of a new one. That Dany retaking power and creating a society free from the Lannister control would lead to her own tyranny. That the show ultimately wants power itself to be broken.

But perhaps that’s the show’s aim. The Song of Ice and Fire, Jon and Dany, is what can finally end all of this. The pain and the suffering and the terror from beyond the world. I think there’s a chance this show ends in something better, in a look at a world that breaks the power structures that put them in this place and can defeat the threats that face it.

Will it require sacrifice? Probably. The remnants of the old (Jaime and Cersei) will probably have to go and the new will have to give something up (Jon). There’s no chance everyone makes it to see the New World.

But Game of Thrones is now in its final moments. The moment where the Wheel spins the fastest. Whatever stops its, breaks it, keeps it moving on is still to come.

the new adults looking at new media