Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Reaction: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Formula: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones * John Carter * Jupiter Ascending

No movie in 2017 has interested me more in the months leading up to it than Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It's not that I'm a fan of the series. In fact, I'd never heard of it before this movie. What intrigues me is the movies that this looks like from different angles. First, it reminds me of The Adventures of Tintin. Like Tintin, Valerian and Laureline is a popular European series that no one in the U.S. really knows about, which makes it a tough sell here. The huge budget* for a classic but unproven SciFi property sure reminds me of John Carter. Then there's The Lone Ranger, which was a similar case of a director cashing in his clout on a pet project to honor his childhood. I only saw Valerian because of what I call my "Lone Ranger Rule", which is if a movie advertises as hard as The Lone Ranger (which Valerian certainly did), then I might as well see it. I even get flashes of Jupiter Ascending with the look of the film and the fact that director Luc Besson, like the Wachowskis, is remembered as having more box office success than he really has had**. The one thing that all these films have in common is that they didn't do that well in the U.S. Tintin is the only one without the box office flop smell on it. It's also surprising to see a movie with such a big price tag being distributed by a small distributor like STX Entertainment***. That's because this was an independently financed film via Luc Besson's company, EuropaCorp, which has recouped most of the cost of the film already through foreign distribution deals. I don't know if this film will be a success or a failure or even what success or failure will look like. And, that's probably for the best, because there's no way that I can talk about this film that doesn't end up sounding like a backhanded compliment.

*The budget is estimated to be between $150-200 million which make it the most expensive French production ever.

**In the U.S., only Lucy made over $100 million. The Fifth Element is the next highest at $63 million. Even if you include movies Besson only wrote or produced, you can only add the Taken movies to the list is big successes. Granted, he's had more European success.

***STX is a new company who has made a big splash quickly. Currently, their biggest success was last year's Bad Moms with $113 million. To give some perspective, Bad Mom's is the only film (out of 120) since The Butler in 2013 to make over $100 million in the box office that didn't come from one of the big 6 studios or Lionsgate.

Valerian takes place a few hundred years in the future. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special operatives working for, I guess you'd call it the united human government. In the future, space travel is commonplace and all sorts of species live together in relative harmony. After a security mission goes awry, Valerian and Laureline have to travel through Alpha, the city of a thousand planets, in order to restore order (or something like that)*. Really, I shouldn't get more into the plot than that. The movie handles explaining the world a lot better than I could in a paragraph and describing the stakes is a little convoluted. What I can say is that I think this movie has more of an audience who would like it than the desperate advertising campaign would suggest.

*It's surprising how much of this movie felt like Attack of the Clones if you just followed Obi-Wan.

That's because Besson brings to life a fully realized fantasy world of the future. I don't know how much of it is Besson bringing the pages of the source material to life and how much of it is Besson's invention. This feels like it's from the same director as The Fifth Element though. Having seen the movie, I totally understand why it was so expensive. The movie is packed with visual effects from beginning to end that fill the screen. It sounds like a lot to handle, but it's really not. No more than something like the busy streets of Zootopia  being too much to handle. This really is a live-action cartoon in a lot of ways. It's fun, which is something that isn't the focus enough in big budget movies like this. There's some world-building and genuine stakes, but mostly the story is an excuse to move from one entertaining location to another. <Here comes the backhanded compliment> The movie is imaginative without being inventive. It's like someone watched all the major SciFi movies in the last 50 years, pulled what they liked from each, and mixed it all together into a really entertaining world with a lot of clever detail. None of it feels new, but it is well done. The irony is that the original comic series likely inspired a lot of the movies that this then pulls from. That's another way that the movie is similar to John Carter. It's a victim of its own influence.

I'm very torn about DeHaan and Delevingne in the lead roles, mostly because of a decision the movie makes that I like a lot in theory. Rather than making this an origin story of the Valerian and Laureline team, when the film begins, they are a team with a long history together already. That's great. Their banter and rapport is clearly intended to be a selling point of the series, so their familiarty is good. However, the movie badly needs some sort of character to be introduced to the leads with new eyes as a sort of POV character for the audience. There's a lot to explain in this universe and about their relationship. Without a way to introduce all this, the movie opts to do a lot of showing rather than telling. We are told that Valerian is a lothario, but there's really no evidence of it. He spends the whole movie asking Laureline to marry him. I have no idea if that's supposed to be a new development or an ongoing conversation with them. How come they haven't hooked up yet? Is she just his latest "conquest" or does he pine for her between other companions? Is he just now revealing this to her? I have nothing but questions about this aspect of their relationship, and it becomes a problem. Beyond that major sticking point, DaHaan and Delevingne handle themselves well. Delevingne especially is having a lot of fun. She realizes that she's a character in a pulpy SciFi world, so everything she does has a light touch. I wouldn't call it a star-making performance, but I do feel a lot better about her odds of having a bigger film career than other model-turned-actresses like Kate Upton or Brooklyn Decker. DeHaan tries to be a little more serious and I have a hard time buying it. Except for being a little ballsy, I'm not sure I believe that he's an elite sercurity officer. Perhaps with a little more levity, I could ignore it more easily.

The rest of the cast is fine. I'd like to say that Clive Owen is too big of a name for the generic role he has, but his recent filmography says otherwise. Rihanna isn't great other than a nice dance routine. I've apparently seen all of her film roles. Her role in Battleship was pretty generic. This is the End was just a cameo playing herself. I don't even remember her in Annie. Her voice acting though in Home was quite solid. Based on just that, I can't say whether my issue with her in Valerian is that she's not very good or her character is just weirder than she can pull off. That's the thing about this movie. You can't go halfway with it. That's why Ethan Hawke is quite enjoyable in his small role. He has a big character and he plays him big. Herbie Hancock is limited to what's essentially an angry black police captain role, but his plays it right and it works.

I ended up liking Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets more than I expected. I won't say it's great. I'm not even sure I can commit to calling it good. Fine is about as high as I'm willing to go. One word that does apply is 'earnest'. Luc Besson's heart was in this movie. The people who worked on this film did a good job. I like the look, the casting, the world, and to some extent, the story. Most of my issues are with the details and the execution, which build up to a lot. I would happily see a sequel if one is made. If you a fan of poppy SciFi movies, you may be pleasantly surprised by it.

Verdict: Weakly Recommend.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Movie Reaction: Dunkirk

Formula: Saving Private Ryan - Battles + the Sea

Something that was true before this last weekend is that I have no need to ever see another World War II movie again. It is the most over-coverd event in films. Just in the last couple years, there's been films about a conscientious objector WWII medic, a husband and wife spy duo, a POW camp in Japan, guys who protect artwork from Nazis, a WWII code breaker, and a WWII tank crew, and that's just the movies since 2014 that I've done Reactions for. In that time, there's also movies I haven't seen like Anthropoid, Son of Saul, Land of Mine, and War Pigs. For each movie I've named, there's two more that I can't remember off the top of my head. The list is so long that if you search "WWII Films" on Wikipedia, it has different articles depending on the decade. Yes, there's always going to be a new angle to approach the topic from, but the degree of difficulty gets amped up each time to do something original or worthwhile. I get why it's a popular topic. It was a huge war with a lot of countries, personalities, events, weaponry, types of combat, and motivations. There's a clear good vs. evil dichotomy. It's modern enough that we have a lot of physical and photographic evidence to research it. Many of us have family members who fought in the war, which makes the topic feel more personal. It's getting harder and harder for filmmakers to carve out their own place in the long list of WWII films.

Because of all of that, when I first heard that Christopher Nolan was making a WWII film, my reaction was "Ugh, no. Why?" If it wasn't for Nolan's name attached to it, I wouldn't be looking forward to Dunkirk at all. He is one of the best working directors right now and there's no director I trust more to helm a $100+ million production. That means, when it comes to Dunkirk, the big question is what wins out: my love of Nolan's work or my fatigue of WWII films?

The short answer is Nolan.

Let me set up the film real quick before breaking down why Nolan makes it work. Dunkirk is about the rescue of the many, many thousands of soldiers trapped on Dunkirk beach during WWII. With nowhere for the troops to go, German aerial assaults are slowly picking all of the soldiers off and destroying the larger rescue ships. So, the British Navy turns to recruiting civilian vessels to cross the English Channel and rescue the troops instead. The film breaks this into three smaller stories: The Mole, the Sea, and the Air. The Mole is the story of the troops on the beach. The Sea is about the civilian vessels coming to rescue the troops. The Air is about a couple pilots trying to shoot down the German planes that have been making rescue impossible. I won't bother giving you character names or anything like that, partly because I don't know any of them, but mainly because they aren't all that important. Dunkirk is more of a military mood piece than a traditional narrative. The three stories weave together and add new perspective to prior events. It's light on dialogue, opting instead to just experience things. Many of the conflicts aren't over-explained. Tom Hardy as the pilot in the Air has to worry about running out of fuel and not getting shot down. Mark Rylance and company in the Sea are worried about surviving the journey into dangerous waters. The soldiers in the Mole are finding any way they can to get on a boat home. Had Nolan tried to get any more plot than this across, it would've been too dense.

You can read as much depth into the characters as you want. Nolan sometimes has problems with his characters being a little plain or unnuanced. That's kind of the case in Dunkirk, but knocking him for that would also be missing the point. The characters are only there to populate the film. The direction and technical elements are the stars. The sound is terrific (editing maybe a little more than mixing). The film editing is surprisingly taut for a Nolan film. At 1hr 46min, it's Nolan's shortest film since his debut feature, Following, in 1998. The production design and cinematography are top notch. If this isn't a major player in all the technical categories at the Oscars, then I understand nothing about anything. The film is tense throughout without becoming tedious. This is probably Nolan's finest directing job yet. See it on the biggest screen you can find.

The film isn't perfect. The dialogue doesn't go out of its way to explain everything, so if you mention the one mention of something or one of the context clues or forget who one of the characters is, it can be unforgiving. It didn't affect my enjoyment of the film, but I can already tell that there's a good deal more that I'll pick up on the second time I see it. It might not hurt to even look up the actual events a little before seeing it. The less that you are asking what's going on, the more you can enjoy the rest. There's also the tricky matter of when to credit Nolan for capturing the disorientation of battle and when to say that some of the murkier sequences were just poorly edited. Nolan haters will say that the geography of especially the air sequences was poor. Nolan apologists will say that he perfectly captures the feeling of the people in those moments. I'd say it's more the latter than the former, but I can't confidently say after seeing it only once.

The performances aren't showy, but some people still get some good things to do. Mark Rylance steadies the Sea third of the movie against Cillian Murphy as a rescued soldier with shell-shock. The film Locke proved to me that Tom Hardy can easily carry extended periods of sitting in a vehicle by himself and make it look interesting. The soldiers in the Mole are all pretty generic, which fits the idea of there being 400,000 nameless soldiers being picked off a few at a time. Kenneth Branagh gets to stand around and look dignified a lot as the commander in charge of the beached troops.

I wasn't blown away by the film. A good amount of that is my WWII fatigue. Even still, I found several parts toward the end very touching. I love the efficiency of the storytelling and the technical precision of it all. It doesn't transcend the genre or anything. It's basically seeing people do things you've seen before only at a very high level. This continues a great July, and if this is the film that finally lands Nolan that elusive first Best Director Oscar nomination come January, it will be very deserved.

Verdict: Strongly Recommend
(Note: I'm trying to come up with a rating system that I can use across all films. Thumbs up or down is too binary. The five star system ends up with too many three star ratings that mean nothing. I'm currently thinking: Strongly recommend, weakly recommend, weakly don't recommend, and strongly don't recommend with some caveats if needed. I don't like the grammar of it though. This will likely develop in the coming weeks)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Delayed Reaction: Raging Bull

The Pitch: Dirty Rocky.

Raging Bull is a classic. That's one of those inarguable statements like "The Beatles are great" or "I Love Lucy is one of the best TV shows ever" that only the most contrarian person would dispute. I'm not hear to fight the opinion that Raging Bull is great. I'm not sure why it has the level of universal acclaim it has though. I get it for Casablanca or The Shawshank Redemption. Those are damn-near reverse-engineered to offend no one. Raging Bull is aggressive, dark, and at times, just plain ugly. You'd think that movie would have a lot of detractors.

This is actually my second time seeing Raging Bull. I saw it close to a decade ago and didn't get what the big deal was. I liked it, but it wasn't all that memorable. So, I gave it another try. And, I liked it. De Niro is tremendous. The movie looks great. Strong editing and sound. Well-written. Impressively directed. I'm still missing the key element that pushes it to being among the greatest films ever made. It's not that I'm rejecting the notion. I guess I'm just looking for someone to convince me.

Like a lot of the certified classics I get to for this blog, I don't have a lot to say about Raging Bull. Everything has been said before. There isn't a "new take" I'm going to have on the film. I will make the uncontroversial claim that I prefer De Niro's work with Scorsese over DiCaprio's, although both have pretty impressive lists.

Netflix Rating: 4 Stars

Friday, July 21, 2017

Delayed Reaction: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

The Pitch: OK, how can we explain Enron in a way that isn't boring as shit?

I remember when Enron went out of business. I was 14 at the time and it didn't mean much to me. I hadn't heard of the company until it went out of business, then everyone told me how it was a huge deal. I didn't get it. I remember this documentary too. I avoided it. It came out in a time of really smug documentaries that annoyed the hell out of me. Michael Moore had a mega-hit with Fahrenheit 9/11. Morgan Spurlock got famous with Super Size Me, a documentary that "exposed" the fact that McDonalds wasn't healthy to eat. Not long after this came Maxed Out, about credit card debt, which I had trouble coming up with any empathy for, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price. All of these movies went after easy to hate targets and didn't have much insight that I could find. As I've said many times, I prefer documentaries that are investigations, not essays to prove a point that the documentarian knew going in.

I'll say this much. I liked Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room more than those other documentaries I just mentioned.

I think it comes down to this. Enron was too busy untangling this mess to be annoying about the topic. There's so much to cover with the rise and fall of Enron. There's a lot of shady executives doing even shadier things. Most of it is quite complex. Alex Gibney does what he can to simplify it, and I almost feel like I understand what happened after watching this. The doc is a little overproduced, perhaps in an attempt to counteract the sleepier parts of the story. This doc takes more of a "what the hell happened?" perspective than the "here is how Enron is emblematic of everything that is wrong with corporations" angle that I was expecting. For topicality, I get why this was such a highly regarded documentary when it was released. A dozen years after its release, it sure feels dated/disposable to me.

Netflix Rating: 3 Stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Delayed Reaction: Silicon Cowboys

The Pitch: The first four sections of the Compaq Wikipedia page as an 80 minutes movie.

Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a documentary that is topically daring, like an Act of Killing or 13th. Sometimes I want to watch something every bit as gripping as a fiction thriller, like The Imposter or Man on Wire. Other times, I'd like a couple chapters out of a textbook made into a feature length film. Silicon Cowboys is definitely in that final category. It's the history of the rise of Compaq. That's about it. They make it about the IBM rivalry and point out how this is essentially the story that season 1 of Halt and Catch Fire is based on. Otherwise, it's about as traditional as you can get, and that's fine.

Netflix Rating: 3 Stars

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Delayed Reaction: Excalibur

The Pitch: King Arthur. There's a story in that.

Excalibur is an admirable and significant mess. The acting is overwrought. The story is rough. The production is impressive and informative. There's no simple way to discuss this movie. It helped launch the careers of several actors (stateside, at least) like Helen Mirren - who I didn't recognize at all, Patrick Stewart, Liam Nesson,and Gabriel Byne. It set a new benchmark for what a medievel fantasy production should look like. It's even a fairly faithful retelling of the Le Morte d'Arthur story. Excalibur has significance. However, that movie was tough to get through. The story has very little flow. Scenes happen. Then other scenes happen. The both fit in the same movie, but they seldom flow from one to the next*. If I didn't already know Arthurian legend, I'm not sure I could've followed this. The acting is, to be generous, of variable quality. Nigel Terry, as King Arthur, just isn't very good. He tries so hard in every single scene and it shows. Nicol Williamson does have a pretty inspired Merlin. At times, he was the only thing that kept me going.

*My understanding is that there are different versions floating around and a lot had to be cut for the theatrical cut, which I believe is what I saw.

Side note: I wish someone would've told them to cool it with the use of "O Fortuna". After the third or forth time it came up, it became self-parody. Part of me saying that is through my 2017 eyes, where that song is damn near toxic as a song to be used earnestly.

Netflix Rating: 2 Stars

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Reaction: War for the Planet of the Apes

Formula: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes / (Spartacus + The Great Escape)

I went into War for the Planet of the Apes sure of at least one thing: I'm done questioning this series. I have to be. Rise of the Planet of the Apes took the stink off the series left by the Tim Burton movie a decade before. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was one of my favorite films of 2014, and most of the same team is back for War. There's two reasons why my first instinct is to doubt the series. One is that "Planet of the Apes" is a silly premise. Despite a respectable history of some good films, the movies always sound a little bit like a B-movie premise. The other reason is more basic. It's like when you watch a juggler add one more ball to the mix. Even though you've been given plenty of reasons to assume he can do it, you still get nervous. Or maybe the tightrope analogy is the better one. Regardless, what Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis, and Fox have going with the Planet of the Apes franchise is impressive, so now I look forward to these movies with nothing but excitement.

I never know how much of the story to give away, especially when the trailers are pretty generic. War continues the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who has been the focus since Rise and is the leader of the apes. He's trying to live peacefully in the woods with his fellow apes, but a nearby army of humans led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) won't leave them alone. Caesar is ready to move far away from the humans, but before he can, the Colonel strikes the ape settlement and makes the stakes very personal for Caesar. From there, the story becomes equal parts revenge story and escape mission. Along the way, Caesar picks up a young girl who can't speak (Amiah Miller) and another ape who can talk (played by Steve Zahn) but isn't all there mentally after year of what sounds like abuse in a zoo.

This is the first film in the series to be fully led by the apes. Rise and Dawn were evenly split between the apes and humans if not more human-centric altogether. In War, Harrelson and the other humans are very much supporting characters. The biggest hurdle the movie has to clear is that only two of the apes speak fluently. The rest use their sign language to communicate. I have to give Matt Reeves and company a lot of credit, because I didn't realize how much of the movie was in subtitles until I thought about it afterwards. That's because dialogue was used judiciously and much was communicated in the physical performances.

Praising Andy Serkis for his motion capture performance in something has become a yearly tradition at this point. I sure hope there's an honorary Oscar in his future, since it's become clear that enough people are never going to recognize him in a competitive category. There's no one on the level of Tony Kebbell in Dawn to match Serkis on the motion capture side, although Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Terry Notary, and Ty Olsson all do good work. The motion capture visual effects look great as always. In fact, I don't think I'm giving the effect justice. The fact that the team behind these effects haven't won Oscars for the past two films is embarrassing for the Motion Picture Academy and it will be as well when War loses this year too. Woody Harrelson plays his role very big but somehow stops short of being laughable. That sounds like more of a knock on him than it should. The Colonel fills any room he's in, but he's meant to and has to be that kind of person to lead the group he does.

I love how the film mixes the many larger and smaller stories together. At times the film is like an ape Unbroken. It's also a very personal revenge story for Caesar. There's the larger struggle for the apes to find peace and there's an escape caper going on too. The Colonel is dealing with threats from every side. The simian flu is an evolving threat. Even humans elsewhere aren't fans of him. If it was just the apes, he could win, but he's doomed himself due to enemies coming from every side. Caesar is haunted by Koba as well as other parts of his past. Characters like the little human child they take in, the ape played by Steve Zahn, and Maurice all have arcs of personal significance. Even some lesser villains get some depth that I didn't expect.

I will say that the film relies on convenience a bit more than I like. One bullet early on could've stopped the movie in its tracks, but of course, the Colonel would rather run his outpost like a Bond villain. The security at the Colonel's outpost is a joke. On multiple occasions, even minimal observation by the security would've again, stopped the movie in an instant. That's the kind of stuff that drives me insane and is the only reason why I think I prefer Dawn slightly more.

In a world where every major studio has big budget franchises that get sequel after sequel whether they need them or not, many of the biggest sequels end up major disappointments. This summer has been no different with films like Transformers: The Last Knight, Cars 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales being churned out. It's nice to have something as good as War for the Planet of the Apes to remind us that it's still possible to make a great movie under that studio mandate. I hope this is not the end of this iteration of the franchise if it continues to be this good.

After the Credits
(Some thoughts for after you've seen the movie)

The end is full of grace notes that really cemented my love of the movie.

-There wasn't a final showdown with the Colonel. Great! I get how it could seem like a let down, but it's the perfect way for that to play out. A battle between Caesar and the Colonel, locking eyes, surrounded by fire and explosions, would only confirm his belief that he needed to kill the apes. Leaving Caesar's - er - humanity in tact and making the Colonel the victim of his own prejudices is much better.

-There's very little to the character Preacher, but I like how Reeve's subtly tricks us to believing that he's something he isn't Preacher is our POV character in the first scene of the movie. He's present for all sorts of interactions with Caesar and the Colonel. Hell, they even call him Preacher, which make a "come to Jesus" moment seem required. Nope. He shoots Caesar with an arrow the second he gets a chance to. It's not exactly a twist. It's more like Reeves having fun with the audience for buying into narrative conventions.

-That victory moment for the invading troops right before the avalanche wipes them out was so bizarre. The quick charge and celebration of victory. The slow awareness of Caesar staring them down. Then, the whole army is enveloped by the crashing snow. I didn't know if it was funny, horrifying, poetic justice, ex machina, or a cheat, but I liked it.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Delayed Reaction: Green Room

The Pitch: A punk band fights Neo-Nazis who want to kill them.

It's hard to be more glib about the pitch for the movie than what the movie is actually about. It's an extreme premise and counters that by being much more restrained than I expected. When I heard that it's a movie about Anton Yelchin and his punk band witnessing a murder and being chased by Neo-nazis, led by Patrick Stewart, who are trying to cover up the murder, I rightfully had visions of one of those uber-violent slashers that exist only to outdo the craziness of the last kill*. That's not what Green Room is. It's certainly violent. Limbs are cut off, heads explode from gunshot wounds, and dogs maul people. None of it is out of place for the situation though. It's a survival movie and a large amount of it is a stand-off, with the band trapped the the green room, trying to figure out what to do next. I really appreciate the sense of limited resources in the film. There wasn't an endless supply of guns and weapons. There's only a handful of neo-Nazi** henchmen. Patrick Stewart's character doesn't want the scene to look like a shootout in case the cops come snooping around, so he doesn't go after the band with a machine gun or something crazy. It's not wholly implausible that the band could get out of this situation alive.

*I don't watch a lost of these movies, so I don't have any examples at the top of my head. The Final, maybe.

**I don't know what I'm supposed to capitalize if anything in "neo-nazi" and I have no desire to look it up.

This is a really solid cast giving a solid effort. The fact that Anton Yelchin brought as much nuance to his character as he did reminds me how tragic it is that he's gone now. Patrick Stewart takes his role very seriously when he could've easily hammed it up. I've seen Imogen Poots in a few things (That Awkward Moment, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Need For Speed) but they haven't been great showcases for her. She gets some good stuff in this. The film definitely suffers from the "death hierarchy" (i.e. You can predict the order of the deaths based on how familiar much you recognize each actor), but that doesn't spoil the tension too much.

I was prepared to dislike Green Room a lot. Instead, it was pretty good. Well paced. A little more gruesome than I'd prefer. Excellent closing 2 lines. I think it would appeal to more than just fans of violent movies.

Netflix Rating: 3 Stars

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why You Should Dismiss Emmy Nominations

Emmy prognostication just isn’t as fun as Oscar prognostication. I have to remind myself of this every year around this time. I spend a lot of time making predictions and doing deep dives into both, and no matter how I measure it, the Oscars are more entertaining. I'm even tempted to say they are better. And this isn't a Movies > TV argument. I've been firmly in the TV camp my entire life, even before the golden or platinum or peak-TV age of television, or whatever you want to call it. No, the point of this post is to explain why you shouldn't bother getting worked up over Emmy nominations the way you should even with the Oscars.

I'm going to start with a little math. I'm sorry. I'll try to keep it simple, but it's the best way to illustrate my biggest point. In 2016, BoxOfficeMojo lists 736 films that were released in theaters. Let's say that's roughly the pool of movies for the Oscars*. Let's says those average out to 2 hours each. It's probably less, but I'm OK with that number. That means, to watch all the movies for that year, you would need 1472 hours - a little more than 61 days. On the Emmy nomination ballot, there were 180 series submitted for Outstanding Drama series. Those shows almost all last 42-60 minutes. Most are closer to 42 minutes, so let's say the average show is 45 minutes long per episode. Season lengths vary from as few as 6 episodes to 22+. To make this easy, I'm going to average it out to 13 episodes per season. That means, to watch all those shows, you would need 1755 hours - more than 73 days. That's 1472 hours  (movies) to 1755 hours(drama series), and let me remind you that I purposely overestimated movies and underestimated the drama series lengths. By the way, there's also another 540 hours of comedies** and 140 hours of limited series. I didn't even make estimations for TV Movies, Variety Talk and Sketch series, Variety Specials, Special Class Programs, Short-Form Comedy or Drama Series, Short Form Variety Series, Children's Programs or Series, Reality (Structured, Unstructured, and Competition) Series, and Information Series. That is an unwieldy amount of things to watch in order to fill out an informed nomination ballot. Yes, it's true that, much like the Oscars, the nomination process is broken up by the different branches (i.e. Performers pick the performer categories, writers select the writing nominees, etc.), but I checked. According to the official Nomination Voting Procedures "All members are entitled to vote for outstanding program nominations. This rule does not  include  animated  programs or  documentary/nonfiction  program  categories". So, at the nomination stage, everyone votes for their top 5-7 series in all those categories.

*Technically, shorts, foreign films, animated films, and documentaries have their own processes that aren't exactly tied to theatrical releases that year. Then again, not every film submits for the Oscars, so I'm going to say it balances out.

** 104 series. 24 minute average length. 13 episode average season. That's a significant underestimation considering the number of hour-longs in the category and network 20+ episode orders.

*** 25 series. 45 minutes average length.  7.5 episode average season. Again, a significant underestimation.
The point I'm trying to make is that there's not enough hours in the day for even the most retired Television Academy member to cover it all. Most of the academy members are people who are still working though. What hope do they have?

Now, no one, not even for the Oscar voting, has seen everything. We all curate our selections. That's natural. TV curation is much harder than film curation though. There's two big reasons for this.

1) You can stop watching a TV show, but should you? A television series is a constantly evolving piece of content. How many times have you heard someone tell you "It gets a lot better after the __th episode"? For some shows, a pilot or a synopsis is plenty to judge it. I've been dead wrong about enough shows based on what I assumed about it that I don't really trust anyone who hasn't watched the whole thing. Think about how hard it would be to sell someone on a premise like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a classic but it didn't get there until the end of the first season (if I'm being generous). And how many episodes is enough to judge a late night show? Do you know how many hours of The Tonight Show there are? I don't but I know it's a lot. How do you even rate one season of it versus an earlier season? I get why those shows get nominated based on reputation. I want to make it clear that I'm not wagging my finger at Emmy voters for not doing their homework. My argument is that it's an impossible amount of homework in the first place. It's no wonder that Emmy inertia* happens.

*Once something starts getting nominated, it keeps getting nominated and if something is snubbed, it stays snubbed.

2) Where are the precursors? Say what you will about the Oscars, but the endless precursor awards really help narrow things down for the Oscar season. There's all the critics awards first. Those are people who are paid to do nothing but watch movies. They  weigh in and champion as many small movies as they can. Some movies take hold and move to the guilds to weigh in on after that. That's when the people who work in specific fields highlight the rock stars among their peers. All the while, the National Board of Review, Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, BAFTA Awards, Gotham Awards, and others weigh in. By the time it gets to the Oscar nominations, you know the contenders. Your disappointment is tempered when your favorite film is snubbed because it's been ignored all along. Look, I loved The Nice Guys last year. I also knew it wasn't in the running for anything. The Emmys are different. I guess you can call the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, or PGA Awards precursors. They literally are following a different calendar though and carry very little momentum. For example, the Golden Globes and Emmy winner for Dramatic series has only matched up 7 times in the last 20 years. When the Emmy nominations are announced, literally anything feels possible. I tricked myself into believing that The Leftovers could really sneak in some major nominations this year because nothing was there to tell me I was wrong to think that. All I heard was the sounds of a lot of critics banging their drums for the series. Critics don't vote for the Emmys, thus, no nominations for The Leftovers.

I don't even know if the Television Academy knows what it wants to stand for. Does it want to recognize the highest quality shows on TV? Does it want to reflect what people are really watching? Does it want to represent what's best for the industry? Last year was a banner year for the critical community at the Emmys. Critical darlings on little seen shows like Tatiana Maslany, Rami Malek, and Louis Anderson came away with trophies. Master of None raked in nominations. Tired shows like Homeland and Modern Family were nominated but not taken seriously. I don't think I've ever been happier with a set of Emmy nominees. Granted, that was a hiatus year for The Leftovers, so I could excuse the lack of nominations. This year, things went back to business as usual, kind of. Many of the best shows on TV went minimally or un-noticed. The Leftovers got a token Guest Actress nomination. Rectify ends as a 0 time Emmy nominee. The Americans inexplicably fell out of the Outstanding Drama field. Those were left out to make room for shows like Stranger Things and This Is Us. As much as I like both of those shows, are they really the best shows on TV? I say "no". Then again, aren't these progressive picks in their own right? Both are massive audience hits, yes, but they  each have formulas they tend to be ignored by Emmy voters. Stranger Things is a genre series with a very young cast. When was the last time something like that got nominated? The Wonder Years? Kind of, maybe. This Is Us is a broadcast network family drama: a genre some theorized was dead. It took Friday Night Lights five seasons and technically a move to cable to get this kind of Emmy attention (and it was never a ratings hit). Is there really a big difference between This Is Us and Parenthood or Brothers & Sisters? Is it so wrong for Emmy voters to recognize that broad appeal, especially in this fractured entertainment landscape, is a quality unto itself?

My point is that without an actual awards circuit around it, the Emmys have to serve as everything. They are expected to have the qualitative acuity of the National Board of Review or the LA/NY Film Critics, the populist "what's hot now?" fickleness of the Golden Globes, and the historical record austerity of the Oscars. And, it's supposed to do this across a broader spectrum of programming and with no precursor circuit for guidance.

It's great when your favorite show gets recognition you believe it deserves, but don't trust that the Emmys are the place to do it. I don't know if there is such a thing as a good system for recognizing the best that television has to offer. If there is, I hope someone finds it. As is, it's not the Emmys. I'll still be examining the nominations and winners because I find institutions like this fascinating. However, you really shouldn't get that worked up by it. There's too much good TV to watch to waste time complaining about what a bunch of people too busy to watch it think.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Top 10 Movies I've Seen in 2017 So Far

Since I released my Top 10 TV Shows of 2017 So Far yesterday to mark the mid-point in the year, like I did last year, I wanted to do a movie list as well. Here's the problem: The first half of 2017 hasn't been that great for movies. While the TV/Emmy calendar front loads the year, movie studios back load the hell out of their schedules. Of the movies that have been released, not a lot has really connected with me. I'm sure it will even out by the end of the year. Already in July (which I won't be including here), I've seen two strong Top 10 contenders for the end of the year in The Big Sick and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The rest of July looks abnormally strong too.

Regardless, I tried to come up with a mid-year top 10 list for 2017 movies and it wasn't very good. So, I decided to try something else. I've watched a bunch of movies for the first time this year from years before 2017. I'm going to rank all of them. In that respect, a better name for this post would be "My Top 10 Recommendations From January to June 2017". This is what I came up with.

Top 10
1. The Blues Brothers (1980)
This is a classic that doesn't really need me to champion it. It really holds up.

2. Free Fire (2017)
I don't think this is for everyone, but it sure was for me. This 90 minute shootout is a stupid good time.

3. Margin Call (2011)
This is a smart screenplay that manages to squeeze a lot of tension out of some pedantic business matters, and it avoids many of the lazier "evil businessman" tropes without letting them off the hook. That's harder to do that it sounds.

4. Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011)
It's hard to pick just one from the trilogy of documentaries about West Memphis Three. I'm going to go with the last one because of the cumulative effect it has even if you haven't seen the first two parts and for the happy(ish) ending it gets. This is a tremendous series that I strongly recommend.

5. Rashomon (1950)
I finally got around to this classic. As much as I liked the movie, I'm probably most excited to be able to say things like "It has a Rashomon quality to it" any time a movie I see plays with POV at all. I get to mark that off my pretension checklist. It's a classic for a reason though.

6. The Look of Silence (2014)
The powerful follow-up to The Act of Killing. Killing was more brutal. Silence was more dangerous. I know that a subtitled documentary about an Indonesian genocide is a hard sell on just about every level. I promise that it's worth it.

7. Tower (2016)
I swear, this will be the last documentary. I've gone documentary crazy over last few months. This is a pseudo-animated retelling of the University of Texas shootings in 1966 told by the people who were there. The mix of animation and actual footage make this feel more alive than I imagined possible. It's barely 90 minutes and is as tense as any thriller you'll find.

8. All About Eve (1950)
What can I say? Bette Davis is great. It's crazy to think the same year had both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard.

9. The Handmaiden (2016)
I wasn't seeking out a twisty Korean/Japanese period film, but I kept getting enough recommendations from the internet that I decided to give it a try. I'm sure glad I did. This is a trip. Funny, smart, a little kinky, and surprising at every turn.

10. Baby Driver (2017)
I might as well fit in another 2017 movie. I don't know if this movie has any nutritional value, but it has all my favorite things put together for a great dessert.

Next 10
(I won't say anything about these. I just wanted to get them out there)
The One I Love (2014)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Beguiled (2017)
Arthur (1981)
Mistress America (2015)
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Get Out (2017)

And in case you were wondering, my top 5 for 2017 so far are:
1. Free Fire
2. Baby Driver
3. The Beguiled
4. Get Out
5. Logan
(Wonder Woman barely missed the cut)