Bad Times at the el royale
Whoo, that was a RIDE! As the lights dimmed, I intentionally knew nothing except for what the trailer had told. I knew director Drew Goddard’s work enough to know that it would be weird. I knew that the cast was fire. (I had the chance to see Cynthia Erivo live at a benefit concert during her The Color Purple days, so I was eager to have that voice star on the big screen.) I knew it looked like my cup of tea. That was all I knew.
I knew nothing.
The audience with which I watched the film may still be discussing it in the theatre. I had a dog to feed or I might well have joined in. This was easily the most-engaged audience I have seen in years. The jump scare got jumps. There was easy laughter. There were gasps. A couple of times, there were ovations. No one got out of a chair until the pretty credits ended. Most stayed after that. It was darn fun to watch, and this crowd appreciated that.
The plot - in its vague, spoiler-free glory - is that a bunch of troubled folks show up to a creepy, no-tell motel and then things go to hell. The film is not a horror film. It is more mystery/action than anything else. I have heard it called a thriller, and I don’t really agree. It is not scary or tense in the same way Cabin in the Woods or other thrillers are.
The tension in watching the film comes from the fact that the audience sees exactly what Goddard wants them to see exactly the way he wants at exactly the moment he wants them to see it. It is the surgical precision of the script and direction that keep audiences involved until the pieces start to come together. There are no tricks. It is just good narrative storytelling that makes great use of multiple perspectives and integrates Seamus McGarvey’s artful cinematography into a picture that really works.
The cast is stellar. We have established that I am Erivo fan, but I have to note that she does not fall victim to the American accent as many British actors do. She’s just incredible and I am excited for the film world to fall in love with her. Lewis Pullman is incredible as Miles, with a meaty character arc and the talent to dig in. The main ensemble fits together flawlessly and the supporting roles are solid, though the roles are largely very brief snippets.
I knew it would be weird and I knew it would be surprising. I did not know that the guy next to me would keep nearly leaping from his chair, yelling, “What the f….???”
It seems that he, too, knew nothing.
The 13th doctor
I have a few confessions.
I think representation really, really matters.
I think that Jodie Whittaker’s take on Beth Latimer in Broadchurch was just fine, but probably not a fair barometer of what her Doctor will be.
I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the patriarchy sob at the mere idea that the Doctor, who canonically can be female and has shown some interest into regenerating into a womanly form, is a woman. The fact that ONE character might spend a couple years and one of 14 personhoods as a woman is enough to cause a year of mourning. Ah, fragility.
Eleven was “my Doctor” and I never really connected with 12. That is not because of anything but what seemed to be a meandering overall arc that never found its way. I wept when Matt regenerated, but I have Netflix, so I didn’t wish him back.
So, this afternoon I sat down with a very snuggly dog and some cheese to watch the debut of 13. I really like regeneration episodes. They mimic the audience’s adjustment. The Doctor is never quite sure who she shall be as the audience feels the same. There are vestiges of the past and new weirdnesses and far more questions than answers. I await the first time the Doctor self-identifies. (Honestly, this moment for Matt’s is one of the reasons I loved him. That and floppy dark hair and dorky wit.) What I don’t do in a regeneration is hold the past form against the new, wish the past actor were still there, or - honestly - reach any verdicts about the new path. I feel that, as a fan of the series, watching the Doctor’s first steps (again) is not enough for that kind of judgment.
I will say this, however: I enjoyed it. I smirked at some lines with the traditional Doctor quirkiness. I invested in the characters. I appreciated that the Doctor maintained a sense of justice that did not let the human’s off easily. I liked the references to change that resonated more fully due to the controversy of ridiculous proportions.
Earlier this week, I read where someone said that this needed to be the best Doctor Who episode ever to silence the critics. I do not agree. That is an impossible bar. For those who watched today committed to hating whatever they saw, it could have been “Don’t Blink” and they would have hated it. Regenerations will never be the best episodes because there is too much work to do and they are different because of that. I think that this episode did everything it needed to do, naysayers be damned. Most of us are never sure until halfway through a new Doctor’s first season.
There may well be some who walk away because a Doctor - an alien who travels through time and space in a period police call box - cannot realistically be a woman. To those “fans” I say go with grace and please just don’t mention that decision to the women in your life who deserve to not be devalued because of their sex.
The rest of us will be right here. Enjoying the Doctor and the upcoming adventures...no matter what form they all take.
Dir. Craig William Macneill
14 September 2018
SLOW. This film is a slow burn, possibly keeping audiences engaged through a mix of detailed performances and cinematographic beauty before rewarding them with the anticipated murders, but do not minimize the slowness of its initial pace. It is intentional. Subverting. Plotting. Stylistically mimicking the inner goings on of Lizzie, herself.
Lizzie is a 2018 Sundance film positing one theory concerning the deaths of Andrew and Abby Borden, the infamous titular character’s less famed father and stepmother. Exposition is woven into the creeping rising action rather than laid bare at the beginning. Chloe Sevigny’s Lizzie is uncomfortably relatable and a touch biting, with well-earned moments of verbal wit keeping me interested throughout. Kristen Stewart is well suited as Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. While the character is not a huge departure from Stewart’s expected roles, she is more controlled subtle here. Fiona Shaw, Jamey Sheridan, and Denis O’Hare are excellent as characters we love to hate, though I would pretty much watch O’Hare watch paint dry at this point.
The film is a beautiful artwork. The set design, costumes, and camerawork add significantly to the experience. It is almost like a painting is taking form before you as you watch. It is that slow development that may be the film’s one drawback for a popular contemporary audience. It is an interesting film done well, but it certainly does require some work from its viewers.
Honestly, I went to see this piece largely based on my enjoyment of the stage play Blood Relations, which also presents a possible scenario for the murders. The play moves faster than the film and it also ends more dramatically. They are certainly two very different pieces, but if you are interested in the Borden case, Blood Relations is well worth your time.
Dir. Michael Moore
21 September 2018
I do not attend the First Church of Michael Moore. His heavy-handedness is bothersome to me. From my position as teacher, I found Bowling for Columbine to be shortsighted and problematic. Complex issues cannot be remedied with a crowbar.
I honestly walked into Fahrenheit 11/9 just needing to take the piss in Trump’s direction amid the Kavanaugh hell in which I am living. What I found was a film that was interesting in the ways in which it exemplifies none of Moore’s weaknesses...or strengths.
This at bat finds a Moore who admits to his willingness to embrace Trump and his support staff when it was beneficial. He confesses his complicity and, indirectly, ours. That is, perhaps, the greatest power of the film. He shows that we let it happen by showing that he let it happen. For once, we are behind the camera watching him make decisions he was bound to regret. This humility seems to be a bit of integrity that we might need to mimic before we can get to work. That is an important lesson, here. We cannot address the issue if we give ourselves a pass at being not an ounce at fault.
Moore’s method of building an argument is usually meticulous in its construction. At best, Fahrenheit 11/9 is disjointed, but amid the rapid pace of present history, that might be overlooked. Moore gets mired down in a Flint narrative that tangentially relates to the issues at hand by connecting them to President Obama, but the length of time spent building the case might not be worth the payoff in comparison for the tighter storytelling around it. I found myself wanting to watch a Michael Moore Flint doc, but not in the middle of this film. Instead, I genuinely missed how Moore usually makes ever tighter circles around his prey before inviting his audience to join the feast.
Overall, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a touch meandering, a bit stage-y, and entirely a conviction of the “good ones” who need to do better. It is far from perfect, but it might still be exactly what we need to hear right now.
Dir. Pierre Morel
7 September 2018
I have a strong preference for pieces of art that surprise me in some way. Now, I have had a mad crush on John Gallagher, Jr. since Spring Awakening, so this pains me to say, but Peppermint is the least surprising revenge film possible. Whatever you are expecting? Peppermint is exactly that. Nothing more. Nothing less.
In fact, what frustrates me most is that the film isn’t simply predictable; rather, the dialogue telegraphs every plot point before it happens. In fact, at one point the dialogue actually telegraphs how the film could be better. Hey, yeah! Riley did just disappear for 5 years and return a skilled assassin...and no, people without priors don’t just do that. Huh. I wonder how that happened…? I know! Let’s not answer that question! (insert facepalm here)
Outside of a broadly disappointing script, the rest of the film is serviceable. The fight choreo is solid. The explosions are pretty. I believe and care about Riley in spite of the script, and that can only be due to hard work by actor Jennifer Garner and director Pierre Morel.
I do want to know where she was getting her hair done while off the grid and living in a van on Skid Row with no visible source of income because that cut and color job was exquisite.
It is films like this that are going to make me glad to have joined the AMC A-List because my disappointment and frustration did not cost me $10+. It could have been a much better film if the script had been written with an eye toward what this story would add to the vigilante film genre. It just...wasn’t. The result is expected and wholly usual.
A Simple favor
A Simple Favor
Dir. Paul Feig
14 September 2018
This was quite a fun ride. It is beautifully stylish (I want Blake Lively’s costume design - and personal trainer). There are abundant twists and turns to entertain. The pieces fit together in an interesting, if not wholly unexpected, way.
But what really impressed me were the portrayals of the two leads. The casting was natural, with both Lively and Anna Kendrick playing characters that fit well into their existing repertoire. From that point, however, what a solid script, detailed direction by Paul Feig, and strong work from both actors did was take a typical Kendrick or Lively performance and turn it into something different and special. Kendrick does cute and quirky as well as any other performer out there right now, but A Simple Favor established that character and then let us watch as it became necessary for her character, Stephanie Smothers, to become more. The trailers left me worried that Stephanie’s arc would become nothing more than one of adopting the abandoned life of Lively’s Emily Nelson, but - fortunately - there was much more to the story, and its complexity elevated Kendrick’s game. Lively’s performance is similarly complicated by her character’s imperfections, and the result is fresh and specific and a delight to watch.
I can’t say that the storyline was all that terribly surprising, but the film was so well executed that I really didn’t care. I thoroughly enjoyed every subtle stroke of the artists’ hands that made A Simple Favor anything but simplistic.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Dir. Eli Roth
21 September 2018
I think I was really engaged in and excited by The House with a Clock in Its Walls because 1st grade me would have been enamored with the film. I fear that what many adults will miss is that they are not the target audience here. Kids are. And that target is hit, reanimated-dead-on.
I was a . . . precocious child. Many peers and I read ahead of schedule and were left fighting for adults to trust us. The teachers wanted to police our reading to protect us, and this left us plotting ways to get our hands on books. Once the adults finally relented, we devoured books that those taller and wiser were sure were, in one way or another, too much for us.
That is the main thing that The House with a Clock in Its Walls gets right. It trusts kids. It is scary enough to give the desired jumps, but not realistic enough to cause real-life disruption. It is funny enough to give a needed break, but not enough to become cheesy and negate the scariness. It is smart and well-paced and fun to look at, but those are truths on a child’s scale. It may not cause a seasoned horror buff to jump. The computerized graphics may not be enough to wow a film connoisseur. The plot may slow down too much at points for an adult.
It isn’t for adults. It is an on-ramp into horror for kids. That’s why it is rated PG. It is a balance that is pedagogically fitting for a kid’s first scary movie. It scares and allows for decompression because that is how kids need to process it.
I will admit that I honestly thought it might be too scary at points. Then I walked out behind a 7-ish year-old boy, grinning widely as he regaled his mother with a long list of “Did you see when”s and “It was SO scary when”s. He was on an adrenaline high because the filmmakers trusted him and he beat the film. He survived it. He experienced fear and he came out safely on the other side.
No, I can’t guarantee that he won’t end up in mom’s bed tonight, but he knows he can be brave because he already was.
Kids will learn those adult traits when we give them a chance.
When we trust them.
Plus, who doesn’t love some clockwork Victorian house spectacle?
Educator. Reader. Writer. Lover of dogs, spreadsheets, dark red wine, and art.