Locke, Key, and Magical Kid Adventures for Grown-Ups

When Spy Kids came out way on back in 2001, I thought “Man that looks pretty dumb.” And then a wise friend said “Sure, but I’d have watched the heck out of it when I was ten.” And I thought, sure, yeah, me too. That was the sort of story I grew up on. Kids my age (or close to) getting into high-stakes adventures with monsters and pirates and other sci-fi/fantasy/espionage elements. Monster Squad, Time Bandits, The Lost Boys, IT, The Neverending Story, and of course the chairman of the company, The Goonies. Sure Spy Kids wasn’t being aimed at me, but why shouldn’t the next generation have similar movies to latch onto?

(As well as The Goonies, of course, it is for all generations.)

That said… I wasn’t the only one who grew up on these magical kids’ adventure stories. And if there’s one thing the entertainment industry thrives on, it’s milking nostalgia in an attempt to squeeze money from audiences.

And so a new genre seems to be forming… 80s-style magical kids’ adventure stories, but designed to appeal to adults and youths alike.

The very obvious example, one that may have sprung into your mind the second I brought this up, is Stranger Things.

Featuring at least one literal magic kid.
Image: Netflix

Stranger Things is both loved and criticized for the way it weaponizes nostalgia in its narrative, creating a pastiche of the Goonies and the Loser’s Club and having them battle otherworldly monsters alongside a magic girl, using Dungeons and Dragons and sometimes dressing as Ghostbusters. It’s a sci-fi fantasy conspiracy thriller that uses 80s nostalgia to flavour the story the way a fancy cocktail might use simple syrup*, and its a little hacky, but I love it.

(*I did just finish a course on cocktails, why do you ask?)

And on the far side of the spectrum, we have this lot.

Twenty-Something Titans GO!
Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Titans is about literal magic teens being mentored by 20-something former teen heroes. It would be perfectly aligned for a teen audience… except they curse like they’re out of a Tarantino movie, the fight scenes are often brutal and bloody, and yeah, in season one they go to Pound Town (if a non-graphic suburb of Pound Town) more often than any other superhero show save for Watchmen. (Sister Night and her husband have a passionate and fulfilling sex life and good for them.)

Or in other words, they act exactly like young people would in their situation. Hand-to-hand fights aren’t clean, they get in situations that frankly require frequent cursing*, and I’ve been reading comics about Nightwing almost as long as there have been comics about Nightwing to read, and I am here to tell you, Dick Grayson fucks.

(*I’m not mad that the Titans swear, I’m mad that Gotham wasn’t allowed to. Given what happened in an average season, Harvey Bullock should have been dropping F-bombs like it would cure cancer.)

It is… it is still a little weird that they took almost the exact lineup from successful kids’ show Teen Titans GO! (save for Cyborg, last seen hanging with the Doom Patrol) and made a hard-R curse-filled punchfest, instead of saying “All those TT:G fans are teens now, let’s make it a blend of action and YA romance, you know, like the entire Arrowverse, which one of our producers created.” But here we are, magical teens and ex-teen sidekicks in a show clearly aimed at adults that teens probably still watch, I mean it’s not the 80s anymore, teens find stuff.

And in between these two, we find Locke and Key.

Based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke and Key finds the Locke family (mother Nina, high school students Tyler and Kinsey, and kid brother/possible oops-baby Bode, which against all logic is pronounced Boh-dee) moving from Seattle to small-town New England for a fresh start after family patriarch Rendell Locke is killed by a troubled classmate of Tyler’s. They move into the Locke family estate, Key House… a place Rendell and his brother (Smallville’s Fake Jimmy Olsen, Aaron Ashmore, playing a character who maybe will be important in a later season?) have avoided for years.

Tyler meets a girl he likes, but she’s passionate about causes and he’s only passionate about self-destruction; Kinsey meets some new friends who want to make a horror movie; Bode befriends a neurodiverse teen with a similar affinity for GI Joe. That would all be great, except for two little issues. One, Bode discovers that Key House is filled with magical keys (go figure), each with their own power; and two, there’s a sinister woman at the bottom of their well who wants the keys for herself, and it does not seem like it’s for a good reason.

The Locke siblings must find and decipher the keys, unravel their father’s past, and also try not to let their teenage melodramas distract them from the fact that a murder ghost is targeting their family to steal magical keys.

And the result is… good. Quite good. Really gripping. Yes, the leads can be frustrating, but they’re teens (and one pre-teen) coping with a horrifying tragedy, one of whom has some pretty strong PTSD and one of which thinks it’s his fault, you can’t entirely blame them for not being their best selves all the time. It’s close to the kids’ adventures I remember, but felt much darker and less… kiddy.

So let’s look at Locke and Key and how they built an adult-friendly magical kids’ adventure story, with Stranger Things* as our exemplar and also touching on Titans because it’s weirdly thematically similar, and also Titans really upped their game this season and that’s worth noting.

(*We’re three seasons in, either I don’t need to explain Stranger Things to you or you’ve decided you don’t care about Stranger Things and no explanation will matter.)

Geronimo.

Next page: What makes a magical adventure? (Hint: magic)

My Complicated Relationship With Musicals

So, I write plays. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about it much, having, it would appear, so much to say about media and whatnot and no apparent drive to just start a podcast about it my friends can pretend to have heard, but I write plays. Sure I had a dalliance with Sweet Lady Film, but the stage still has that certain magic… and lower start-up capital. Turns out modernizations of Robin Hood aren’t free.

(And also once you’ve had that idea four movie studios might greenlight Robin Hood projects that fail or go nowhere and now you’ll never get yours into Slamdance.)

(Turns out that writing plays is no defense from someone else having an annoyingly similar idea and being first to print, as it were, but that’s another topic.)

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve ever considered writing a musical. They’re fun and popular and I do like them. Musicals are super lucrative. Why wouldn’t I want to write one? Well… it’s actually a simple answer.

I cannot write songs.

No, really, I can’t do it.

It’s not for lack of interest in music as a storytelling tool. I love a subtle manipulation of leitmotifs to use the score to enhance a story. Blake Neely, the composer for the Arrowverse, excels at this. Look at how he scores this fight between the Arrowverse Superman and Brandon Routh’s Superman, blending his own Superman theme with John Williams’. And that doesn’t even include the violins of “Can You Read My Mind,” the love song from Richard Donner’s Superman, playing when Routh’s Superman sees the Arrowverse Lois Lane.

Look this is going to be a topic where I get distracted a lot, and I’m sorry, but oh better example! This scene, where the Twelfth Doctor is about to wipe Bill Potts’ memory. She asks how he’d feel if it happened to him (it did, in the previous series finale), and composer Murray Gold tells us everything we need to know about the Doctor’s inner struggle by reminding us which exact memories he lost, through a sad, quiet, and slightly out-of-tune reprise of Clara’s Theme.

The point is… I really love music as a storytelling tool, buuuut… I can’t write it. I cannot create melodies. Nothing in my brain knows how to do that, certainly not with anything resembling reliability. We can all hum an ad-libbed tune, sure, but coming up with a precise melody that says “They love each other but life won’t let them be together,” and definitely isn’t accidentally from A Nightmare Before Christmas, that’s a whole other thing, and it’s not a thing I can do.

Not that I’m much better at lyrics. A recent show of mine had two musical numbers, one of which was directly modelled off of a specific song. (With stage directions reading “Similar to but legally distinct from [title].”) That one wasn’t so hard, I’m occasionally a B-grade parody lyricist, because if I have a specific meter and rhyme scheme to work from, I do okay. But without that, you probably just get a couple of stanzas of iambic tetrameter, because I don’t know, Willy Shakespeare, sometimes pentameter feels just a hint too long. So when it came time to write the other one, sure I came up with lyrics, but writing a tune for them took five years off the composer’s life.

Which… okay, that was mostly about me saying “I need an Elizabethan love duet, a song that is in no way suitable for a rap breakdown so that when it does have a rap breakdown, it’s hilarious.” That’s probably what did it. More than there being a disconnect in meter between the verses and the chorus.

It was funny, though.

So I can’t write songs. I can, at best, come up with a framework for a song that has in no way considered what a composer might have to do to make it work. That said… like Dinosaur Comics proved that you can make a popular, long-running comic despite no ability to draw, there is a genre of musical that requires no songwriting ability whatsoever.

Next Page: Jukebox “Heroes,” Question Mark?

Ranking the Best Pictures, 2020 edition!

The Academy is back on their bullshit and so am I.

Okay, so, after ranking every best picture nominee for an entire decade, ranking this year’s crop should be easy, yeah?

Let’s see, gimmicks, gimmicks, what are this year’s gimmicks… well, let’s bring back some Out of Context Mulaneys, in protest of the fact that the Oscars have no host for a second year running when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were an option…

Better than every Ricky Gervais Golden Globes monologue combined.

…but in place of last year’s Hot Takes, I’m-a do something more positive. You see, a few of the better movies I saw last year didn’t get best picture nominations, which would mean I can’t talk about them in a Best Picture ranking blog… but I’m going to. I’m throwing in some “Things that got snubbed” sections. Plus one little question that kept coming up while watching these… in terms of rewatchability (not necessarily vital for a best picture, he said, nodding at 12 Years a Slave), how does this movie stack up to 2019’s most fascinating utter trainwreck? Simply put… Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?

It should have been a much easier bar to clear.

Allons-y!

9. DullFellas

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Frank Sheeran has a long, long career with the mob, during which he had a close friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa… right up until Hoffa and the mob’s relationship sours. And then there’s still about 45 minutes of movie left as he gets old and contemplates mortality. Damn this movie’s long.

Here’s what you need to know about The Irishman. Two hours and forty minutes in, the central character and two others go to pick Jimmy Hoffa up for a drive because the mob has decided he has to go. The back seat of the car is damp because Hoffa’s son had transported a fish earlier, but didn’t know what kind it was. They discuss this for about five minutes. It should be a turning point of the movie but we’re talking about this fish for way longer than is warranted.

Every scene is like that.

This movie is easily an hour too long, and I know this because nearly every scene feels padded. A screenwriter was never told to reign in the filler dialogue, Martin Scorcese was obviously never told to bring down the run time. It’s languidly paced, overly indulgent in its bland dialogue riffs, it somehow feels longer than it is, and while the CG effects can make Robert Deniro’s face look younger, they skipped his hands and arms and it cannot make him walk or move like he isn’t over 70… there are elements of Scorcese’s better works in here but it’s all too long and too slow. About two hours in I was desperate for a cat to pop in and sing about how much he loves trains for seven minutes.

There’s a recurring bit where the film introduces characters, then pauses for a caption explaining how they died. In all but two cases, they died violently in 1979 or 1980, and I eventually kept thinking… where’s that movie? Clearly some shit went down between ’79 and ’80, and it sounds way more interesting than what we’re actually watching.

At least this year’s faux-Scorcese movie was faster and more eventful.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I could rewatch Cats twice in the amount of time it takes to watch The Irishman, and I goddamn would.

Snubbed: So Get Out gets a bunch of Oscar nominations but Us gets ignored? It’s like that, Academy? Mm-hm. So noted.

8. Worse Taxi Driver

Image: Warner Bros.
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Arthur Fleck suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, but dreams of being a comedian. The world treats him poorly, however, and he eventually finds that hitting back is the one thing that grants him true satisfaction… setting him on a road to becoming Gotham’s greatest villain. Or he made the whole thing up, I don’t know, it’s not entirely clear. If you’re going to go the “unreliable narrator” route, you should have some visual storytelling tricks up your sleeve to help sell it.

It’s… fine, in places. It’s gorgeously shot, very well acted… but it’s… it’s a souffle. It’s a bunch of pretty cinematography and good performance fluffed up with “This Is Important” music beats and Scorcese references so that it looks filling but is mostly just air. You can’t dissect it, because there’s nothing to it. Like a souffle, it will collapse if you poke at it. So instead of trying to pick it apart, here is a brief list of movies I saw in 2019 that I think deserve a best picture nominee more than this… Knives Out. Dolemite Is My Name. Rocketman. John Wick: Chapter Three Parabellum. Shazam! Yeah I said it, Joker wasn’t even the best DC Comics movie of 2019. Movies I’m assured I would think deserve the nomination more: Uncut Gems. The Lighthouse. Booksmart. The Farewell, apparently?

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? You know what, there are stretches of both movies where I think “This is the fever dream of a madman and nothing is happening for a reason,” stretches where I think “Why didn’t society stop this scene from happening,” and moments where I think “This bit’s actually okay if you don’t think about it much or at all.” Sure Cats leans more often into full-blown nightmare territory, so if I could replace Joker dancing down the stairs to Rock and Roll Part 2 (I’m not kidding, that was a weird choice that they definitely made) with Skimbleshanks*, it’d be Joker, but as it is… well, it depends a little on mood, but odds favour us grabbing a bottle of Jameson’s and watching Ian McKellan go HAM on a bowl of milk.

*The Railway Cat.**

**The Cat of the Raaaaiiiilwaaaaay Traaaaaiiiiiin

Snubbed: That Todd Philips has an Oscar nomination for this mediocrity and Greta Gerwig doesn’t for her sublime work on Little Women is a travesty. Her framing, sense of timing, visual storytelling, use of colour palette and saturation, and ability to create divine, beautiful chaos out of the four March sisters talking all over each other speak to a gift for directing that a bargain-bin Scorcese simulacrum just doesn’t.

7. Fast and Furious: Origins

Image: 20th Century Fox
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford Jr. that to end a sales slump, Ford Motors needs to win Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, one typically dominated by Enzo Ferrari. And so former champion driver Carroll Shelby and current low-tier, non-professional champion driver Ken Miles set out to build Ford a car that can bring down Ferrari… if only those damn suits would get out of their way.

This one hadn’t been getting much buzz, but it seemed right in the wheelhouse of voters who gave the top prize to Green Book, so I liked its odds.

This is a solid little movie, anchored around strong performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Sure asking us to see Ford Motors as a scrappy underdog is a bit of a stretch, but they get around that by making the actual scrappy underdogs Shelby (Damon) and Miles (Bale), whose attempts to win Le Mans for Ford are constantly held back by interference from a weaselly VP played by A-grade (if C-list) weasel character actor Less Likeable Aaron Eckhart Josh Lucas. Which… the whole “men of action held back by the suits at corporate” is a little paint-by-numbers, even if it is accurate.

Bale and Damon and are good, the racing scenes are very well done… but when actual “great” is on the table, “good” ends up back here, a notch over “fine.”

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I’d probably pick this one, unless I was in a mood for copious whiskey and self-destruction.

Snubbed: Imagine if The Disaster Artist was about making a movie that, while low budget and cheesy as all hell, people legitimately enjoyed and were proud to work on. Imagine if the attempt to make this weird, low-budget, ridiculous movie was actually uplifting and moving while also really funny to watch. That, friends, is Dolemite is My Name. Eddie Murphy plays comedian and “godfather of rap” Rudy Ray Moore, depicting how he rose to comedy stardom via his Dolemite character, and his attempts to forge his own Hollywood career by self-financing a Dolemite movie. I don’t necessarily want to be the guy shouting “The Academy doesn’t care about black people,” but Eddie Murphy shines in what’s probably the year’s best biopic which is also about movies, which they normally love, and yet nothing, so…

I guess you can’t be a movie about black people and on a streaming service and get award love.

6. Oscar Season’s Most Ironic Title

Image: Netflix
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Actress Nicole and director Charlie were married, and collaborators in Charlie’s beloved Brooklyn theatre company, but the marriage has ended. A process complicated by the fact that Nicole wants to move back to LA to get back into film and television (and landed a lead role in a pilot to help make that happen), Charlie thinks they’re a New York family and expects everyone to keep living there divorced or not, and their son can’t live in both places at once. Throw in some lawyers who see the divorce proceedings as a battle to be won, and what had been a sad but amicable split turns vicious.

Noah Baumbach has created a moving story here, with amazing performances from Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver as the collapsing couple, and Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as the various lawyers brought in to the process. Baumbach also does a great job of showing both sides… we see how Charlie can be self-centred and how Nicole is fed up with being just an extension of his ambitions; we also see how Charlie feels ambushed when the divorce process turns into a vicious street fight over custody, and it seems like Nicole has been laying groundwork for this fight for weeks, engineering the process to force him to choose between his life and career in New York and actually getting to see his son ever. And while it’s an inherently sad story, it’s also funny in places, mostly thanks to the lawyers. I also love that Baumbach trusted his cast enough to go with some long takes, really let the monologues play out, rather than fill scenes with quick cuts. It’s a very well done and engaging character piece that only occasionally made me worry one of these people would be dead before it was over. (Maybe one of them is, I ain’t telling.)

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Whoof. Hard to say. Marriage Story is demonstrably better but was a rough ride in places. Not “Aaaah no why is Judi Dench singing right at me about cats not being dogs” rough, no, but still…

Snubbed: You know what else is a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking? Knives Out. A whodunnit with multiple perfectly executed twists, a stellar cast, and every-frame-a-painting direction from writer Rian Johnson. And the twists are honest: the clues are all there if you can piece them together. It’s an original mystery in every sense that revels in the classic tropes, subverts whichever ones it feels like, and is even more satisfying the second time. Knives Out was a treasure of a movie, and while I’m sure it’ll lose Original Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino, I’m just glad that it exists. See it immediately. Find a way.

5. Obligatory Hollywood Handjob Movie

Image: Columbia Pictures
Image: Netflix

The Basics: Another character study that, in its closing act, ventures into Tarantino’s historical-revenge-fantasy territory. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) used to be big in television and movies, but times are changing. Rick’s gone from leading man to special guest star villain-of-the-week, and Cliff’s barely getting by as Rick’s driver and general assistant, since some… allegations about his past have made it tricky to get work. Also that time he picked a fight with Bruce Lee. Rick’s trying to hold his career together, Cliff’s trying to put a calm face on a lot of anger and frustration… and they and their famous neighbour Sharon Tate are on a collision course with a cult that’s taken up residence in an abandoned backlot, a cult following one Charlie Manson.

They say that the Manson Family murders, most notably Sharon Tate, were the end of an era for Hollywood, an era that’s clearly one of Tarantino’s favourites given this lavish tribute to it… but does it really need a historical revenge flick as much as slavery or the holocaust? No, obviously not, but that’s not a big problem. The bulk of the movie is two men facing the end of an era, and wondering where if anywhere they fit in what’s to come, and that works very well. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent, Cliff’s run-in with the Manson Family (answering in Charlie’s absence to Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme) is perfectly tense. The movie takes some flak for not really giving Margot Robbie all that much to do as Sharon Tate, but she accomplishes her most important task… make Tate seem lovable enough that her fate matters, and the climax has some stakes to it. We don’t need to be told why slavery is bad* and Django is right to get all Unchained on it, but while every death is a tragedy, “Doesn’t it suck that someone murdered Sharon Tate” needed a little push.

Just a couple notes… why did Quentin think Bruce Lee needed to be taken down a notch; I get that this particular Manson girl is using her sexuality to honeytrap possible rides around town and/or recruits for the family, but once you tell us she’s a minor it’s very uncomfortable how aggressively horny the camerawork around her is; and wow Tarantino was filming feet like it was his last chance to do it this time, I mean even for Tarantino it was just a lot.

Still… good flick overall. It might win and you know what, fine, whatever, that is very Oscars.

*Well, most of us… well, some of us… less than I’d like.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Given how much my opinion of this film improved after I let it marinate in my brain for a while, I’d like to give it a second watch at some point.

Snubbed: I have not seen Hustlers or The Farewell so I can’t speak to their exclusion from the awards, but if you’re looking for POC who deserved acting nominations, Dolemite is My Name (yeah we’re back on that one) has some obvious picks. Eddie Murphy was great as Rudy Ray Moore, sure, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brought a lot of heart to the movie as Lady Reed, a single mother that Rudy makes his partner in comedy. She, above even Rudy Ray himself, sells why making Dolemite was such a worthy endeavour… “I’m so grateful for what you did for me, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Inclusion matters. Also Wesley Snipes gives probably his best performance in… I want to say over twenty years.

4. The Help 2: The Revenge

Image: Curzon
Image: Netflix

We are now into “Any of these would make a good Best Picture choice” territory.

The Basics: In South Korea, a poor family gradually infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family through a series of forged identities and grifts, figuring “Why eat the rich like a lion when you can just subtly feed off their resources like a tapeworm.” Hence the title. And just when you’re thinking “Hey, maybe this is gonna work out,” things take a turn. But not the one you’d expect.

Am I the only one who gets the song “Parasite” by 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door stuck in my head when I hear this title?

Am I the only one who’s actually heard of 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door?

Because the song in general is a bit of an up-tempo incel anthem but the chorus is weirdly somewhat germane to this–stop talking about 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door now? Yeah, you bet.

So. Parasite. First, I refuse to allow the fact that my inability to parse other languages keep me from praising the cast, who deliver a bunch of compelling characters that, for the first half to two thirds of the movie, make it hard to say that either the rich or poor characters are inherently good or bad. Anxiety-ridden wealthy mother Park Yeon-kyo is just as interesting as grifter patriarch Kim Ki-taek. Although if I had to pick a favourite… the cool, commanding confidence that actress Park So-dam brings to Ki-taek’s daughter Kim Ki-jung makes her my new favourite con artist this side of the Ocean siblings.

And it all goes chaotic and it’s still great.

It’s very clever, and juxtaposes the lives of the rich and poor in a really effective way (the two families experience very different inconveniences during a torrential rainfall). There are elements of good con movies, farces, and suspense thrillers here. Absolutely worth your time.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? This times fifty.

Snubbed? What the hell did they have against Frozen 2? I mean I don’t want to complain about lesser-known animated films getting a nod, but if the third (fourth? I lost count) How to Train Your Dragon was good enough, why not the return of Elsa, Anna, and company? It was emotional, funny, inventive, and delightfully anti-imperialist. Even if you could kind of see the seams from where “Let’s give Elsa a girlfriend” was yanked out of the story.

3. A Walk to Remember

Image: Universal
Image: Netflix

The Basics: In spring of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to deliver orders calling off an impending attack before the battalion (including one of the soldiers’ older brother) charges into a German trap and is slaughtered. It does not go smoothly.

Alternate Mulaney:

Image: Netflix

Anyone who’s read my choices for Best Fight Scene in the annual comic TV awards knows I love a good long shot. So an entire movie crafted to imitate a single, unbroken shot? That has my attention. It’s not a new gimmick, it was done as recently as Birdman, but 1917 doesn’t have any of Birdman’s fantasy elements or unreliable narration or time jumps (okay, one time jump) to give us distance from what’s happening. What we have is a (mostly) real-time trek through the horrors of No Man’s Land that manages a perfect amount of tension, only somewhat broken by the quintet of Notable British Actors doing cameos along the way (also Mr. Young from Good Omens). Every swing of the camera (and the camera movement alone is masterful) seems to reveal some new terror, either a horror that was or a menace yet to come. George MacKay does a perfect job conveying how the weight of everything he sees and experiences during the mission is gradually crushing him, until all that’s left of him is the need to see the mission through, an ember of duty glowing in eyes deadened by trauma. It’s an incredible, gripping ride on top of being an amazing achievement in technical film making.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I mean… it’s bound to be less tense now that I know exactly what happens to who and when and how hard, like how no rewatch of The Fugitive ever matched that first time when it felt like I’d been holding my breath for two straight hours, but I might want to give it a second look just to appreciate the technical skill of the staging and camerawork. And that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Tom “Digital Fur Technology” Hooper film.

Snubbed: With Bombshell,the screenwriter of previous best picture nominee The Big Short tackles another infamous scandal… the sexual harassment accusations that managed to dethrone the head of the anti-feminist right-wing-propaganda engine Fox News. Sure it’s not as narratively clever as The Big Short or its director’s follow-up Vice, both of which used fourth wall breaks and meta-elements as a chocolate coating for their difficult messages… moreso Big Short, which was the best of the three… maybe director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph work better together than apart on this subject matter, I don’t know. McKay seemed to have a livelier style withThe Big Short and Vice than Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, does here. Still, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon are quite powerful, and it’s very engaging… another year I might say “Sure, I can see not nominating it for best picture,” but… [gestures emphatically at the bottom of the list]

2. The One Where Women Have Thoughts and Feelings and Also Dialogue

Image: Columbia Pictures
Image: Netflix

The Basics: In case I’m not the only one who didn’t read the book… At the tail end of the US Civil War, the four March sisters juggle their dreams, responsibilities, and the harsh sting of reality. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy wants to marry rich, Meg wants love and family but would also love not to be poor, and Beth just wants to do right by the world and maybe play the piano when she can. And their rich neighbour Laurie just wants to be part of the gang… especially if it gets him closer to Jo. Things go bad, things go well, and it’s all so delightful.

Elephant in the room… at this point if Greta Gerwig were directing Cats 2: Way More Creepy Milk Parties and cast Saoirse Ronan in the lead I’d be there opening night.

That said.

Gerwig has written a superb adaptation of a classic novel, cutting back and forth between past and future (well, slightly more recent past, to us), and giving Jo an incredible new ending that I don’t want to spoil. The young cast playing the four sisters are all so good that I occasionally forget that Meryl Streep is also in this movie. Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep all came to play, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen still own every scene… fine, also Timothée Chalamet. The four sisters bounce off each other magnificently, their individual arcs are all touching in different ways… this movie is a delight.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Not even a choice. Not even Skimbleshanks (who, you might recall, is The Railway Cat, which is to say The Cat of The Railway Trains) can compete with this one.

Snubbed: Look. Obviously a lot of people, including every award show, seriously overvalued Bohemian Rhapsody last year. No question. That paint-by-numbers toothless biopic hit every worn-out trope of the genre you could name, we all know that now. But Rocketman didn’t deserve the bill for that. Rocketman, a warts-and-all biography of Elton John, succeeds in every way that Bohemian Rhapsody fell flat. It’s visually gorgeous, uses Elton’s hits to turn the story into a musical rather than a way to pad a soundtrack; has a much better framing device than “Don’t you know that before he sings, Dewey Cox Freddie Mercury has to remember his entire life?” as Elton tells his story to a support group, gradually stripping away the glitz and glamour of Elton until all that’s left is a man grappling with his pain; star Taron Egerton actually sings and sings well (Rami Malek’s big clip for last year’s ceremony was a scene of him lip syncing, what the hell); and the movie has a gripping central theme. To paraphrase The End of the F***ing World… when a person is raised without love, they don’t know what it looks like… and that makes them easy to trick. Elton is chasing the love that he’s never known, and in its place he finds a lot of bad choices, and it can be heartbreaking to watch.

1. Calvin and Hitler

Image: Fox
Image: Netflix

The Basics: It’s 1945 in Berlin, and young Johann, Jojo to his mother and one close friend, is excited for his first day in the Nazi Youth, with hopes of making it into Hitler’s personal guard and being best friends… just like he is with his imaginary friend Hitler (writer/director Taika Waititi). But when a… mishap with a grenade demotes him to poster duty, his loving mother tries to nudge him away from Nazi life… just in time for him to discover there’s a Jewish girl secretly living in their walls. Jojo and Imaginary Hitler are in quite the pickle, and it’s hilarious right until it very much isn’t, it’s incredibly moving and I’m mad that I’m not watching it right now.

Jojo Rabbit is basically perfect. As a satire of the Nazis and other dictatorships, it’s spot-on, insightful, and hilarious. Taika Waiti expertly juggles amazing comedy, genuine suspense, powerful emotions, and perfectly shoots the scene where young Jojo meets his secret houseguest like a horror movie. Also the cast is phenomenal, from leads Roman Griffith Davies and Thomasin McKenzie, to Scarlett Johansson killing it as Jojo’s kindhearted but energetic mother, Sam Rockwell’s hilarious turn as the one Nazi soldier who seems to know he’s on the losing side (strategically and, perhaps, morally), Stephen Merchant’s simultaneously funny and terrifying appearance as an SS agent, and Taika Waititi’s amazing work as Imaginary Hitler. It’s great, it’s just great, I could watch this one over and over, I love it so much.

Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? If I’ve pulled out the Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray I will inevitably own, and you say “Or we could watch Cats instead,” I’ll punch you in your face. Well, no, but I’d be real tempted. I’m definitely not giving you any of the good whiskey.

Snubbed: I got so spun up about Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for best director, it took me all that morning to notice that Taika Waititi didn’t get nominated either, and that is also a shame. Jojo Rabbit is phenomenally put together. There is more artistry in the scene were Jojo discovers his houseguest than all of Joker put together.

So that’s the rankings for this year. Once again, my personal favourite is unlikely to take the top trophy, but I guess I’m just more into new, different, and interesting movies than the Academy. Also I like female directors and dislike “Yay for this white dude from history” biopics and for some reason the Academy just won’t get on board with the former or give up the latter.

It’s disappointing that my Big Annual Event Thing that I get excited about the way other people get excited about sports has to have such a narrow idea of what Good Film looks like, but…

Image: Netflix

You’re right of course, John.

Catch you next time.

Ranking the "Best Pictures" of the 2010s

I’ve been ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars each year for about as long as I’ve been doing this blog. Sure, they’re a flawed process… their tastes are out of date; they lean way too white, male, and heteronormative; they prefer films that tick their specific boxes to films of lasting merit and influence; acting awards are often given out based on who’s “due” rather than merit. With time and perspective, some of their picks for “best picture of the year” seem like terrible misfires, and that goes at the least as far back as the time they let William Randolph Hearst turn them against Citizen Kane. But they’re still my Super Bowl, my Stanley Cup, my [insert thing you, the reader, cares about], so I keep tuning in and keep watching all the nominees.

So as the decade has come to a close*, and the first Oscars of the 20s (well, the second first Oscars of the 20s) is on the horizon I thought now was a good time to rank all the nominees from the past ten years.

Because I clearly like writing more than I like myself.

We’re talking close to 100 movies here so don’t expect a lot of chit-chat about why this is ranked over that, we have too much ground to cover for even medium-lengthed reviews. Also I am not rewatching them all before I do this (or in many cases, ever ever again), so… gonna be some gut calls.

But it’s my blog and I do what I want. Warning… I am kind of a snob about narrative. Sure I care about cinematography and performance and all of that, but mostly I really want to be told a story.

Let’s go, worst to best. Allons-y.

(*One word about “Actually the next decade starts in 2021” and I will scorn you to the ends of the Earth. If you’re going to pedantic, at least be right.)

The Bad

88. American Sniper (2015). Not just bad, it’s actively evil. Releasing a movie connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror, celebrating a man who kills brown people while calling them “savages,” while the man who killed said lead character was still on trial for that killing, was criminally irresponsible. Also it’s not good.

87. Fences (2017). A quick list of characters I find more sympathetic and less purely loathable than Troy Maxon of Fences… Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Raoul Silva in Skyfall, Killmonger in Black Panther, Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Captain Klenzendorf the literal Nazi from Jojo Rabbit, the racist cop from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kylo Ren, Ultron, Thanos, General Huxx, basically everyone from Wolf of Wall Street, and Arthur Fleck in Joker. Spending two hours watching Denzel Washington chew scenery while spewing Troy’s endless stream of toxic hatred, disdain, abuse, and entitlement was excruciating. To Hell with this movie and to Hell with whoever gave the play it’s based on a Tony.

86. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012). Do I have to explain why “Young boy who misses his dead father but gives zero fucks about his living mother uses his magical autism powers to heal 9/11” wasn’t very good? Is it obvious? This nonsense is not what they told us they expanded the category from five to “up to ten” for.

85. The Theory of Everything (2015). There is an entire genre of movie, biopics mostly if not exclusively, that exists for the sole purpose of getting its (typically white and male) star an Oscar nomination for acting. They present no message, no larger point, no challenge to the subject’s legacy, just a showcase for acting. This is one of the worst examples. This movie has no reason to exist outside of getting Eddie Redmayne an Oscar.

84. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019). See above but Rami Malek. Bohemian Rhapsody is almost beat-for-beat the musical biopic parody movie Walk Hard, only with no jokes and terrible editing. It’s a demonstrable whitewash and glamourization of the still-living members of Queen, and its only purpose is to make Rocketman look that much better in comparison.

83. The Imitation Game (2015). See above but Benedict Cumberbatch. There was a legitimately important story to tell about Alan Turing, specifically about how he played a huge role in defeating the Nazis then his government destroyed his life for being gay, but they only made that a footnote to a story about Turing overcoming (fictional) resistance to develop an early computer to break the German codes, because that one’s more heartwarming.

82. The Darkest Hour (2018). See above but Gary Oldman. “Winston Churchill was just as good as you’ve always thought! Look at him defying those weak-willed ninnies in Parliament to stand up to Hitler! Can Gary Oldman have an Oscar now?” Pointless. This genre needs to end.

81. The Blind Side (2010). Another white saviour tale that skates by for at least three-quarters of its run time with no discernable conflict then invents the dumbest possible conflict to give the last act stakes.

80. Zero Dark Thirty (2013). Dull, dull, dull, oh God it was dull. In the third act, the protagonist gets increasingly frustrated at the CIA’s lack of action on her intel regarding Bin Laden, and I was like “Sister, I’m right there with you.”

The “Meh”

79. The Tree of Life (2012). Bet you thought I’d rank this one lower, didn’tcha? Well, a wise critic showed me what people like about Terrence Malik, so I now admit that his tone-poem, cinematic-ballet style isn’t necessarily without merit… just isn’t my thing. I prefer movies where I don’t have to check Wikipedia to figure out what the plot was. And what the flipping heck was up with the Big Bang and the damned dinosaur? What was that?

78. Green Book (2019). How the actual fuck did this thoroughly mediocre Hallmark movie about a white man learning to be less racist make the shortlist, let alone actually win? Who got paid to vote for this nothing-burger of a feel-good whitewashed biopic? I want names.

77. War Horse (2012). Spielberg doesn’t make bad movies, typically, but… Who is War Horse for? Who is the story of a horse suffering its way through World War One possibly for?

76. Precious (2010). Maybe I’m getting my white privilege all over this, but acting aside, I just don’t see what the big deal was, I really don’t.

75. Hugo (2012). A story about a child trying to connect with his late father via a robot gets completely thrown out at the halfway point so that Martin Scorcese can give a handjob to one of the pioneers of cinema. What a weird bait-and-switch this movie was.

74. Call Me by Your Name (2018). One of those old school picturesque coming-of-age-in-Europe romance movies, only this time it’s male-male romance. A sluggish, low-stakes male-male romance with a slightly questionable age gap, and a poor peach loses its innocence.

73. The King’s Speech (2011). The King’s Speech is a perfect case study in how to tick the boxes of an Oscar-bait picture. A biopic (ding) about a friendship between upper and lower class men (ding) one of whom overcomes a disability (ding) to defeat the Nazis (ding ding ding). It’s little remembered, save for a few increasingly obscure references in the seventh season of The Office.

72. A Serious Man (2010). If a subtle, slow-paced statement on how life is ultimately unknowable, and God or the universe don’t owe us and won’t provide us definitive answers about it is your jam, hey this is the movie for you. If it’s not… the way I put it when a friend I was watching it with fell asleep for a while, then asked what happened when he was out, is “This isn’t really a movie where things happen.”

71. 127 Hours (2011). A great performance from James Franco but it does drag a bit, especially given we know exactly where it’s going.

70. Boyhood (2015). How do you spend 12 years making one movie and forget to give it any sort of story, or manage to make it about something? How do you not at least check the footage and make sure you haven’t already done “mother’s boyfriend can’t handle his booze, becomes abusive?” I guess it’s an impressive thing to attempt, filming one movie over 12 years, but as it ended on the central character spouting white-boy wank philosophy on his first day at college, I couldn’t help but think “What was the goddamn point of that?” Still don’t know.

69. Avatar (2010). The special effects were a next-level achievement, sure. You could see every cent of the $200 million they spent on the effects… and the $10 they spent on the script. It’s 45 minutes too long, its white saviour-ism hasn’t aged well, and if you play it on a high-def TV it looks like a dated video game. It made record amounts of money but left no cultural impact, and that second thing’s for a reason.

68. Les Miserables (2013). A better musical than Cats on the stage, somehow worse in the theatre? All those damned extreme close-ups. Tom Hooper’s direction is bad and he should feel bad.

67. The Phantom Thread (2018). I feel like if this weren’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ theoretical retirement movie, the Academy would have given it a miss. It’s a somewhat interesting look at a deeply dysfunctional relationship but that’s about it.

66. A Star is Born (2019). The performances are great, including several Alias vets their old castmate Bradley Cooper snuck in, but once Lady Gaga’s career takes off, it’s a long, gradual wait for her rising star and his spiral into self-destruction to hit a breaking point. There’s not a lot of gas left in this tank. Thankfully civilization should be reduced to embers before we get another remake starring Zac Efron and Billie Eilish.

The Good

65. Philomena (2014). A perfectly adequate and charming movie that regardless has no place in a “Best Picture” race. The World’s End deserved a nod more than this one, you jags.

64. Nebraska (2014). I think this one got nominated for “Best Comedy/Musical” at the Golden Globes because they saw Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in the credits and made an assumption. I kid, it’s because they didn’t want to compete with 12 Years a Slave. It’s got charm. Their dismissal of Mount Rushmore was amusing.

63. Manchester by the Sea (2017). Great performances, and I’ve come to have greater respect for its central thesis of “pain and grief don’t stop the world and all of its petty inconveniences, no matter how much it feels like they should.” But it’s also quite slow and just drifts to a close rather than coming to a point. And Zeus in a swan suit is it ever a downer…

62. Moneyball (2012). I mean it works overall, there’s a lot of good moments, but it’s really slow-paced, especially for a Sorkin script.

61. The Revenant (2016). Incredibly well shot and acted (save for the fact that if Leonardo DiCaprio authentically threw up after eating raw bison liver, and you filmed it, that isn’t acting), just a little… hollow.

60. Life of Pi (2013). …It’s fine. It’s visually impressive but aside from that, I’m hard-pressed to recall something remarkable about it.

59. Hacksaw Ridge (2017). The first act was really charming, the third act thrilling, but the second act, where the army tries to beat pacifist Desmond Doss into either quitting boot camp or agreeing to use a gun, drags it down.

58. Selma (2015) At least one 2015 biopic managed to say something.

57. The Kids Are Alright (2011). I remember very little about this story of a family tossed into chaos when a lesbian couple’s kids meet their biological father, but I do remember it being pretty darn good.

56. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013). I remember it being very well made… when I remember that it exists. Which is… not often.

55. District 9 (2010). A better look at apartheid than the movie about Nelson Mandella that came out the same year. A solid sci-fi adventure.

54. The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Quite well made, but I feel it was a little too flattering to a real-life piece of filth, who definitely made money off this film existing.

53. The Help (2010). Kinda white saviour-y, but a decent exploration of America’s ongoing struggles to be cool about the legacy of slavery. Oh, the South. You so racist.

52. An Education (2010). A sweet if weird coming-of-age romance anchored by an excellent performance from Carey Mulligan.

51. Amour (2013). Aging sucks and mortality is some bullshit. This is a very well acted movie I would not want to watch a second time.

50. The Hurt Locker (2010). A better examination of how a person can get hooked on combat than American Sniper could ever have been. With some excellently staged suspense sequences.

49. The Fighter (2011). A very well done biopic from David O. Russell, filled with great performances, especially Christian Bale and the majestic Amy Adams.

48. Dallas Buyers Club (2014). Probably should have found a trans actress to play the trans character but overall it was decent. 2014 was really the year Matthew McConaughey reminded us he’s got game.

47. The Post (2018). Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, and an all-star supporting cast (what a weird place for a Mr. Show reunion) reminding us of when journalism used to accomplish things, like proving that the Vietnam war was fought on false pretense.

46. True Grit (2011). What a great debut for Hailee Steinfeld. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin all came to play, and she still stole the movie from them.

45. Captain Phillips (2014). A solid suspense flick that doesn’t have a great deal to say. An excellent depiction of shock in the denouement, though.

44. Lion (2017). A very moving story about a lost child trying to find his way home as an adult, but each story beat lasts about five to ten minutes too long, given there is no suspense about where this might go.

43. Gravity (2014). Don’t think too hard about the science or how the premise means that Earth is kind of screwed for years if not decades, and you’ve got an exciting adventure about a desperate bid for survival in the least hospitable circumstances possible.

42. Up (2010). Man, that first 10 minutes is a burst of heartbreak. Then some pretty solid Pixar fun.

41. The Descendants (2012). George Clooney and a really impressive Shailene Woodley anchor this story of complicated grief and family struggles. And it led to this amazing tweet…

40. Midnight in Paris (2012). Look, maybe it’s the writer in me being vulnerable to stories about writers, but I found this one incredibly charming. Even if liking Woody Allen movies has become problematic.

39. Roma (2019). The unique direction style really helps elevate this slice-of-life story of an indigenous Mexican maid and the collapsing middle-class family she works for, set against the backdrop of early-70s Mexico. It’s shot to feel like a memory, which is fitting, being inspired by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood.

38. Room (2016). An incredible performance by Brie Larson, and the latter two acts tell a great story of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, following the most uncomfortable first act this side of 12 Years a Slave.

37. Vice (2019). Knockout, unrecognizable performance by Christian Bale aside, I appreciate this look into Dick Cheney’s rise to an extremely troubling amount and type of power for how it revealed the core value of the Republican party… they want to win. That’s all. They have no moral centre, they just like being in power, and will do whatever they need to do to keep it.

36. Her (2014). This improbable romance between a man and the AI that runs his phone and computer is surprisingly sweet and moving. And a crackerjack cast doing great work. I don’t know, it got to me.

35. Moonlight (2017). The struggles of a gay youth in the ghetto make for compelling if occasionally sluggish viewing. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris have star turns, and the arc of the central character’s life is interesting. Then it just sort of… stops. Look, I warned you I was gonna be a stickler for quality of the narrative, and that includes “having an ending.”

34. La La Land (2017). Okay, yes, preferring La La Land to Moonlight is an embarrassingly white thing to do, as Big Mouth hilariously pointed out last season. But the visuals are incredible, the way they use colour is impressive, the songs are mostly good, and it has a lot to say about relationships. And maybe Ryan Gosling arguing with John Legend about how jazz works is a little offputting (if you assume Gosling is right, anyway) but still. It’s a hot pile of white person problems but an enjoyable one. (“City of Stars” should not have won Best Song that year, it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land. But they almost always get that category wrong.)

33. Black Panther (2019). The first comic book movie to make the best picture list (after The Dark Knight getting snubbed in favour of the thoroughly mediocre The Reader caused the Academy to change the rules to allow more nominees), and yeah, a good choice. Attacks colonialism and isolationism, asks what the best route forward is, and presents one of the few truly great Marvel hero/villain pairings. Sure the villain is just a less benevolent Black Panther but there’s something to it this time, something more compelling than the series of evil arms dealers that take on Iron Man. And then it collapses into B grade CG for the climax but up until then, pretty damn good superhero action.

32. Bridge of Spies (2016). A very solid entry from Steven Spielberg, as Tom Hanks’ James B. Donovan must negotiate Cold War politics to save the life of one air force pilot and one innocent, while facing resentment at home for representing a Soviet spy.

The Great

31. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Revenge, remorse, redemption, all in a tight script from the writer of In Bruges and knockout performances from the cast. It raises some questions about who deserves redemption and how it can be found. Not everyone cares for the answers they present, since it’s the second most hatable character in the whole movie who finds his way to a better path, and not all viewers are on board with that. But is redemption not better than punishment? Or, like the angry, grieving mother at the centre of the story, does our need to see the bad people punished overrule everything?

30. Dunkirk (2018). A tense thrill ride as the British army attempts to escape the advancing German forces. The three perspectives mash up well: the solider just trying to get out, the civilian boat sailing to the rescue, and Tom Hardy trying to provide air support to the very end. Quite the high-wire act.

29. Arrival (2017). Two of my favourite actors headline a gripping and fascinating story of alien first contact, taken from a little-explored linguistic standpoint. How do you communicate with a species whose concept of language evolved completely differently? And then there’s a great twist I never saw coming. That doesn’t happen often.

28. Inglourious Basterds (2010). Once you get past the fact that this is not the Brad Pitt-led action-comedy the marketing sold us, but a tense and nuanced sequence of desperate games of cat-and-mouse , it’s one of Tarantino’s better efforts.

27. Up in the Air (2010). A great look into the economic downturn and a fantastic character study into what happens when your career requires a lack of empathy or connection. The first time I became aware of the amazing talent that is Anna Kendrick, and a subtle, knockout turn from George Clooney.

26. The Big Short (2016). A brilliant way to use comedic devices to trick audiences into learning why the 2008 financial crash happened, and how it could again. The best example of “Art must entertain in order to instruct” I can think of. Shame nobody told Christian Bale what the rest of the movie was like. They could have at least stopped cutting to him once his plotline ran out of things to do.

25. Birdman (2015). An excellent high-wire act about a man’s attempts to stay relevant, centred around amazing performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (as every theatre nightmare anyone’s ever had), and Emma Stone.

24. Silver Linings Playbook (2013). Really funny, sweet, charming, and incredibly acted, and I’d probably find it even more so on a rewatch, when I didn’t spend half the movie unbearably tense that something bad was going to happen to the protagonist. Confirmed what Winter’s Bone had told us: Jennifer Lawrence is an incredible talent.

23. Lincoln (2013). Spielberg does “great man biopic” right, by focusing on one very specific moment… the rush to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery ratified by all states before the Confederacy’s inevitable surrender. Great flick in a genre that tends to half-ass it.

22. Brooklyn (2016). Okay, I’m going to be real with you, there is a definite chance I’m overvaluing this one due to my deep and profound awe of Saoirse Ronan’s acting skills/inherent adorability, but she is magnificent and that made this movie spellbinding. I probably wasn’t supposed to view the second half, where Eilis (perfect storm of unintuitive Irish names right here) must choose between the comforts of home and her new life in New York, as a horror movie, but the choice felt very obvious to me and I kept wanting to scream “Run, Eilis, it’s a trap!” Still. Heckuva movie.

21. BlacKkKlansman (2019). Spike Lee brought us one of his best movies in years with the true(ish) story of black and Jewish detectives working together to infiltrate the KKK, who are portrayed as both a menace and buffoonish clowns. Sadly you don’t need to be smart to be dangerous. This one was a home run, and Green Book beating it for best picture might be the worst blown call since Citizen goddamn Kane lost to cinematic history footnote How Green Was My Valley.

20. The Favourite (2019). An excellent and hilarious power struggle between two cousins vying for position in the court of Queen Anne: one who wields the power of the throne, and tolerates no threat to her position; one whose family fell from grace and will do anything to escape poverty and get back into high society. And between them, an incredible performance by Olivia Colman as the ailing and temperamental queen.

19. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015). Wes Anderson’s best and most Wes Anderson movie. If you like his style even a little, you’ll love this one. Endlessly entertaining, even if it definitely has too many framing devices.

18. Django Unchained (2013). I said Inglourious Basterds was one of Tarantino’s better efforts. As Historical Revenge Porn goes, Django winning a blood-soaked victory over slavery is even better than Shoshanna Dreyfus blowing up a theatre full of Nazis while Eli Roth machine guns Hitler’s face into pulp. And filled with amazing performances.

17. The Social Network (2011). Great script, amazing direction (programming a website plays like a heist sequence) terrific performances, and the idea of the creator of Facebook being lured to the dark side by the creator of Napster is so perfect I don’t even care if it actually happened. It might… in retrospect, it might be too sympathetic towards Mark Zuckerberg.

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). It was damn good to finally see something less Oscar baity on the shortlist, and man this was a thrill ride. For a two hour car chase, this movie was incredible. I still occasionally shout “WITNESS ME!” before doing something daring. Plus Charlize Theron killed it as Furiosa, the real lead of the movie.

15. Inception (2011). Man I love this movie. Works on multiple levels, if you can keep up with how dream layers work. Some people say its a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but you can ignore that. Also, one of the better vague endings in recent memory. (The top wobbled, he’s awake, fight me.)

14. Black Swan (2011). One of the most purely tense film experiences I’ve ever had, with each moment summoning new dreads, thanks to an intense and haunting performance from Natalie Portman.

13. American Hustle (2014). The year “Faux Scorcese” was better than “Actual Scorcese.” Probably David O. Russell’s best, and he has his greatest ensemble acting in it.

12. Argo (2013). Ben Affleck wrote and directed an incredibly effective thriller, even if he did undervalue the contribution of Canadians a little. Despite the ending being public record, the climax had me on the edge of my seat.

11. The Shape of Water (2018). Not only does the fantasy romance really work, but I love how the heroes are a supergroup of marginalized people: a mute, a black woman, an elderly gay man, a communist, and a, well, fish monster, all working together against Michael Shannon’s embodiment of white patriarchy. A delightful adult fairy tale.

10. Lady Bird (2018). I already knew from Brooklyn that Saoirse Ronan was an incredible talent, but Lady Bird is where I learned that Greta Gerwig is an equally incredible writer/director. Lady Bird is a sheer delight.

9. Get Out (2018). Jordan Peele’s excellent debut as a horror auteur is clever, creative, and creepy as Hell. Plus it has a lot to say about race relations, and how racial issues go far beyond simple “Me Klansman, black people bad” racism.

8. The Martian (2016). Sure it’s the textbook example for category fraud at the Golden Globes because I wouldn’t call it a “comedy” yet it was entered as one, but it’s still a delightful movie with an unbeatable cast of familiar faces. And you know what, when it tries to be funny, it nails it.

7. Whiplash (2015). At what price artistic excellence? Is abuse ever justified? An incredible ride that’s probably the only good Miles Teller movie.

6. Winter’s Bone (2011). Jennifer Lawrence burst onto the scene with an incredible performance as a girl with few options in life who must confront her entire backwater, regressive, small-town-if-even-a-“town” “society” in a desperate bid to save her family home.

5. Toy Story 3 (2011). The fourth instalment was better than it deserved to be since this played as a perfect conclusion to the Toy Story saga. Tense, moving, Pixar at its best.

4. Hell or High Water (2017). The least grim movie from the writer of Sicario, which is akin to being the most uplifting season of The Wire or most competent boss from The Office or least autotuned episode of Glee. Hell or High Water is an excellently crafted cops-and-robbers story, a modern-day western in which two brothers try to save their ranch while an aging Texas Ranger hunts for them. I can watch this one over and over. Which is harder to do with the author’s other big films, Sicario or Wind River.

3. Spotlight (2016). An astounding cast takes on the sex scandals of the Catholic church. A reminder of what journalism can accomplish when commerce gets out of its way.

2. Hidden Figures (2017). Sure Kevin Costner de-segregating NASA, at one point literally with a crowbar, and the saintly John Glenn each wandered into White Saviour territory, but overall this true(ish) story of the women of colour who helped get America into space was the whole package.

1. 12 Years a Slave (2014). An amazing achievement in film that digs deep into the horrors of slavery that I never ever want to see again ever. Astounding performances from the cast, even if Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Saviour character was just a little over-the-top righteous.

And there we have it. A ranking of movies that even I didn’t know going into this.

Soon enough, it’ll be time to rank a new crop of best picture nominees, and if there is any justice in this dying ember of a world, expect Jojo Rabbit and Little Women to be up near the top.

Otherwise expect a lot of complaining.

My own personal Back to School remake

Or, How I learned to stop worrying* and embrace student life.

*Worry less.
Worry a little less.
Worry about the same amount but not spiral into despair over my inability to affect positive change in my life.

So here I am, at the age of… over-26… back in post-secondary for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. A lot of people ask me, why? What brought me to my current studies? Certainly my classmates ask that, with just a soupçon of “We’re fresh out of high school, what’s your excuse” in their voice.

Well, here’s the story. With headings. And maybe the occasional tension-breaking corgi photo.

Escaping Underemployment

My first real proper jobs, once I’d escaped being a projectionist for poverty wages, were in communications and marketing. Running communications for a nonprofit think tank then online marketing for an online payment system… that was primarily used for online gambling… That one paid well but could have been more fulfilling. It ended when the company I worked for bought a company in Montreal to access new markets through a different brand name, then somehow the company we bought ended up in charge and fired half of our office.

I always assumed that eventually, I’d find a new copy writing job, or something similar in my prior field. I had lots of experience, my former supervisor liked me plenty, it should have been only a matter of time. I just had to find something else to keep the wolves at bay in the meantime.

One attempt of which, as my most popular posts of all time explained, went very badly. After some time doing freelance tech writing (which ended thanks to oil prices dropping) I found a job in an internet cafe, and when an opening appeared made manager. It was fine. It was a perfectly fine thing to do while I found a proper career.

Then it was five years later. And I was no longer the primary manager, having traded that position for a three-month leave of absence to do a Fringe tour of Eastern Canada that was a complete and unmitigated disaster. And my last two successful job interviews had been spectacular disappointments.

Clearly something had to change. But first… let’s dig into those “successful” “job” “interviews.”

Next Page: How to spot a bad gig

New TV Review

I’ve been absent for a while on this blog. Scriptwriting combined with going back to school will do that.

Yes, back to school. That’s a thing. I was also going to make a post about that, and I’ll get to it, but in the meantime there are some new TV shows I’m checking out, and you’re going to hear about them, because blogging is like exercise: you gotta warm up before you get into the big stuff, like life changes and crooked Napolese taxi drivers.

Andiamo.

Prodigal Son

Image: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

Call it “Daddy Issues Hannibal.”

What’s it about? Malcolm Bright is a promising but slightly unhinged profiler who gets fired from the FBI for a) punching out a sheriff while catching a serial killer; and b) secretly being the son of Dr. Martin Whitley, aka The Surgeon, America’s most notorious serial killer (apparently). Dr. Whitley has been locked up for twentyish years, ever since Malcolm dropped a dime on him to the NYPD as a kid, and Malcolm stopped visiting when he decided to become a profiler of serial killers. But when the NYPD hires him to investigate a copycat of the Surgeon, he finds himself needing to consult with his father, who’s all too eager to help out. (Malcolm is hired by the policeman who came to investigate Malcolm’s 911 call back in the day, and thanks to young Malcolm telling him “You should take out your gun, my father is planning to kill you,” has lived long enough to make Captain.)

What works? I mean at this point you either like procedurals with serial aspects or you don’t, right? And as a killer-of-the-week procedural with serial elements, it basically works. It does, however, boast one major advantage: Michael Sheen as Dr. Whitley. I’ve loved Michael Sheen in basically everything I’ve ever seen him in, and while the sinisterly charming serial killer he plays here is about as far away from Good Omens’ skittish angel Aziraphale as you can get, Sheen’s still riveting.

What doesn’t? I’m not… I’m not 100% sold on Malcolm as a lead yet. His mania and twitchiness and recklessness haven’t endeared me to him yet. Given how easy it is to compare this show to the late, great Hannibal, it seems fair to say that Malcolm is, thus far, no Will Graham.

Also, the main central mystery at this point is Malcolm beginning to recover a buried memory of finding a girl stuffed in a box in his father’s study, which no doubt would have played a role in his childhood decision to turn in his father to the police. And while both of his parents insist that there was no girl in a box, he’s determined to figure out the truth, and it just, it just… his father has already been put away for the rest of his life (or until he inevitably escapes, probably later this season) for the dozens of murders they do know about, trying to figure out if there’s one more victim they don’t know about just feels extremely low stakes. “Wait, what did my mother know” was a good layer to explore, but we seem to be moving back from that to “Who was that one girl?” and I just really need a better reason to care.

Who do you know in the cast? (Let’s be real, this usually plays a role in whether I watch something)

  • I mentioned Michael Sheen, but it bears repeating.
  • Halston Sage, who had been my favourite crew member of The Orville until she decided to leave early in season two, is Malcolm’s sister, a TV reporter who is also starting to get sucked back into her father’s orbit.
  • Lou Diamond Phillips is the police captain who keeps Malcolm on the payroll.
  • Keiko Agena, Lane from Gilmore Girls, is the team’s token quirky CSI. She’s no Ella Lopez but she’s fun.
  • I guess the guy playing Malcolm was on Walking Dead, if you care.

Next Page: Good, bad, I’m the show with Michael Emerson

Dan on TV: Multi-requiem

“There’s always more show. I guess until there isn’t.”

Bojack Horseman

In 2004, after some cajoling from a friend, I dove into an HBO show called Carnivale, featuring a war between good and evil centred around a travelling carnival in the last age of magic, ie. 1930s dustbowl America. It’s… amazing. It was a great show with a great cast and I was sucked into it so deep… and then it was very suddenly over. The creator had a six-year plan for his story, then despite pruning the cast to save money in season two, HBO dropped them after two years. Without warning. And what sucks is that if it had ended five minutes earlier it would have been a nearly perfect finale, but instead…

I have both seasons on DVD. I can see them right now. But how do you recommend people watch a show that was cut down too soon? I guess by stressing that even if the ending comes too quickly, the ride is still worthwhile.

TV shows are like any other story… eventually they end. Sure, we live in the age of revivals, where any show with enough nostalgia value could come back at any moment. You could probably name at least three without even thinking about it. There’s even talk Happy Endings could return, which… don’t… don’t tease me with that. Don’t give me hope and then take it away.

But even with revivals, shows still end all the time. Some end exactly when they’re supposed to, like Chernobyl or Good Omens. Some end long after they probably should have, like The Big Bang Theory. Some end at what’s probably the right time, but still feels too soon… and some are taken from us cruelly early.

It’s those last two we’re going to talk about today, as I say farewell to some friends new and old.

Next page: Birds of a feather

Quality TV Speed Round

I know I talk a good deal about TV, but that’s because I watch some really great shows that I really want to talk about, but so few people I know have also seen them. Because they’re consuming a bunch of media I’m not, or spending time with their families or whatever people who aren’t media-obsessed shut-ins do.

So while I figure out the best angle to talk about our two days visiting Spain, let’s just briefly sum up some great TV that you should be watching.

Watch it. Watch it all. None of them are all that long.

Next page: TV’s best horror story

Back in Europe: Boat Life

Hello sweetie.

Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.

And the Jellicle Ball of the seas.

On a Boat

The centrepiece of this group trip to Europe was a week-long cruise through the western Mediterranean, hitting spots in Italy, Spain, and a bit of France. This was not my first cruise of the Mediterranean. It was my third, following two back during high school. (Yes, my high school had a Travel Club; yes, I was in it all three years; yes I got course credit for this; no, I’m not sorry.)

It was, however, my first cruise in [coughcoughcough] years, during which they made some advancements to cruise life, such as being able to take a shower while in port and not get tossed about the stall. It was also my first time aboard a cruise line not selected to fit the budget of a couple of dozen high school students. My last two cruises boasted amenities as lush as two or even three bars, and a movie theatre that might even have English languages movies more than once! Or maybe the only English language choice was Grease and you already didn’t like Grease very much and wow do you ever hate Grease now.

This time was… a little fancier than that. The moment I stepped onto the ship, I was in mild disbelief… this was an order of magnitude fancier than my high school experiences. The first thing I saw was not anything that belonged on a boat, it was a full entertainment district, a street with bars and restaurants and shops. This was like an all-inclusive resort that, if you went to the upper decks, you would learn was somehow on a boat.

Well… not exactly like an all-inclusive. It was a most-inclusive. There were several restaurants that were not included in the cost, even with our fancy drink packages*. There were wines that cost more than $13 for a glass, even more than $100 at the fancy wine bar. But staying clear of these places wasn’t hard. Hell, the pizza joint was included, and I barely ever made it there. The buffet for breakfast, the fancy formal restaurant for dinner, lunch on shore, a drink package to cover beers, non-premium wines, and basically any and every cocktail they had, and I had everything I could ask for**.

*Drink packages are, yes, one of the ways they try to drag some more money out of you, but I knew how much I was going to be drinking, so… I went with the one where every drink up to $13 was included, no regrets.

**Some of our party did tend to hit the buffet for a “pre-dinner snack.” One could have made jokes about eating two dinners, maybe something hobbit-related, but I was likely several cocktails in by then so shaming other people’s vacationing didn’t seem the way to go.

The only time the drink package let me down? The website said it would also cover unlimited milkshakes at Johnny Rockets. After several days, I decided it was finally time to get my milkshake… and found out that milkshakes were only included with a purchase of food.

BETRAYED. Betrayed, so I felt.

But still… this place had an entertainment district, multiple theatres, an actual park on our deck with yet more bars and restaurants, one of which we even went to, a casino that was hidden enough we never had to enter it… surely this place was so bursting with entertainment options I wouldn’t end up rewatching some musical I’d already seen twice and didn’t love either time, right? Right?

…right?

Next: Jellicle Ball for Jellicle Cats, and an Open Bar For Me

Back in Europe: Rome, if we want to

Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.

And that old son-of-a-bitch jet lag.

Arrival

The second I set foot in central London, I feel a wave of peace and happiness; the knowledge that I am, for a brief while, truly home. The second I arrive in Vancouver, I relax, because the city of Vancouver has taken the emotional place of “the house I grew up in” ever since my parents sold said house. The second I leave Cancun airport I feel… a reminder to chill because my resort is probably still like forty minutes away, and that’s after I find my transport.

Arriving in central Rome I felt… mild anxiety. Because I didn’t really feel… anything. I was in Rome. Rome. The Eternal City. Home of so much history, the setting of so many movies, the former hub of western civilization. After a year of planning, here I was! In Rome! With friends! And I felt… nothing. How could this be? I spent so much money on this vacation, now here I was, why wasn’t I happy?

Okay I know it sounds like I’m starting this new blog series on a down note so let me just cut to the chase and tell you what I told myself that first day… I was so tired. That was the problem. That’s all we’re talking about.

The problem with flying from North America to Europe is that it typically involves landing in what the clocks say is mid to late morning but your body is pretty sure is the very dead of night. If you can sleep on the plane, that helps, but as we’ve covered in the past, I cannot sleep on planes. So I arrived in Rome, having been awake for about 18 hours, very ready for sleep that would not come for many hours more. Because I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in Dublin (I’m not linking to it twice, I linked to it two sentences ago, click it or don’t) or Hong Kong and set myself into an untenable sleep schedule by napping mid-day. No, this time I would full-on bully my flesh cage into Italian time by staying up until at least 10 PM, then letting the fact that I’d been awake for 30 hours keep me asleep for the whole night.

So upon arrival, having stashed my luggage at my port of call for the night (I would not check into my actual hotel for another day, once my hotel mates Daisy and Ian had arrived), it was time to find lunch and wander the city to stay awake.

There were, in total, ten of us on the bulk of this trip. Myself, Ian (who I apparently have so many travel stories with that my Peru travel mates made fun of me for bringing him up so much), and Daisy; Daniel, in whose honour this trip was planned, and his essentially-wife Jenn; Daniel’s parents, Ruth and Hugh; his younger brother Noel; his youngest brother Matthew, and his wife Laura. Of these ten, only six of us were currently in Rome. And of those six, four felt they could use a break after the morning’s walking tour, particularly Jenn, who does not enjoy high temperatures, and southern Italy is very warm in June. So Daniel and I went for a stroll, got some pizza, and saw the local sights.

Just, you know simple nearby stuff.

The local sights included the Colosseum. You know, THE Colosseum. If anything aside from a designated smoking area in the airport was going to shout “Welcome to Rome” to me, this had to be it. We had a tour booked in three days, so we just did an orbit, and I lapsed into something I cannot help… the need to play tour guide. Sure Daniel had been in town a day longer than me, but this was his first time in Europe, and my… um… fourth? Fourth time in Rome? Pretty sure it was fourth.

So, yeah, as memories kicked in, everything had a story. Over there is where we saw the Ancient Rome cosplayers hoping to get money for photos (and where we’d see them later), that’s the cafe where we got gelato and mocked Patrick, and that construction site is probably where the wall art depicting the rise of the Roman Empire used to be.

I’d really been hoping to spot those. Daniel is a history buff when it suits him, though I have not been able to lure him into joining me for a binge-watch of HBO’s Rome. I guess they’re now part of a light/projection show they do by the Colosseum at night?

We also discovered an entirely new (to me) scam for tourists.

Now, I know all about the people wanting money for photos. Back in the day I had a pricey encounter with so-called “gypsy” begging women hunting in packs in London. The jags with their mixtapes seem to be a US-only phenomenon, or at least not continental Europe. And the dudes selling cheap souvenirs… in particular an item I can only think of as “splat pigs…” aren’t typically pushy, so they’re mostly harmless. But this one I’d never seen before.

Near the Colosseum, where tourists were thickest, lurked a few black guys. They’d make eye contact, smile, and say “Hey, black and white! Africa!” then zoom in right next to you and try to get a handshake.

We don’t know what happens next. We treated this handshake attempt the same as I treated the mixtape jags after that first run-in… no eye contact, no physical contact, a brisk walking pace is your best defence. So I don’t know what happens if you accept that handshake, but I’m willing to guess it costs at least five Euro. More if you’re not great with confrontation.

Once returned to the hotel, there actually was something close to a nap as I drifted in and out for about half an hour, then dinner at a nearby restaurant, where I saw mozzarella and prosciutto in one dish and said “I’m having that,” and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

Literally prosciutto on a blob of melted cheese, what’s not to love?

I cannot believe we never went back there.

Following dinner was a walking quest to find internet-recommended gelato, a quest well worth taking, because I’ve never had spicy ice cream before but this place had it, and man it delivered. They called it “Dracarys,” after Game of Thrones, something that will last shorter and age better than anyone who named their children “Daenerys” or “Cersei.” I didn’t think to get a scoop for myself that night, as I’d discovered the flavour “creme de leche,” or milk cream, which was like ice cream and cheesecake in one creamy package, and I would not be denied another hit.

By the end of that excursion, I’d done it. I’d stayed up (more or less) until 10. And faffed about until 11, so I was sure to acclimate to local time.

Next page: The thrice-visited ruins