Thursday, January 31, 2019

Film Review: Life Itself

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

This movie is an awful mess.

And yet I'm not actively disgusted by it, as usually am by movies this bad.  The reason is that writer/director Dan Fogelman swung for the fences on this one.  He was trying to do something big, bold, emotional, and profound.  I admire that level of ambition in a movie.  But while his heart may have been in the right place, this movie is a gigantic swing and a miss.

It is difficult to explain why this film is so bad without getting into all of its twists and turns.  So be warned MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS REVIEW.  To see what a tangled catastrophe this is, I have to lay out the entire story.

The movie begins with Samuel L. Jackson narrating as Will (Oscar Isaac) is on a streetcorner with Dr. Morris (Annette Benning).  Dr. Morris gets hit by a bus and Sam Jackson goes nuts.  We then realize that all of this is a sequence in a screenplay that Will is writing in a coffee house.  Here we are introduced to one of the movie's major themes: life is an unreliable narrator.  The idea is that as we live life, we think we know what kind of story we are in and how it is going to shake out.  Instead, we find out that life itself is unreliable.

Will, we find out, has just gotten out of a mental institution because his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him.  Will is ordered by the court to meet with Dr. Morris as a condition of his release.  Will is wildly depressed and is abusing pills and alcohol.  In the course of their session, Will relives his romance with Abby.  The two of them became friends in college and then fell in love.  As the story unfolds, we become more and more invested in the intensity of their relationship.  It is not at all volatile, but you can see how Will has invested everything that he is into his romance with Abby.  As the session continues Morris pushes Will to confront a truth he has been denying: Abby didn't leave him.  Late into her pregnancy, she was hit by a bus and died.  Morris reminds Will that his baby daughter is still alive and if he gets better he can see her.  When faced with this awful reality, Will simply says, "I don't want to be here anymore."  He then pulls out a pistol and shoots himself in the head.

The story then shifts to Will and Abby's daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke).  She is raised by her grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin).  But she becomes a sad and angry young woman who is lost in the world.  After a bad concert with her band, she ends up at the same corner where her mother was killed.  Then a little boy asks if she is okay.

And then that story ends and we shift to Javiar (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).  He is a simple, hard-working working on an olive farm in Spain.  His boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) promotes him so Javiar then marries his love Laia.  However, Saccione visits more and more and becomes connected to Laia and her son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero).  Saccione delights Rodrigo with tales of New York City.  Jealous, Javier self-finances a trip for his wife and sun to New York.  While on the bus, Rodrigo distracts the bus driver and the bus hits Abby and kills her.  Rodrigo begins to have horrible trauma.  Laia gets Javier to as Saccione for financial help for doctors, but Saccione desires to be more involved in their lives.  Years go by and Javier finally confronts Saccione about his feelings for Laia.  Saccione admits he is in love with her, but says he will cut off contact and still fund Rodrigo's therapy.  Instead, Javier leaves his wife and son so they can have a better life with Saccione.  Saccione and Laia marry.  Rodrigo grows up (now played by Alex Monner).  Laia gets sick with cancer just as Rodrigo gets into a New York college.  In Spain, Javier returns to be with Laia on her deathbed.  When Rodrigo hears of his mother's death, he goes for a saddness run.  He ends up on the same corner as Dylan and he asks if she is alright.  We then discover that this whole story is being narrated by Dylan and Rodrigo's daughter (Hannah Wood) who has just written a novel about how her parents met.

The end.

Okay, I can see how someone who came up with this plot could see in it something profound, maybe even Dickensian in how all of our human lives are intertwined.  But the execution of this narrative fails miserable and the reason is in the structure of the story.

Throughout the movie there are constant visual references to Pulp Fiction.  This is not an accident.  Like Pulp Fiction, Life Itself plays around with the timeline and shockingly kills off its main actor part way through the film.  I can see how Fogelman was trying to capture that sheer audacity.  But these movies are wildly different.  The most important is that Pulp Fiction is not trying to pull at your heart strings.  The emotional investment that is being asked of the audience in Life Itself is a much different thing.  Watching Will commit suicide isn't just shocking, it is horrific.  It makes you feel as thought the entire movie up until this time has been a waste.

The movie almost redeems itself with the Dylan storyline.  If the rest of the movie was about the fallout in her life, I could understand how it was necessary to have that vicarious trauma in order to really connect to the mostly unlikeable Dylan.  But we barely get to spend any time with her.  In total, I think she only has about 10 minutes of screen time.  When the story shifts again to Javier, my ability to emotionally attach to any of the new characters, because I was expecting them to get snatched away.  And I was also really upset, because the Dylan storyline could have been so incredibly interesting, but Fogelman won't let us explore her rich emotional life.

Besides the structure, the dialogue needed a severe revision.  Early in the Javier storyline, he and Saccione sit down and Saccione tells him the story of his life.  This is a loooongg story that only serves to bore the audience.  The movie keeps putting profound statements and monologues into its characters mouths, but they never quite ring true.  They feel like mouthpieces for a philosophy major who is taking a crack and screenwriting.

And while the idea of an order behind the chaos of life is a very Catholic idea, there is so much here that is repugnant.  Abby is a completely self-centered person and never overcomes this.  Will's suicide is an act of ultimate selfishness in abandoning his daughter.  Rodrigo, who raised by the clearly Catholic Laia, beings a sexual affair with an American girl in college.  Javier abandons the wife and Saccione essentially breaks up a marriage. And while I know that things like this are typical Hollywood fare, it seems rather base for a movie that is trying to aim so high.

The only things that keeps this film from total disaster are the cinematography and the acting.  Fogelman uses the camera effectively.  One of the strongest things he does is he leaves the camera to linger on Morris' empty office after Will shoots himself.  This uncomfortable silence lets the reality of the suicide sink in.  Isaac is as incredible as ever and the rest of the cast also do solid turns.  But these things are not enough to pull the movie out of its nose dive.

Life Itself is, without question, a bad movie.  But what it was trying to achieve was noble.
File:Star rating 1 of 5.png
image by Yasir72.multan

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Film Review: Welcome to Marwen

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

I wanted to like this movie so much.

It hits a lot of points on my radar:
-Robert Zemeckis directing
-Steve Carell as the star
-a movie that blends fantasy and reality
-a story about action figures as a mode of art.

But this is a movie that is let down by a horrible script.

Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story of Mark Hoagancamp (Carell), an artist who was attacked outside a bar because of his love of walking in women's shoes.  He loses his memory and his ability to draw.  So he buys World War II action dolls and has built a fictional city in his backyard called "Marwen."  He takes photos of the the dolls as their builds them an elaborate story.  In this fictional world, Mark is "Cap'n Hoagie," who lives in Marwen along with women based on people in Mark's life like:

-Ann (Gwendoline Christie): Mark's tough, Russian, visiting nurse.
-GI Julie (Janelle Monae): his physical therapist who teaches him to use his pain
Carlala (Eliza Gonzalez): the cook at the bar where he works
-Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis): based on his favorite actress
-Roberta (Merritt Wever): she works at the hobby story Mark buys his supplies and she helps Mark put on a gallery show for his photos.
-Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger): she has no human counterpart outside of Marwen, but is an evil witch trying to destroy Hoagie.

Mark's life gets thrown into upheaval with two converging events.  The first is the sentencing of his attackers where he must give a statement to the court.  Because of his PTSD, Mark spends most of the movie avoiding this event.  The second is the moving in of a new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) with whom Mark immediately becomes smitten and adds a doll version of her to his Marwen world.

The best thing I can say about this film is that Carell does his best with the material.  His anxiety and trauma jump off of the screen in a powerful way.  In addition, the animation of the world of Marwen is incredibly fun to watch.  Wever also brings a real grounded emotional stability to the entire story.  Zemeckis has lost none of his knack for technical film making.

But the problem with the movie is at its fundamentals: story and character.

Mark is not someone we really want to spend time with.  He is off-putting to the point of creepy.  You can find a rewarding story in characters who are initially unlikable, like Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets.  But Mark doesn't start horrible and then move slowly into likability.  Instead he starts at slightly sympathetic but only becomes less so as the film unfolds.  We see him watch pornography and become obsessed with the neighbor.  He blurs the lines of fantasy and reality in a way that would make him feel like an actual threat in real life, not a zany protagonist.

To make matters worse, the movie wants us to invest in Mark's romantic feelings for Nicol both inside of Marwen and in the real world.  But it is clear from early in the movie that Roberta is the one Mark should be with.  Roberta understands him, doesn't patronize him, challenges him, and she cares for him.  I could not help feel a strong sense of annoyance at the fact that Roberta was cut out of most of the movie.  All of the time spent on Nicol felt like an absolute waste.

Finally, the dialogue was horribly clunky.  At one point Hoagie looks at Deja and I cannot escape the feeling that this script was written, or at least revised, during the first stages of the #MeToo movement.  The women of Marwen are strong, but they have no depth.  Their dialogue reveals so little sophistication.  But the movie thinks it is making some strong social statement by their mere presence, but this makes them even more incomprehensible.  At one point Hoagie cries out "Women are the saviors of the world."  And no, context does not help this line.

Movies like this make me sad because they have all the ingredients of a wonderful film, but the chef screwed up the recipe.

image by Yasir72.multan

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sunday Best: Oscar Nominations 2019

So the nominees were announced this past week for the 91st  Academy Awards.

These awards remain the most prestigious in film.  And while many of you, dear readers, are of the opinion that all awards shows are terrible and should simply be shunned, it is my perpetual hope that Hollywood will reform itself and once again nominate movies that matter.

For example, here are the top 10 grossing films of the year:

Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Incredibles 2
Jurassic Word: Fallen Kingdom
Deadpool 2
The Grinch:
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Keep in mind that I have always maintained that box office alone is not a statement about a film's quality.  My own top ten of the year include:

1. Avengers: Infinity War
2. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
3. A Quiet Place
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
5. Incredibles 2
6. Game Night
7. Aquaman
8. Creed II
9. Bohemian Rhapsody
10. Ready Player One

Only four of the top ten films belong to the highest grossers.   However I will say that each of these movies has made at least $100 million dollars domestic, except for Game Night.  This bolsters my thesis that, for the most part, audiences will respond to quality films.  

This year's Oscars for Best Picture?  Where do they rank?

1. “Black Panther” - $700 million
58. “BlacKkKlansman” - $49 million
13. “Bohemian Rhapsody” - $200 million
96. “The Favourite” - $25 million
63. “Green Book” - $45 million 
“Roma” - N/A
12. “A Star Is Born” - $205 million
74. “Vice” - $40 million

Two years ago, not  a single one is from the top ten of the year and none of the nominees have made over $100 million by the time they were nominated.

Last year was an improvement.  We had two genuine hits: Dunkirk and Get Out.  This year we have the highest grosser of the year, Black Panther, has a nomination for Best Picture.  This has not happened since 2010 with Toy Story 3.  The last time the highest grosser won Best Picture was in 2003 with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

This year you have three massive hits with Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born.  But you have a movie with a lot of buzz like Roma that has such a small box office that I cannot find how much it made (the movie produced by Netflix and was not intended for a wide box office).

This tells me 2 things:

1.  The ratings for the Oscars may be slightly higher because there are some movies that people can root for.

2.  If a little scene film like Roma or The Favorite wins, then there will be a backlash against next year's Oscars.  I know people who stopped watching after Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan back in 1998.  This was widely recognized as a mistake since people still revere the Steven Spielberg war epic and no one talks about the actual winner.  

In fact, name 7 of the last 14 Best Picture winners off the top of your head.  Go!

Okay, if you couldn't do that, name the last 4.

Maybe I am being unfair, but does anyone even remember The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, and 12 Years a Slave.  That isn't to say these aren't good movies, but are they the ones you remember as the BEST from the last 5 years?

So below are my thoughts on some (not all) of this year's nominees.  

And next week, I will open it up if you would like to participate in this year's Oscar Game!

Performance by an actor in a leading role
    Christian Bale, “Vice”
    Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
    Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
    Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
    Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

    -These are some good nominees, but I think this is Malek's year to win.  Mortensen I think will eventually win a Best Supporting Actor award and Cooper will be nominated for Best Actor again in the future.

    Performance by an actor in a supporting role
    Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
    Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
    Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”
    Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
    Sam Rockwell, “Vice”
    -I'm really excited that the witch hunter from Warlock (1989) has an Oscar nomination.  Ali and Elliot were also excellent in their roles.
    Performance by an actress in a leading role
    Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”
    Glenn Close, “The Wife”
    Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
    Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”
    Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

    -I only saw Gaga's performance, but I didn't think it was anything special.  I think this one is wide open.

    Performance by an actress in a supporting role
    Amy Adams, “Vice”
    Marina de Tavira, “Roma”
    Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
    Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
    Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”

    -Again, didn't see any of these.  

    Best animated feature film of the year
    “Incredibles 2,” Brad Bird
    “Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson
    “Mirai,” Mamoru Hosoda
    “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
    “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

    -I was incredibly sceptical about Into the Spider-Verse, but I am now a true believer.  It is one of the most original and entertaining films of the year.

    Achievement in directing
    Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
    Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
    Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
    Alfonso CuarĂ³n, “Roma”
    Adam McKay, “Vice”

    Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelley should have been nominated, but were not.  I haven't seen any of the movies on this list.

    Achievement in film editing
    “BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
    “Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
    “Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
    “The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
    “Vice,” Hank Corwin

    -Bohemian Rhapsody is the best one of these nominees.  But some of the best editing this year can be found in action movies, which rarely get nominations.

    Best motion picture of the year
    “Black Panther”
    “Bohemian Rhapsody”
    “The Favourite”
    “Green Book”
    “A Star Is Born”

    -Of the nominees, Bohemian Rhapsody is clearly the best.  It was a well done movie, great acting, fantastic music, and it makes you feel deeply without feeling depressed when you leave the theater.  This was a real crowd-pleaser and artistic achievement.  


    Monday, January 21, 2019

    New Evangelizers Post: It Really Is a Wonderful Life

    I have a new article up at  

    Life is hard.

    I don’t think anyone who has had to face the trials and tragedies of adult life could argue with this point. And there are times when we feel so completely crushed by the world where every day seems like just moments between tragedies. These last few years particularly have been difficult dealing with things like breaking my back, my mother’s passing, and other various crises.

    But at times like this, I like to think about one of my favorite movies of all time: It’s a Wonderful Life.
    This Frank Capra classic was played constantly in many homes across the country last month. It has a reputation for being one of the great Christmas movies that leaves its audience feeling good and optimistic about life.

    For those unfamiliar, George Bailey (played by the amazing Jimmy Stewart), is a man who wanted to see the world. But responsibilities in his hometown made that impossible. After a financial calamity that is not his fault, George could lose his business, his home, and his freedom. Then an angel comes and shows him what the world would have been like without him. George has the chance to see what an effect he had on the people of his community and the great good he brought to the world. He returns to his own world, full of joy and thankfulness over his life and the people of his community rally around him to bail him out financially.

    The most important part of the story, in my humble opinion, is that when George comes back to this world, none of his problems have yet been solved. He still faces the loss of his business, his home, and his freedom. But he is filled with joy because he can see that even in the face of all of this tragedy, he still has a wonderful life.

    And this is why I think this is one of the greatest and most profound movies ever made. It teaches us a very important lesson:

    The quality of our lives often depend on our perspective, not our circumstances.

    You can read the whole article here.

    Sunday, January 20, 2019

    Sunday Best: A Tribute to George Perez

    image by Luigi Novi
    George Perez is THE comic book artist.

    There are many amazing people who have drawn our favorite super heroes.  But no one can touch the mighty George Perez.

    His is the ideal of the comic book form.  His images are dynamic, clean, and attractive.  Some have criticized his art as not being overly stylized.  Some have even called his art bland.  And while there is always a subjective element to art, I would take issue with anyone who would criticize Mr. Perez.  He could infuse such incredible character and drama in the body language and facial expressions in the midst of action-battle chaos.  Look at his handling of the emotional-manipulator Psycho Pirate, who had to mirror such incredibly distinct and convincing emotions throughout his story.

    I cannot remember the first time I ever saw his art.  I want to say I saw the cover of The New Teen Titans #1 in a book when I was very young.
    Image result for new teen titans #1

    Equal credit must be given to Marv Wolfman for his writing of this book to make it DC's top selling comic.  But Perez' art brought to it such life.  The first issue of this series that I ever bought was #38.
    Image result for New Teen Titans #38

    While it began with a big, splashy action sequence, the main thrust of the story was about Dick Grayson giving up being Robin and Wally West giving up being Kid Flash.  I remember reading this comic over and over again and just marveling at the visual elements.

    But the very first comic of his that I think I bought was Crisis on Infinite Earths #11.
    Image result for crisis on infinite earths #11

    I saw that cover when I walked into one of my first comic book stores.  And even though it was the next to the last issue of a major maxi-series, how could I not buy it.  A very popular YouTube comic book critic said that "The cover of a comic is it's opening paragraph."  What he meant by that is that if you don't draw the reader in with the visuals on the cover, they will not be interested in reading on.  But Perez always made me want to read what was inside.

    Crisis on Infinite Earths was a visual epic that I do not think will ever be matched.  Just in terms of sheer number of characters involved, it is hard to think of a comic that comes close.  And I think it is unthinkable that anyone but Perez would do it.  His images in that story are iconic.  Very often when I read a comic, the basic impression of the panels is left in my head so that I can recall them with some clarity.  But with Perez' work in Crisis, there are so many images that permanently burned into my brain.  I can bring to my mind's eye the angle of the panel as Ultra-Man walks up to the Anti-Matter.  I can visualize the disintegrating Barry Allen standing in front of Batman.  And who can forget the punch to end all punches of Golden Age Superman taking out the Anti-Monitor once and for all.

    Image result for golden age superman crisis anti monitor

    The thing that people speak of most in Crisis are the gigantic group shots.  Perez became famous for his ability to integrate dozens of heroes and villains in gigantic images that would turn two pages of a comic story into a two hour fun game of "Where's Waldo" for super heroes.

    Perez' talent for epic storytelling got him the gig drawing Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet.  And although Ron Lim eventually ended up finishing the book, those early issues continued to showcase Perez's singular talent.

    One of my favorite stories about Perez is that he was hired to draw a Justice League/Avengers crossover book.  Marvel and DC had great success with their Superman vs. Spider-Man, Batman vs. Hulk, and The New Teen Titians and The Uncanny X-Men crossovers.  However, Marvel and DC abandoned the project over which team would come out on top, even though Perez had penciled (I believe) 10 pages.  This was the great George Perez epic that would never be.

    Until in the 2000's both companies came back to the table and we finally got this ultimate crossover.  And finally Perez was able to bring this unfinished work to life.

    Image result for JLA Avengers

    And yet one of the biggest thrills for me was when my favorite artist teamed up with my favorite writer, Geoff Johns, to gives Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds.
    Image result for legion of three worlds

    DC's Legion of Superheroes had been retconned multiple times.  Johns decided instead of retconning them again to bring all three versions together.  This gave Perez a chance to do some of his most challenging work: show a gigantic super team made up of the same characters from radically different eras.  And bringing them all together, Perez made it work in a beautiful ode to this loved team of heroes.

    I could go on and on about Mr. George Perez.  He is one of the reasons I fell in love with comics.  His images have inspired my imagination, dazzled my eyes, and delighted my heart.

    Mr. Perez just announced that he is officially retired from drawing comics and that 2019 will be his last year on the convention circuit.  I hope I am able to see him this year at an upcoming con.  I don't need his autograph or a fan sketch.  I hope to meet this man, shake his hand and tell him, "Thank you."

    Thank you, George Perez!