Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Watch Twitter, potentially the greatest writers' room, workshop a concept

The last 24 hours in my twitter feed have been a lot of fun. It started when on a lark I posted a quick pitch that I spitballed earlier in the day to another writer:

"Premise: a retiring Olympian has the greatest sex of his life while at the Olypmic Village. He never gets the name of the other athelete, and doesn't see her before the end of the Games

To find her, he ditches retirement and is determined to compete 4 years later, past his prime."

Sometimes I toss out these quick pitches and they get little reaction. This one seemed to hit a chord with some people. One frequent reaction was to immediately start poking at the premise:

Granted, my pitch was less than 280 characters, so it's not like I was delivering a full treatment. I don't blame people for their first reaction being, "Here's why that hook doesn't work." But here's what I found impressive as the tone in my mentions turned from nitpicking to supportive...

And some others liked the potential the story had to subvert familiar tropes:

But best of all were the people who looked at the plot holes in the premise and decided to work the problem. It's easy to poke holes, but it takes more effort and creativity to solve them. This is how you give good notes. Look for story problems and plot holes as opportunities for creativity, not roadblocks to stop you from moving forward.

A couple people suggested the same complications...

And then there were the sillier riffs.

And then a twist on the concept, changing the genre.

All in all, I got a big kick out of this "virtual writers room." Sometimes the hive mind can solve problems that one person can't. Seeing how this one idea was workshopped might offer an example of how to receive and contribute to improving both your own ideas and the ideas of others.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ron Howard's MasterClass is damn near essential for aspiring directors

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I've had generally strong praise for the previous three MasterClass courses I've examined. Though it was for actors, Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (since made unavailable, but you can find my review here) actually gave me some valuable insight in how to direct actors. Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review) offered some really interesting peaks at how someone like Sorkin builds his scripts and gives guidance to other writers, while David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing (review) is a good instructional course for beginners.

As I've previewed each of those classes, there's almost always been a moment early on where I have to remind myself, "Remember, this is geared for people who haven't necessarily spent a decade plus working in the industry, and who likely haven't even gotten a degree in writing, acting, or filmmaking." I always try to watch each class with an objective less about what I personally am getting out of it, and more about how it might function as a tool for someone in the early stages of their career.

So I wasn't surprised when that moment came a few times in the early videos of Ron Howard Teaches Directing. The first several lessons focus on things like how Ron chooses a story, the three components he looks for in a great screenplay and how he works with various department heads like his production designer and cinematographer.

It's not that Ron doesn't have anything useful to offer there. In fact, I think it's incredibly important how some of his instructions stress collaboration and demystify the notion that the director is the entire brain trust behind the operation. He expresses the hierarchy really well when he says, "We all have to be telling the story, every single department. And who is the keeper of the story? Ultimately it's the director." This is tempered in a later video when he describes his policy of how if anyone he hires has an intuitive suggestion that still accomplishes the scene’s goals, he will test it. This rule "gets people invested in the project," builds trust, and makes it easier to say "no"when he needs to.

As I watched this, my thought was, "This is good stuff, and it makes me REALLY wish there were more people in general as wise about this as Ron, but is all of this worth the money and the time the average person will spend on it."

I never should have questioned this. By the end of these videos, I was pretty certain this was the best of the courses I'd taken, by far. The groundwork laid by Ron's first several videos is dominated by some basic instruction and advice that you might find elsewhere, but the back two-thirds are utterly unique. A multi-video exercise (with most of these videos exceeding 20 minutes by the way) puts us on set with Ron and a troupe of actors as he walks us through the rehearsal, blocking, and shooting of a scene from Frost/Nixon. It's a recreation with new actors, treated as if Ron is preparing the scene for that day of production, and it's as close as we could ever get to looking over the famed director's shoulder without actually being on set with him.

First, Ron rehearses the actors without any movement or blocking. He's just gauging the energy and the rhythms of the scene and making adjustments to their performances in general. We see him direct several of the actors and here's where you really feel the collaborative spirit coming in. It never comes across as him scolding the actors for doing the line wrong. Instead, it's always an energetic, affable redirection. When he tells them to try it differently and explains how, it feels like they're eager to take the note and try it instead of getting hung up on a mistake.

After a few runs to his satisfaction, Ron guides them through another rehearsal on set, as they try to figure out their blocking, how they interact with each other, what bit of business they'll do, and so on. When redirections are given, they're in the same spirit as before, and often Ron will take a moment to explain his changes like, "If you land here on this line, it puts you by this window and that's great for composing with more depth." Or, "If you stand here, we can shoot you down the hallway and add depth as opposed to just against this flat wall."

Then Ron adds cameras and it's clear he's simultaneously thinking of several things at once: are the performances natural? Is the blocking dramatic and aiding the performance? Are there ways to add tension or change the energy of the scene with specific movements or interactions? How does the framing of the shots and the sense of space enhancing the tension and the relationship among the actors?  A lot of stuff goes by fast as we watch the scene shot again and again from different angles, and even when Ron doesn't stop to explain his thought process behind certain choices (which he does frequently), his instructions and notes are usually so specific that you start to figure out what's motivating them.

With those videos, Ron drives this series into the end zone, but then he REALLY spikes the ball with what he does next. With the scene's coverage committed to film under one set of blocking, he tells the actors he's now going to restage the scene the way he considered doing in the original film before abandoning it in favor of another plan. And so he blocks them for a Stedicam shot. His original plan to do it all as a one-take Stedicam "oner" proves impractical given the limitations of the set, so he instead does it as successive Stedicam takes, giving us a contrast with which to compare the earlier staging.

This also gives Ron an opportunity to point out the virtues and the pitfalls of one-take scenes. They're not just challenging in the sense that every performer in the scene has to be dead on in their work. It also means that the director is giving up some of the power they normally have in the editing room to tighten up the scene, extend the tension in the scene, take out entire lines that don't work, put lines in different order. That's a lot of manipulation that gets taken off the table. But, he concedes that there's an energy and immediacy to a long take and that audiences certainly respond to the emotion of that.

Then, in a video that is probably especially useful for the student filmmaker, Ron walks us through how he'd stage the scene if he was running behind schedule or if he was on an indie film with a tighter shooting schedule. We're shown the economical way to block the scene, and while the coverage isn't quite minimal, it's certainly less elaborate and refined than the first version.

When I was in film school, we never had an exercise like this and it's not something I've seen discussed in depth in many how-to filmmaking books either. Sure, we were instructed about basic shots like Master, Close-Up, Medium, and Extreme Close-Up - and also when we could and could not cut from one of those shots to the other. When it came to staging scenes, the only truly important rule I recall being given was "The 180 Degree Rule" and the strict instruction to never "cross the axis." And to be honest, that was presented to us in a way that made it as much an editing rule as a rule of shooting coverage.

Weirdly Ron doesn't even bring up those guidelines or even other principles like "directional continuity." At this point in his career, Ron is following those rules instinctively, perhaps so intuitively that it doesn't even occur to him to point them out. As much as I've lamented the basic 101 info that pops up in these master classes, it might have been beneficial to squeeze a crash course on these into one quick video. Having said that, it could just be that the MasterClass is assuming some degree of familiarity with filmmaking principles.

Editing is only touched on relatively briefly, and I hope that some future MasterClass focuses on this. (Stuart Baird as an instructor, perhaps?) At the time I took the course, three videos were not yet online. In each video, Ron deconstructs a different film scene, discussing the mechanics of the shots, how research helped him compose the scene and how he managed a key transition in the story's point-of-view. Hopefully they'll be online soon because I'd love to hear what Ron has to say.

Ron Howard sets a high bar with these videos, and in the coming months I'm hoping to find time to watch the directing courses by Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. It'll be interesting to see if they compliment each other or prove redundant.

If you're looking to buy MasterClass, it'll cost you $90/class. If you have any inkling that you'll want to try two or more of the classes, your best bet is to get an All-Access Pass. With that, you have unlimited access to all of the MasterClasses for one year.

Assuming it won't affect your ability to pay rent or bills, is Ron Howard's class worth $90? We're talking about over six hours of videos, so figure $15/hour. If I hadn't gotten a film degree, or if I'd only taken a basic filmmaking class and I wanted to learn more about directing, I'd probably consider this a pretty good investment. Sure, you could always buy a few books on filmmaking or check them out of the library for free - but there's no other opportunity that basically lets you shadow a major feature film director on set as they shoot a scene. If what I've described holds any appeal for you, you'll probably find Ron Howard's MasterClass to be money well spent.

The Full MasterClass roster:

Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing
David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing

Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Usher teaches performance

Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball

Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Thomas Keller Teaches Cooking Techniques

Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Happy birthday The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street

Less than a year ago I ran my blog series, 16 Great TV Shows, which focused on the shows that most shaped my own writing and my own love of television. Today, two of those shows are having notable birthdays. Even though I've recently written tributes to both, it seems wrong not to mark the anniversaries for The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street.

How is it possible The Wonder Years is 30? The series - created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black - first aired on January 31, 1988, with its setting in 1968. From there, the series remained set twenty years prior to the time in which it aired. So had the series never been cancelled, the episode airing this week would be set in 1998 and probably would have the Monica Lewinsky scandal as its backdrop. I can tell you one thing I was doing this week in 1998: watching reruns of The Wonder Years on Nick-At-Nite. It's a bit staggering to be confronted with that realization that much time has passed.

My earlier tribute covered so much ground that I don't know what to say except marvel that somehow the young woman who was the first crush for many guys my age, Danica McKellar, gets more stunning by the year!

In all seriousness, I remember one of my earliest realizations about The Wonder Years being that despite the period setting, my world and Kevin Arnold's world weren't so different. The school environment was largely the same, the kinds of relationships you had with friends, family and crushes were all mostly along similar dynamics, whether you came of age in the 70s or the 90s.

And that's when I realized that a coming-of-age show set in the 90s would stick out as far more of a period piece than The Wonder Years did to a kid growing up when it was on air. There are two things that changed being a teenager forever. In 1999, the horror of the Columbine High School shooting completely altered the way teens felt about how safe their school was. Security measures were implemented and for a while, it felt like we'd never look at alienated students the same again.

The second advent was the concurrent development of smart phones and social media. It completely altered the landscape, particularly for teens, where both facilitated new means of bullying and emotionally abusing people. If you watched American Vandal or 13 Reasons Why, you get a good sense of how all of that is different now. It makes me wonder if The Wonder Years still feels relevant to the current generation.

For as much as I've seen people talk about the sixties as a similar time, the show resonated with me because of how easily I could see myself in Kevin's shoes. Maybe today it plays as an idealized depiction of a simpler time. Or maybe it's as foreign to modern teens as Little House on the Prairie was to me. The show is the teenage experience I hope everyone gets to live through in some fashion, heartbreak and all. I'll admit, it's a little weird to watch The Wonder Years and long for the time in which the show was produced.

And then we have Homicide: Life on the Street, celebrating 25 years this year. Like The Wonder Years, it premiered after the Super Bowl, though it struggled for much longer to find an audience. I wrote a pretty exhaustive retrospective piece five years ago for the 20th anniversary, in addition to my tribute piece last year, so you'd be justified in thinking I had little left to say.

Homicide is the true beginning of the Peak TV era. It's everything that came together to make The Wire, but done on a network TV platform. For me, 25 years of Homicide means two and a half decades of prestige TV that strives to transcend its medium. The show remains distinctive in a way most shows akin to the CBS procedural genre do not. When you turned on Homicide, you never would mistake it for a different show on the air at the time and even now, I can't picture many people confusing it for any other procedural, past or present.

I don't know if there's every been a greater broadcast TV actor than Andre Braugher. While that statement might be hyperbole, it's even more accurate to say that the perfect marriage of actor and character in Braugher's Frank Pembleton is even rarer. Frank gave the show many of its most intense moments, but he also had so many moments of emotion and heart with his partner Tim.

Richard Belzer's Munch had an even longer legacy, going on to 13 seasons as a regular on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and appearing on 10 series as that character. For a show that struggled in the ratings during most of its run, it cast a long shadow on TV.

There's one Homicide story I keep thinking of as we find ourselves in the conversation about the importance of representation in film and TV. Showrunner Tom Fontana spoke of filming a scene where Lt. Giardello, Pembleton, Lewis and Captain Barnfather are all in a heated discussion about how to handle a particularly delicate case. Once they called cut, Braugher went over to Fontana and said, "Did you do that on purpose?" Fontana, taken aback, said he didn't know what Braugher meant.

Braugher said that he'd never been in a scene with four black actors that wasn't about race. This was just a scene where all the characters happened to be black - their skin color wasn't a story point, or even a thematic issue. There was no "other-ing." I found it fascinating that Braugher picked up on that at once AND that it was notable enough that he assumed it must have been done on purpose to make the very point the actor highlighted.

It seems equally telling that that issue was completely invisible to Fontana. He wasn't trying to make any point - this was simply the result of him having a diverse enough cast where this could happen without it being an event. This also resulted from him writing his characters as being true to their natures and not defining their identities solely by their skin color.

More than twenty years since that scene and it still feels like it would be an anomaly on contemporary television. Hopefully the next two decades will bring bigger strides forward.

Happy birthday Homicide and The Wonder Years! You've certainly aged better than shows that were three decades old when YOU were first on the air.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Happy 20th Birthday, Dawson's Creek!

It seems unreal to me that Dawson's Creek turns 20 today. It was a show that forever defined the WB and its audience. When it premiered, the hype behind this thing was unavoidable. Creator Kevin Williamson was on a hot streak after writing Scream, Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and so it was a rare promotional blitz where the writer got name-dropped as much as the actors.

I wasn't a viewer from the start. At the time, I considered silly teen soaps to be beneath me, even if the lead character was a teenage aspiring director who, like me, idolized Spielberg. I soon changed my tune before the start of the second season, and for a while the show remained a guilty pleasure. ("I watch for Katie Holmes!" was my half-joking defense and I know I was not alone in that.)

But around season three something strange happened, the show got REALLY good. You wouldn't have guessed it from the first couple episodes that year, which were the first under a new showrunner who really didn't understand the show and tried to turn it into something sleazy. Very quickly the writers realized they had to change course, and a seminal moment in TV history came with the eighth episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." TV legend has it that Greg Berlanti - who had only gotten his first job in TV a year earlier when he joined the staff of the show - completely rewrote the episode in the space of a weekend and vaulted all the way up to showrunner as a result.

The whole saga of how season 3 came out of a nosedive and reached a creative peak is told in Jeffrey Stepakoff's book Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek. It's well worth your time. it's about how Season 3 became the Joey/Pacey story, creating the triangle that would play out through most of the rest of the series.

It was a total pleasure a few years ago to interview Liz Tigelaar, a showrunner who got her start on Dawson's Creek as a writers assistant, even getting her first writing credit on the show. I did a video interview with her and you can find the first part below, where she talks about that experience.

If you want to see the remaining 12 parts, go here.

To mark the 20th anniversary, I wrote a piece for Film School Rejects looking at the films of Dawson Leery and projecting where he might be today. You can find that here.

And I'll close this post with my Top 10 Dawson's Creek episodes.

1. True Love - Joey and Pacey run off together for the summer.

2. All Good Things...Must Come To An End - Series finale

3. Four to Tango (after I posted this on Twitter, episode writer Gina Fattore expressed amazement, saying, "Four to Tango at #3? Seriously? Written in, like, 45 minutes in the middle of the night when other stuff was thrown out.")

4. The Long Goodbye

5. Detention (Joey hits bully with lunch tray!)

6. Appetite for Disaster

7. Castaways

8. The Graduate

9. Show Me Love - (Liz Tigelaar's first screen credit, btw)

10. To Green With Love

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My Top 10 Movies of 2017

For my picks for 11-20, go here.

No one reads these intros, so I'll be brief. It was a great year for film, though the seeming uniformity among a lot of Top 10 lists might have you thinking only 10 or 15 really good movies came out this year. There are a couple deviations in my list - I loved a few movies others didn't and was left cold by a couple that others breathlessly raved about. The really good stuff tended to leap to the top, but there was a pretty solid second tier too.

Picking a number one film is often as much about the statement it makes for the year in film as it is the quality of the film itself. Any of my Top 3 films could be justified as the Number One pick, but all things considered, I have to lead off with...

1. Wonder Woman - With the kind of year we've had politically, it was more cathartic than ever to see women kicking ass on the big screen. Considering how easy it would have been to screw up Wonder Woman (and don't kid yourselves with the "it's so easy" talk. It's hard to get a great adaptation of BATMAN and he's a far simpler concept to execute and get an audience to buy in on) the fact that we not only got a good movie, but a superhero film that stands with Donner's Superman and Nolan's Batmans in terms of quality is nothing short of a miracle. I want Patty Jenkins to be the first director besides Nolan to complete a superhero trilogy.

Yes, the climax it a slight stepdown when it threatens to become a pure CGI battle, but the film doesn't forget there are emotional stakes for Diana, and Steve Trevor's sacrifice is nicely one of those moments that shows Diana that even though mankind often uses free will to embrace evil, sometimes they choose good. Beyond that, the No Man's Land sequence is one of the most emotionally satisfying action sequences of the year and one of the best "debut of the hero" moments on film.

2. Get Out - Is there anything to say about this that hasn't already been said. Jordan Peele's dark Twilight Zone-y look at race relations is a great study in gradually-building paranoia and tension. It very savvily leads us to expect one reveal (that all the black people are brainwashed) and then flips for a darker one (the black people's bodies have literally been appropriated by the liberal white town folks.) It's a creepy look at the white establishment's fascination with and admiration of black culture and achievement, while also taking it all for their own without any empathy for the other side. One of Peele's best idea was to make the white characters liberal and even likable. It asked more of the audience than if they were a bunch of racist rednecks.

3. Logan - We've known Hugh Jackman's Logan and Patrick Stewart's Professor X for 17 years, traveling with them through good movies and bad. Now, in the tenth film X-Men film (and the ninth to feature Jackman in some capacity), we go on Logan and Xavier's final adventure together. Feeling more like a western than a traditional superhero outing, Logan shows that comic book films, even comic book franchises, are durable enough that not every film has to end with our lead actors facing off against CGI pixels. A weary Logan ends up with a young charge who has abilities very similar to his own. The father/daughter material gives the film some heart, even though the young Laura spends almost all of her screentime mute.

Most of all, the film doesn't flinch when it comes to shutting the door on this end of the X-Men saga. We've reached an era where superhero stories are allowed to conclude. Christopher Reeve's Superman never got that, instead going through a series of increasingly weaker sequels until the franchise died. A similar fate befell the Batman that began under Tim Burton. Logan knows that the best sagas actually conclude and the ending of this film packs more power than you'd expect from a Wolverine feature.

4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Look, I wanted Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi John Wick as much as the next guy, but instead writer/director Rian Johnson gave us a scarred, embittered Luke who's lost reason to believe in just about everything he was raised on. A lot of films last year reflected our political reality, both intentionally and unintentionally, and The Last Jedi clearly falls into that. What do you do when the old battles keep having to be fought and you've lost all faith in what was once your source of strength? I don't think this is Hamill's swan song as the character, but it's definitely his most interesting performance as Luke.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren's story takes a major leap forward and ensures we won't get an easy redemption for this psycho. Adam Driver is fantastic at making Ren more and more unhinged, even as Daisy Ridley shows Rey growing more confidant even as her story moves away from "Chosen One" territory. At this stage in the game, some sacred cows probably had to be blown up just to make this trilogy more of it's own thing. I get why this is so divisive in a few corners of fandom, but I expect this'll be more accepted as time goes on.

5. The Post - I can understand a temptation to compare this to All The President's Men, or even Spotlight, which took the Best Picture Oscar just a couple years ago. The significant difference between those films and The Post, though, is that the former films are about reporting and the latter film is about publishing. In most "big story" journalism films, there's always that scene where the crusading reporter has to stand up to some lackey in legal and fight for the right to tell the story. Usually it's presented as one final obstacle easily disposed of. Here, that IS the main conflict.

As the story opens, The Washington Post has been scooped by The New York Times, which has just published the Pentagon Papers, stolen documents that showed several administrations knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but they kept that fact from the public. The Times is enjoined from publishing more documents, and when The Post comes into possession of them, publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee weigh if they should publish in solidarity with the Times, knowing it will bring the full wrath of the White House on them, or play it safe and keep the paper out of jeopardy.

There's gonna be a temptation to compare Nixon to Trump, but for me, this is really a story telling journalists, "Hey! This is how you do your job, even in the face of a President determined to destroy the free press!" Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's script mines this conflict for everything its worth and the result is one of Spielberg's faster moving and impactful films of the last decade.

6. Wonder - I've not read the book that Wonder is based on and so the movie ended up being so much more than I expected. It's the story of a young boy named Auggie, born with facial deformities that have been gradually reduced via a decade of surgeries, though his face clearly isn't "normal." As he goes off to school and regular contact with kids his age the first time, the story expands and shifts POV. We go from Auggie's perspective to his sister's, and her estranged friend, and eventually get inside the head of a classmate who befriended Auggie and hurt him.

In many cases, someone will appear to do awful and selfish things in a way that we can't imagine has sympathetic motivations... and then the shift to their perspective puts their side of the story front and center and we begin to understand their private pain. It's a neat trick for a film that tells us from the start we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Time and again it proves that we're all often too guilty of not looking below the surface. Between this and his earlier film Confessions of a Wallflower, I'm down for anything else co-writer and director Stephen Chbosky has.

7. The Disaster Artist - How do you tell a story about the making of the worst movie ever released? If you're screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, you latch onto the friendship between young aspiring actor Greg (Dave Franco) and his older friend, the enigmatic and eccentric Tommy Wiseau, played to the hilt by James Franco. I've never seen The Room, the notoriously awful film whose genesis is chronicled in this movie, but at no point did I feel I needed to. It's the story of a friendship that becomes a very strained friendship, as Tommy's jealousy manifests in how he uses the movie to control Greg.

There's also a lot here that will be familiar to any Hollywood dreamer, particularly those who have tried to make their own movie, or been acquainted with another wannabe with a passion project. It's all done in a way that doesn't feel too "inside baseball," though and as much as Tommy's ineptitude as a filmmaker makes you want to bang your head against a wall, Franco manages to get to feel for the crazy guy.

8. The Big Sick - The autobiographical story of how Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanijani met, fell in love, broke up due to culture clash and then become forced together when she suffers from a severe illness is one of the most unique films of the year. It's essentially a rom-com where the guy loses the girl halfway in, she falls into a coma, and he gets to know her parents, bonding with them even as he realizes he's not ready to let go of her.

I like that some parts feel messy. Kumail's parents are very adamant that he must marry a Pakistani woman, and so knowing they'd never approve of Emily, he keeps them from her. When that truth comes out, there's real hurt there and the movie doesn't pretend that it's gonna be alright. The same goes for the post-illness trajectory of Kumail and Emily's romance. Avoiding the fairy tale ends up making the very satisfying ending feel earned.

And of course there's that 9/11 joke. That alone should earn it an Oscar nomination.

9. I, Tonya - I remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal well, one of the earliest 24-hour-a-day scandals that consumed the news for months. Then it turned out that was just a dry run for the O.J. Simpson murders, which happened just a few months later. I, Tonya tries to remake the narrative around the woman usually seen as the villain in this case, positing she's as much a victim of the media, a terrible mother and an abusive husband, as Kerrigan was from an attack meant to keep her out of the Olympics.

Margot Robbie delivers us a Tonya who makes us want to believe she's just a victim of circumstance. It's a narrative I've been skeptical of with regard to the real life case. One of the film's wisest creative move is that it embraces that to an extent. Using (eerily recreated and often conflicting) interviews with the participants as the basis for Steven Rogers's screenplay, the result is a movie that feels like an oral history. For two hours, I bought Tonya Harding as an underdog who never got a break and seemed to have the whole world conspiring against her. This could easily fit on a double-bill with The Disaster Artist.

10. Brigsby Bear - See this one as I did, knowing nothing about it. It's under the radar enough that I'm willing to bet you haven't heard about it. Here's what I'll say, Mark Hamill gives a great performance as sort of a twisted Mr. Rogers character and SNL's Kyle Mooney manages to hit a very difficult tone as a young man who... (man, this is hard without spoilers) ...finds it hard to adapt to adult life in the real world.

Monday, January 8, 2018

My Top 20 Movies of 2017, Part 1

As is my tradition, once I've seen most of the major film award contenders for a given year, I compile my Top 20 rankings. I always feel like doing 20 rather than 10 gives a broader sense of what the year in film looked like, and gives me a chance to spotlight movies I really enjoyed, but maybe just got outplayed by the ten films appearing on everyone else's list.

Of the big award contenders, I believe the only major one I haven't seen is Call Me By Your Name. There may be one or two more that I'm forgetting, but overwhelmingly I've seen enough that I feel comfortable standing by this as my take on the year in film.

11. Coco - After all this time I shouldn't be surprised when a Pixar film turns out to be beautifully emotional. I guess I got lulled in by the incredible visual design brought to this Day of the Dead story, and let down my guard. A young boy with dreams of being a musician finds himself in the afterlife on the Day of the Dead, and tries to find his great-great-grandfather, whose abandonment of the family in favor of music years ago has made being a musician an unacceptable career choice in that household. There are several points where we're sure we're ahead of the movie, only to have those expectations subverted. And if "Remember Me" doesn't win Best Original Song at the Oscars this year, the Academy has no heart.

12. Lady Bird - I'm told this movie is even more powerful if you're a young woman who had a tense relationship with your mother growing up. I'm pleased to report that's not a necessity for enjoying Greta Gerwig's feature directing debut, about a teenage girl in her final year of high school chafing against her hyper-critical mother and her desire to escape Sacramento when she goes off to college. Saoirse Ronan makes Lady Bird uncomfortably relatable even when she's doing unsympathetic things like ditching her friends for the cool kids or clearly showing shame about her home situation. It's a less showy film than most of the competition this year, but it understands its characters and the actors all really give these relationships a sense of history.

13. Colossal - This movie turned out to be much more than I expected. The initial hook is that Anne Hathaway plays a down-on-her-luck drunk who moves back to her hometown and finds than when she goes on her benders, her actions control a Godzilla-like monster that's currently terrorizing Korea. So we're geared up for this movie where the theme seems to be how a person's self-destructive actions have consequences for others and then the film takes this amazing turn. Her "nice guy" childhood friend played by Jason Sudeikis starts to reveal a resentful, controlling side. It's a turn that spends the whole movie hiding in plain sight. It's not a left turn that invalidates everything that came before - it's the thing we should have noticed sooner, but we're so used to accepting it in real life that it barely registered on our radar. This was one movie that really surprised me with its cleverness, and while it's not for everyone, it probably deserved a bigger audience.

14. Baby Driver - I'm still waiting for Edgar Wright to top the pinnacle of Hot Fuzz, but Baby Driver is another solid case of the writer/director taking an established genre (in this case, a heist/car chase movie) and doing it his way. The opening getaway sequence is a masterful work of stunt-driving, pacing and editing, and even if the rest of the movie fell short, I would have felt I got my money's worth. Are a few of the characters perhaps too cliché? Maybe, but the actors all work to elevate the archetypes. (John Hamm as a banker turned criminal is possibly the most entertaining member of the game, the right mix of sleazy, quietly caring and way in over his head.) And yeah, Kevin Spacey's in it, which makes for awkward viewing now, but his part is such a stock Spacey role that I bet you can FF most of his scenes and still follow what's going on.

15. Molly's Game - Sorkin has a knack for taking subjects that seem unfilmable and finding a compelling way in on the page. Not many people would have found a way into Moneyball or the story of Facebook's founding. The film is the story of how former Olympian Molly Bloom got into the world of underground poker and came to run one of the most exclusive high-stakes games until the shady people she was associating with brought her to the attention of the FBI. There's a rough patch or two, but a supporting turn from Kevin Costner really helps add the emotional stakes and underline that what she achieved really was an accomplishment. Jessica Chastain brings real steel to the role of Molly, and while it's not the first time she's played an assertive woman, Molly is uncompromising in a way that renders her extremely formidable. As good as Sorkin's writing and directing is, this is Chastain's film and she gives us the right avatar for the year of "Women are sick of your shit."

16. The Lego Batman Movie - And now for something that was just straight-up fun. This year's superhero films bounced between deep, serious explorations of heroism and aging... and total blasts of pure, unashamed fun. There are Bat-fans who recoil at anything they perceive as disrespecting or undermining the ultra-serious nature of the character and his "important" mythos. But then you remember this is a story about a guy who wears a cape and a batmask to beat up cackling criminals and you realize there's plenty of absurdity, and this film embraces every minute of that. I love Will Arnett's interpretation of Batman and I hope it spawns an entire franchise.

17. It - I rarely find a good horror movie that manages to be genuinely unsettling rather than simply relying on shock and gore to keep the audience off-balance. Thus, it figures this film comes from New Line, which was also behind The Conjuring and Lights Out. I've never read the book or seen the miniseries, which allowed me to go into this fresh. I won't deny there are some problematic elements, but the creators assembled an incredibly strong cast of young actors and Pennywise is the perfect foil for them. I don't know what Bill Skarsgård looks like out of makeup, and I don't want to, for fear of it diminishing Pennywise's psychological impact.

18. War for the Planet of the Apes - Put a gun to my head and I'll tell you I preferred the previous entry in the series, but that doesn't diminish how effectively this film puts us on the side of the apes and makes us by into mo-cap CGI creatures as living, breathing actors. Not once during this film did I think about how Caesar's really just a collection of 1s and 0s in a computer. You'll feel more for the ape deaths in the film (even the ones that are basically "Women in Refrigerators") than you will for the humans, and that might be the greatest visual effect of all.

19. Spider-Man: Homecoming - It's become fashionable to bash the Sam Raimi movies, but I love that version of Spider-Man (well, more the first two films than the third, but still...) When starting the third Spidey continuity in 15 years, Marvel wisely skipped over the origin and surrounded Peter with a supporting cast we'd not met in previous films. Michael Keaton proved to be a perfect choice for the Vulture, particularly in one scene where we can see the gears turning as he realizes his daughter's boyfriend Peter is actually Spider-Man. Tom Holland reminds us of what we all knew during Captain America: Civil War, he's the right man to play every-teen Peter Parker, bringing the perfect mix of youthful earnestness and enthusiasm. It feels fresh even though we've seen Peter in five previous solo films, embodied by two other actors.

20. Gerald's Game - Longtime readers know I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers. This film has a doozy of one when a wife handcuffed to the bed as sexual foreplay finds herself trapped there after her husband suffers a fatal heart attack. She's handcuffed at both wrists, in a cabin far from any help and anyone who will hear, and she's growing more fatigued by the minute. As she weakens, she grows delirious, seeing hallucinations and something that she perhaps only thinks are her imagination. This would have placed higher on the list if not for an unnecessary epilogue that drags out resolution when the film really needs to end and get out.

Oh, and there's a really graphic scene that it makes me wince to even allude to, but just about any other review of this film has you covered in that regard. Suffice to say, I wasn't expecting the film to go there and it might be more painful to watch than the hobbling scene in Misery.

So that's 11-20. Come back tomorrow for the top 10.

Friday, December 29, 2017

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

The end of the year brings Top 10 Lists! I'm still catching up on my 2017 feature releases, so expect that around the middle of January, but I've watched more than enough TV to put out a list of my Top 10 TV Shows for 2017. No one reads these intros anyway, so let's get right to it:

1) American Vandal - The first time I saw a trailer for American Vandal, I was convinced it was a fake trailer. Even when I realized it was posted by Netflix, I remained open to the possibility that they had decided to have a little fun making a fake trailer applying the MAKING A MURDERER formula to the story of a high school documentary determined to find out who spray-painted dicks on the cars in the faculty lounge. In other words, my expectations that this joke could sustain a single installment, much less 8 episodes, were very low. I could not have been more wrong. American Vandal blew past those expectations and even beyond any best-case-scenario I could have conceived.

There are few savvier moves in television this year than the story turn in Episode 5 where we learn that the mockumentary has gone public and the rest of the show becomes not just about the investigation, but the impact of the documentary on the people it examines. The creators pulled off an incredible high-wire act here that elevated this beyond almost any mockumentary I've ever seen. Far more than a goof, this is a series about voyeurism, the media, and the regular trials of just getting through life in a typical high school. My biggest regret is that I watched this at a time when I wasn't available to give this a 5 or 10 part examination on my blog.

2) The Good Place - The best thing network TV did last year. Last year's finale (which aired in January) completely upended the entire series with a reveal that worked all the better because we barely knew a mystery existed. Learning that Eleanor and her friends ALL were in The Bad Place not only let Ted Danson do some fabulous scenery chewing, but it positioned the series for a total reset in Season 2. It seemed like the creators could only disappoint from there, but amazingly, the second season quickly moved past the expected repeated beats and blew up the show again. I have NO idea the state we'll leave the show in with this year's finale and I love watching a show where it feels like anything can happen.

3) 13 Reasons Why - I wrote 13 (actually 14, really) posts about why I was hit so hard by this series about the events that led a teenage girl to take her own life, and many months later, I stand by all of it. Katherine Langford gave the breakout performance of the year as the gradually unraveling Hannah Baker, who leaves behind cassette tapes addressed to each person she says put her on the road to her death. The episode focusing on Clay's tape is still one of the most heartbreaking episodes of TV I saw this year, and Dylan Minnette deserves just as much praise as Langford for anchoring this series.

Beyond all that, it was nice to have a Netflix show where each episode felt like a distinct chapter as opposed to being part of a "13-hour movie." I don't dispute a couple middle chapters lagged, more for their lack of present-day momentum than for the Hannah-focused material. (Episode 7 being the worst offender in that regard). But the show finished strong and despite the near impossibility of continuing this arc in a satisfying way, I'm as eager for Season 2 as I am for the next Star Wars. Like American Vandal, this series really seems to capture the authenticity of teenage life today, and manages to do so with a fairly diverse cast.

4) Master of None - I've seen a lot of lists single out the series for the short-film quality of standalone eps like "New York, I Love You," but that overlooks how cohesive the show feels despite these "art project" forays. The standout episode of the season is "Thanksgiving," which doesn't center on Aziz Ansari's Dev, but rather co-writer and supporting player Lena Waithe's Denise, as we follow her journey of coming out across several years. Waithe and Ansari deservedly won an Emmy for this episode, and I want you to imagine any other similar comedy series pulling off the trick of building an entire episode around a character who was absent from more eps than she appeared in and have it STILL feel like a true half-hour of the series. Could Curb Your Enthusiasm get away with a Jeff-focused or a Funkhauser-focused installment?

Not everything about this season was a home run for me, but the running thread of Dev's Cupcake Wars series and the finale's left turn into a sexual harassment story brought to mind how the best seasons of Seinfeld kept a standalone feel even with season-long storylines.

5) The Handmaid's Tale -This series had the timing of the century coming on the heels of Trump's arrival in the White House. The openly oppressive and misogynistic society it depicts feels like something out of a Mike Pence wet dream. That timing adds a fresh sense of horror to the story of Elizabeth Moss's June/Offred, a handmaid assigned to the home of one of the new society's leaders. No show or movie this year made me HATE its villains as much as this series dead. Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy had brief moments of empathy through the season which made her truly despicable actions in the finale even more potent and infuriating.

I also REALLY hope that Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, the woman whose job it is to basically break and brainwash the handmaids, comes to a really nasty end before the season is over. Dowd has created one of the great villains of television, and all of this gives Moss some really great material to play against. And in the "we didn't know you had it in you" category, former Rory Gilmore actress Alexis Bledel showed of some incredible chops in her Emmy-winning showcase episode. The universally powerful acting smoothed over a couple of the slower episodes that felt like they were there to build out the world for future seasons. I'm curious to see how season two expands the world and the story of the Resistance, or if retreats to the more intimate drama and tension that was more often the show's strength this year.

6) Better Call Saul - Even as the show added Breaking Bad antagonist Gus Fring to the mix, it seemed to stake out more of its identity as being its own show completely independent of its "parent." It's interesting that - like 13 Reasons Why, in a way - this series mines a lot of tension out of the drive to a sad conclusion the audience likely keeps trying to will out of existence. We've had a lot of time to fall for Jimmy McGill, enough that it's gonna be hard to have him taken away from us when he completes his transformation into the much more amoral Saul Goodman. This is essentially a series about the battle for Jimmy's soul and we've known from the start that he loses. What we didn't know was that he had this much of a good heart to begin with.

This season gave us plenty of charming moments with our favorite shyster, but the real power came from the final conflict between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean.) The episode where Jimmy fully outwits Chuck and destroys his reputation in the process was a heartbreaker. We root for Jimmy because the series is empathetic to his point of view and because Chuck is a dick - but Chuck isn't all wrong in his criticisms of Jimmy and it feels like next season, we'll see more of that validated, even as Chuck has been taken off the board.

7) Bates Motel - When this series was announced, I didn't think they could pull it off. Then after watching season one, I still doubted a series based on PSYCHO could work, but Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore were doing such great work that it outshone the often weak plotting with regard to the local town mythology. The big moment of season two for me was when we saw the birth of the Mother persona and it still felt like a genuine shock, as the lead actors had managed to separate their work so completely from the Hitchcock production. The final two or three seasons were the strongest, with this season finally sending Norman into total madness and becoming the deranged young man we met in the film. Ingeniously, the creators threw a curve ball when they introduced Marion Crane and upended all expectations. It could have sunk the series, but by then, we'd accepted this Norman Bates as a different animal from Anthony Perkins's iconic performance. Sometimes, bad ideas can be executed really well and I never thought I'd be eager to see a weekly Norman Bates hour.

8) Better Things - Pamela Adlon is an actress usually called upon to play straight-talking, no-bullshit voices of reason. One of the savvy things Better Things does is take that persona and put her in situations where it's often impotent, like trying to be single mother to her three daughters. Technically the show is a comedy, but for me it often plays more as a drama with funny parts. This season tried the "short film each week" approach possibly to an even more aggressive degree than Master of None. It makes for occasionally frustrating viewing if you're expecting immediate follow-up to dangling plotlines, but somehow it's effective to feel like we're sometimes getting incomplete pieces of Adlon's Sam and her life, with us having to figure out the offscreen journey from A to B via context. Perhaps more than any of the other shows on this list, I've found this is one that you can't explain to people - you just have to get them to watch it.

Also, this is possibly one of my favorite scenes from the year, with Adlon cycling through every possible line reading of "No!"

9) Big Little Lies - Some writers have such potent voices that you can pick them out instantly, despite any attempts to vary the tone or the subject matter. No matter the TV or movie script, Sorkin always sounds like Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino will ALWAYS sound like Amy Sherman-Palladino, and David E. Kelley will always be identifiable by his quirkiness and monologues. Or so I thought. This is the most un-David E. Kelley show that David E. Kelley could have done.

Though it's framed by a murder investigation, the series really is the story of several affluent women in Monterey, who spend most of their time teaming up to work with and against each other in all manner of school-related drama that involves each of their first-graders. With actors like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, the series is a compelling exploration of the difficult lives they lead beneath their privilege. (I realize that makes this sound like American Beauty, but I assure you the series is much, much better.) One has an abusive husband and needs to understand that before she has any hope of leaving him, one finds herself tempted to stray in her marriage, another initially presents as a Queen Bee monster before revealing a softer side, and another is finally ready to confront the sexual assault that conceived her child.

I'll be honest, I wasn't too compelled by the framing mystery. It was the characters and their storylines that brought me back for each episode, not the desire to find out who had been killed and who was the murderer. The eventual reveal that Kidman's husband was the same character who raped Shailene Woodley's character also seemed a bit pat and unnecessary. Maybe on a second viewing I'll notice things that set that up more clearly, but on a first pass, it came out of nowhere. As a showcase for some of the best working actresses, though, BLL is hard to beat.

10) One Day at a Time - I'll admit, this one took a few episodes to fully grow on me. I don't really watch any three-camera shows any more and part of that is that the tone and style feel too artificial for me. (I think this has more to do with the quality of the new series I've seen, as I don't have this issue with reruns of Seinfeld, Cheers and just about any other classic sitcom.) I've never seen the original version so I can't speak to comparisons between the two. Like several other shows on this list, it became more relevant this year than it might have, focusing on a family of Cuban immigrants raised by a single mother who's also a military vet. The show's dealt with PTSD, illegal immigrants, gender bias, religion, homosexuality, and more... all with the same deft touch that co-creator Norman Lear used almost 40 years ago when he created All in the Family and The Jeffersons. It feels authentic instead of preachy and manages to be consistently funny. It's a great era for sitcoms that actually have something to say.

Honorable Mentions:

Veep - a solid season that's only a disappointment when stacked against a couple really strong prior seasons. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had one of favorite line readings this season when she threatened, "I will destroy you in ways that are so creative they will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center."

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Yes, it didn't produce the number of instant classics that season 7 or 8 did, but this was a very entertaining season nonetheless. "Accidental Text on Purpose" belongs in the Curb Hall-of-Fame and the resolution of Larry's fatwa was actually pretty clever.

GLOW - I love the way that season can be read as Alison Brie's character discovering and embracing that she's the villain of the story. It's a great way of addressing the issue that I and many others had with her likability in the first episode. And how great was Marc Maron?

Great News - Another strong, if underseen, network sitcom. Briga Heelan stars as a young local news producer who has to deal with her smother of a mother becoming the station's new intern, played by comic legend Andrea Martin. The show's got the comic sensibility of 30 Rock (it's from some of the same producers, including Tina Fey) which allows it to do things like deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in oddball ways while still making a legitimate point about gender issues. Nicole Richie has also become a force of comic insanity that rivals Jane Krakowski's Jenna on 30 Rock.

The Goldbergs - Five seasons in and this show is still consistently funny and getting solid work out of its ensemble every week.