Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies Of 2016 (With Spillover)

I usually try to post my Top 10 before the Oscar nominations, but January has been crazy y’all! With everything going on – the daily ridiculousness of the newly installed Trump administration, having to get one of our cats legs amputated because of cancer, and editing my long in the works book project – it’s been hard to sit down and finalize exactly just what are my favorite films of 2016.

It hasn’t helped that I found the last year to be a pretty weak one for film, with an abundance of bad sequels, a run of epic fails (THE BFG, ALLIED, RULES DONT APPLY) and many movies that were just meh, so picking out the gems was more difficult than in previous years. So here goes my picks, in descending order, with a little bit of annotation, and some links back to my reviews (click on select titles):

10. GREEN ROOM (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

Sadly, this largely overlooked indie about a punk band who find themselves trapped in the backstage green room of a hardcore club in the woods of Oregon, was one of the last performances of Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak automobile accident in the summer of 2016. Yelchin, as the fraught leader of the punk group, excels in this grimy, gritty, and extremely chilling thriller as do Imogen Poots and a sinister Patrick Stewart.

9. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN (Dir. Mike Mills)

I think Annette Bening should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for this over Meryl Streep for FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Streep’s performance in FFJ, but Bening put in an exemplary portrayal as Dorothea, the put upon matriarch of Mills’ cinematic loveletter to the women who raised him. Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann round out the rest of the fine ensemble. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN somehow simultaneously captures how it felt to be a mixed-up kid in the ‘70s and how it felt to be a mixed-up mother living during the same era. Glad that Mills’ superb screenplay got the Academy’s attention.

8. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (Dir. Ezra Edelman) It’s amazing how riveting every minute of this 5-part documentary miniseries is, considering that it’s 10 hours long (467 minutes). But the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson from famous football running back to infamous alleged murderer as seen through the filters of race and fame in the American system never slows down or falters in its engrossing pace. Edleman’s opus, created for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, is a masterpiece that not only deserves its nomination for the Best Documentary Oscar, it deserves to win it.

7. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan) 

This is an achingly sad story about an apartment complex maintenance man (Casy Affleck) who, while still reeling from a tragic incident that killed his two daughters, and destroyed his marriage to his devastated wife (Michelle Williams), is asked to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother (the boy’s father played by Kyle Chandler) dies. This is a stirring experience, and an oddly funny one at times, that’s hard to shake long after it ends, and that’s largely due to how real these people feel.

6. FENCES (Dir. Denzel Washington)

Denzel Washington’s third turn in the director’s chair is a filmed play, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play as a great film. Based on the Pulitzer Prize, and Tony Award winning 1983 play by August Wilson, the film concerns Troy Maxton, a working class Pittsburgh garbageman played by Washington, and his family's struggle through the late 50s to mid 60s. Along with the nominations the film got for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay (August Wilson), Washington deservedly earned a nom for Best Actor as his energy makes many of his monologues more memorable than dozens (maybe hundreds) of other actors’ pontifications this last year. Davis holds her own against Washington, and really should’ve gotten a Best Actress instead of Supporting nomination, but at least she was recognized. 


I can never unsee the imagery of this twisted yet impeccably stylish psychological thriller which revolves around the sordid contents of a novel that Jake Gyllenhaal sends to his ex-wife (Amy Adams), and, I bet I can never unthink it either. It’ll really be hard for sure to choose between rooting for Michael Shannon in this over Jeff Bridges (in #4 on this list) for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for their portrayals of two vastly different Texas lawmen.

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie)

This is a modern day western heist thriller that runs with the theme of robbing-the-banks-because-they’re-robbing-us. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the robbers; Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the cops on their trail. It’s also starring a wide West Texas landscape sparsely decorated with billboards advertising debt relief, rundown ranches, and yellow fields stretching to the horizon. If its not a deserving Best Picture nominee, itll do till the next deserving nominee gets here.

3. PATERSON (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

I haven’t posted a review of this film because it never came to my area, and that’s a shame because more people should see this lovely film starring Adam Driver as a bus driving poet named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. It’s the week in the life of our protagonist who fills a secret notebook full of his poems as he goes about his daily routine of driving his bus route, eating dinner with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and having a beer at his neighborhood bar. It doesn’t sound like much happens, sure, but by the end I was cherishing every bit of the minutia that made up Paterson’s poetic existence.

2. LA LA LAND (Dir. Damien Chazzelle) Although this has been highly acclaimed by critics (it stands at a 93% on the Rotten Tomatometer), there has been a considerable amount of backlash against this modern musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as starcrossed lovers/Hollywood hopefuls. While I loved it, I can see the points of people who say it mansplains jazz, its leads aren’t the greatest singers, and that, despite the appearance of John Legend, it’s a pretty white movie. Still, I thought it soared far above most of last year’s releases with its wonderfully bouncy soundtrack (Gosling and Stone aren’t that bad as vocalists), sharp screenplay, and its colorfully inventive cinematography. As it’s nominated for 14 categories, it’ll take home a bunch of Oscars for sure come February 26th.

1. MOONLIGHT (Dir. Barry Jenkins) 

Right now, it looks like the Best Picture race is going to be a duel between MOONLIGHT and LA LA LAND, both of which are my two favorite films of the year. MOONLIGHT takes the #1 spot because it made more of an emotional dent on me with its realism over the pure fantasy of my #2 choice. Jenkins’ film, which tells the Miami -set story of a young African American male named Chiron who is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) representing different ages of the character as he struggles with his homosexual identity. It’s fearless in its harrowing honesty, but I bet it will be more remembered for its simple beauty. This definitely deserved every Oscar nom it got.

Spillover (click on the bold faced titles for my reviews):

HAIL, CAESAR! (Dirs. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)

SILENCE (Dir. Martin Scorsese) 
Yeah, I gave this a really mixed review but I think Matthew Zoller Seitz was right when he wrote: “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don't like.’ It's a film that you experience and then live with.” I'm definitely still living with it.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (Dir. Richard Linklater)

GIMME DANGER (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg) 

HACKSAW RIDGE (Dir. Mel Gibson) 

Hannes Holm)

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (Dir. Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone)

ARRIVAL (Dir. Denis Villeneuve) This is another film I give a mixed review, but, what can I say? Its growing on me.

HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi)


LIFE, ANIMATED (Dir. Roger Ross Williams)


More later...

Saturday, January 28, 2017

20TH CENTURY WOMEN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a indie art house near me:


(Dir. Mike Mills, 2016)

This is the kind of film that I wish there were more of – well observed, sharply acted dramas with vulnerable characters dealing with real-life situations.

There are no big confrontations, no convoluted crisis, no tragic circumstances – just people trying to understand each other, and how they fit in with the changing times.

Annette Benning really should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for her performance as 55-year-old single Santa Barbara mom Dorothea, who in an early scene in this 1979-set comedy drama says to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and her son’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) that because “history has been tough on men, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next,” she wants them to help her 17-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) figure out how to be a good man. “What does that even mean these days?” Dorothea asks.

Abbie, who is a flakey artsy photographer with dyed red hair, posits that Dorothea’s live-in hippy handyman William (Billy Crudup) could talk to Jamie about “guy things,” but our movie’s matriarch figure argues that they don’t connect. So Abbie shares her love of punk music with Jamie, playing him albums by the Raincoats, the Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees, et al, and lending him her feminist literature like Judy Norsigian’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Punk, a major theme in the picture illustrated by montages of photos of the low-fi icons of the era, is a divisive factor between Dorothea and her son.

When Jamie gets beat up by a bully, who spray paints “ART FAG”and “BLACK FLAG” on the sides of Dorothea’s car, she asks Abbie what those words mean. “The people who love Black Flag hate the Talking Heads,” Abbie replies adding, “the punk scene is very divisive.” “You’re all so advanced, aren’t you?” Dorothea responds in exasperation. 

This leads to one of the film's best sequences, in which Dorothea and William bond by giving a listen, and amusingly even attempt dancing, to Black Flag and the Talking Heads. 

Mixed up in all this is the matter of Fanning’s Julie climbing often through Jamie’s room window to sleep in his bed with him, but not have sex as she feels that that would ruin their friendship.

Julie tells the virginal Jamie about doing the deed with other boys to his irritation. “Half the time I regret it,” she confesses. “So why do you do it?” Jamie asks. “Because half the time I don’t regret it,” she answers.

Zumann, whose only other film credit is SINISTER 2, does a good job embodying Mills’ semi-autobiographical Jamie in all his awkwardness and fragility. The kid holds his own with a pro like Benning, who masterfully plays Dorothea by fleshing her out to be a lot more than a collection of quirks.

It’s also the best performance I’ve seen Gerwig give. The former indie “it” girl has annoyed me in many of her previous parts (talk about being noth
ing but a collection of quirks), but here she nails her character’s shaky grip on her freaky persona. Gerwig engrossingly inhabits the character of this odd woman whos dealing with being diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s the most real feeling work I’ve witnessed yet from her.

Crudup, who also appeared with Gerwig in JACKIE this year, delivers the goods as well, though his role may be the least realized of the ensemble. Fanning doesn’t stand out as much as her cast mates but puts in a nicely understated turn as the sexually curious Julie.

Although Benning got snubbed by the Academy, this film did get Mills a much deserved nomination for Best Screenplay. Mills’ dialogue is richly pointed and funny throughout, which is why I’ve quoted it so much in this review.

Mills based this film on his late ‘70s fatherless upbringing and calls it his “loveletter” to the women who raised him. It works beautifully as such as it honestly portrays these people’s efforts to relate with one another against the backdrop of the sexual revolution gone sour.

It’s like a moment mined from a treasured memory when Abbie gives Jamie a mix tape and says “These are a bunch of songs that I think my life would have been better if they’d been around when I was a teenager, so I’m hoping that if you listen to them now you’ll be a happier and more realized person that I could ever hope to be.”

It says a lot that Mills even includes then President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in this fictionalized version of his memories. Dorothea’s reaction to the impassioned address is quite different than her friends’ grouped around the TV, one of which says “he’s finished.”

“I thought it was beautiful,” Dorothea remarks. Same can be said about 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. A film this thoroughly thoughtful and real feeling should not be overlooked.

More later...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

That Time I Met Mary Tyler Moore

In 2009, I met Mary Tyler Moore at a book signing in Las Vegas. It was for her then newly released book “Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes,” which I bought and stood in a long line to have her sign. When it was my turn, I said I was very happy to meet her and “you know what? I *like* spunk!” 

This, for folks who don’t know, was a reference to a moment on the first episode of her classic television sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which WJM-TV’s Six O
Clock News Producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner) said “You’ve got spunk” to Moore’s character, Mary Richards, during her job interview for Associate Producer. Mary blushed and said “Well…” but Mr. Grant (as she called him throughout the show’s run) interrupted by fiercely spouting out: “I hate spunk!”

Moore, and the people standing around us laughed at my pro spunk declaration, and that encouraged me to ask her: “What of the movies that you’ve made is your favorite?” She looked away and thought about it for a moment then replied “ORDINARY PEOPLE.” I almost jokingly said “What, not CHANGE OF HABIT?” referring to the silly yet very likable 1969 movie she made with Elvis Presley (which incidentally also featured Asner), but thankfully I thought better of it, and said (I think mumbled is more like it) something I don’t remember that I think was about how great she was in ORDINARY PEOPLE as she signed my copy of her book, then thanked her and left. Its a great memory that I’ve been randomly replaying in my head since I heard that she passed.

Coincidentally, in the last few months I’ve been re-watching episodes here and there of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu. It’s one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, and it had been a long time since I watched the whole run (seven seasons) of it on Nick at Night so it
’s been fun to revisit. For those who haven’t seen the show, I highly recommend it as I do her film of choice, Robert Redfords 1980 drama ORDINARY PEOPLE. Moore deservedly got an Oscar nomination for her performance, and the film itself won the Best Picture Academy Award.

Also recommended: Moore’s five seasons as the spunky, Capri-pants wearing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, her acerbic performance in David O. Russell’s FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and, yes, her part as a nun who has to choose between Elvis and Jesus in CHANGE OF HABIT.

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017)

More later...

Friday, January 20, 2017

Shyamalan Fans Will Probably Like SPLIT A Lot More Than Me

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

SPLIT (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

Ever since his big breakthrough, THE SIXTH SENSE back in 1999, I’ve been exceedingly mixed on the movies of M. Night Shyamalan. There’s some effective filmmaking there, but too often I’ve been reminded me of a sketch from The Ben Stiller Show back in the early ‘90s called “Bad Twist Ending Theater.”

Even what many people consider his best work like UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS have made me say “meh.”

I know many people feel the same way especially because the man’s name had become a joke in the last decade amid a string of critical and box office flops (LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH).

There were even many instances of audiences laughing or groaning (or both) at the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” during trailers for his films.

But now Shyamalan appears to be making a comeback with lower budgeted productions like last year’s sleeper hit THE VISIT, and now this new scaled down thriller, SPLIT, both of which are collaborations with horror mogul Jason Blum (the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, PURGE, and INSIDIOUS series).

SPLIT concerns three teenage girls - Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – being abducted by a psychopath named Kevin (James McAvoy). The kicker here is that Kevin has 23 different personalities so the girls, who have been locked by him in a room in a basement somewhere, have to learn how to talk with each one.

Well, at least seven of his personalities as McAvoy’s Kevin mostly embodies the personas of the girls’ OCD-afflicted captor Dennis, the well-mannered yet still sinister Patricia, the hip-hop loving 9-year-old boy Hedwig, and several other less dominant characters named Orwell, Jade, Norma, and Hamlet.

The girls, headed by Taylor-Joy’s Casey who is clearly the one most likely to get out alive, learn from Kevin’s that there is a 24th persona called “The Beast” which is soon to arrive.

Meanwhile, Kevin (or is it Dennis?) visits his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but denies that anything is going on when she suspects that his late night emails are cries for help. Dr. Fletcher specializes in dissociative identity disorder despite skepticism from the medical community (we see her participating in a video conference on Skype so that we can see how deep her knowledge of Kevin’s condition goes).

Casey tries to manipulate the innocent Hedwig so that the girls can make escape attempts, which result in them being separated in various rooms in what seems to be an abandoned mental institution with long hallways that lead to locked doors, endless boiler rooms, and supply closets.

Where it is that these girls is trapped is one of the film’s biggest mysteries, which I won’t spoil, but it completely keeps in line with the horror cliché that deranged killers often have access to a lot of property with seemingly endless square footage.

McAvoy is the major reason really to see this film as he gives a tour de force performance that serves each of this intensely creepy maniac’s multiple personalities. As the movie gets more and more convoluted in how it works elements of the supernatural into the mix, McAvoy never stops empowering a fearlessly unhinged presence. Never thought that suave, subdued Scottish dude in all those X-MEN movies could pull this sort of thing off.

However, the rest of the movie grew extremely tiresome in all of its tediously talky exposition (we get it, already! Kevin is two dozen completely different people all with different illnesses! Stop over explaining it!), the overused escape fake-outs, and predictable character arcs (Casey has flashbacks to a hunting trip with her father and a uncle who sexually abused her to, of course, inform us of the fire in her belly that will help her get out of this hellhole).

Taylor-Joy puts a lot of energy into her role as the film’s burgeoning heroine, so that’s another plus in its favor, but the movie is ultimately too transparent in its ambitions to be the truly terrifying experience it wants to be. That’s confirmed by its absurd ending (again, I won’t spoil), which has a very silly twist explanation (of course it does).

I also found Shyamalan’s visionary sense to be a bit sloppy – the film is plagued with badly framed shots, confusing cuts, and pacing that feels way off.

There is, however, a tag at the very end that I did like, and I bet the Shyamalan hardcore will adore. In fact, I predict that a lot of people will probably conclude that the final big reveal justifies the entire movie's existence. I can’t seriously say that I think that, but I confess that it was an exciting moment that made me rethink everything that had happened up to then.

And that’s a thing that even a non fan like me can concede – the guy’s no Hitchcock, but his work can often be masterful in the fine art of making moviegoers think twice.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

SILENCE Tests My Faith In Scorsese

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SILENCE (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

It is well documented that, in his childhood, Martin Scorsese attended a Roman Catholic seminary, and dreamed of being a priest.

Of course, he later chose making movies over practicing religion, but that didn’t mean that he ever abandoned his spiritual faith.

Religious themes and imagery appear in all of Scorsese’s films whether they’re in your face like Christ himself on the cross in his controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial novel, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, or subtly, like the tiny cross around Henry Hill’s neck in his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s “Wiseguys,” GOODFELLAS.

But in this, his adaptation of a book he read between making LAST TEMPTATION and GOODFELLAS, Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence,” Scorsese dives deeper into the questions that have plagued him his entire career: how far can or should one go to save his and/or others’ souls? How can we serve a God that allows such extreme suffering? What if we are praying to nothing at all?

Set in the early 17th century, SILENCE concerns Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two Jesuit priests, named Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who travel to Japan to find a former mentor of theirs, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after hearing that he renounced his religion to escape persecution.

This is during what was called the “shogun era” of Japan, in which Christianity was outlawed, and those captured practicing it were interrogated, tortured, and killed.

With the questionable help of an alcoholic guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), Sebastião and Francisco sail to the coastal town of Tomogi where they administer to the villagers.

The priests stay in hiding, nightly meeting with the Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), but they are found out and after having to endure witnessing some intense torture scenes that I’ll refrain from describing, they separate and the film follows Garfield’s Francisco while Driver’s Sebastião disappears for a large chunk of screen-time.

Francisco gets captured by Japanese authorities and is taken to Nagasaki to be interrogated by Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), an elder, sinisterly smirking Japanese official, via Inoue’s sleazily charismatic interpreter (Tadanobu Asano).

In captivity, Francisco is given a choice: either step on “fumi-e,” a plate that has an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary carved into it, to repudiate his faith, or they will torture and kill the other captives.

Neeson’s Ferreira, looking like a shamed version of the Jedi master he played in THE PHANTOM MENACE, even shows up to help Francisco make this difficult decision.

For most of its two hours and forty minute running time, SILENCE moves very slowly with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s camera staying very still for lengthy shots.

You’ll feel like you’re really out in the harsh, grayish green mountain terrain of Japan, waiting for something, anything, to happen through long passages of this often plodding narrative.

The hardcore Scorsese fan in me was scanning the screen with excitement during the first 20 minutes, but that lost momentum as the film did the same for roughly the next 40, then that fading enthusiasm got regularly jolted back into temporary immersion by various violent moments up until the end.

Garfield, who as he gets shaggier on his journey looks more and more like Jesus as the film progresses, puts in an invested performance, as do his cast-mates (Driver does a lot with a little), but it might be Kubozuka as the desperately conniving Kichijiro that gives the film the most energy.

This last year, Garfield also played another devout Christian in a historical drama whose belief system gets put to the test under extreme circumstances. That would be HACKSAW RIDGE, where he portrayed conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved many lives in World War II. I hate to say this, but HACKSAW RIDGE is a better, much more compelling film about conviction and sacrifice than SILENCE.

Obviously, I hate to say that because HACKSAW RIDGE was made by Mel Gibson, and this is, you know, f-in’ Scorsese!

Since this was a 30 year in the making passion project, I so wanted to love it, but there was a serious disconnect between the action and imagery on screen, which admirably is as straight forward as can be, without visual trickery or flashing editing; and my fully surrendering myself to the experience. That’s something I’ve been able to do with so many of Marty’s movies throughout my movie-loving life, but it just wasn’t happening here.

Then again, I’m still processing it so maybe one day I’ll see it differently. There have been a number of Scorsese films that get better with repeated viewings (like CAPE FEAR, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD), and those that I appreciate more (NEW YORK, NEW YORK, KUNDUN), as I get older, and wiser and all that crap.

But, you see, the reason I’m saying these kind of things, that is, making excuses for not liking a movie by one of my heroes, is because I’m a devout follower, who wants to believe that all of the man’s works are masterpieces – some blinding, some in hiding.

SILENCE is as much a test of Francisco’s faith as it is a test in my faith in Scorsese. I so want to believe his latest film is a masterpiece in hiding, and not the seemingly passionless project I suffered through, but I just can’t put that in a prayer yet.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES: A Cornball Crowd Pleaser That Is Inspirationally On Point

Now playing everywhere:

HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)

There are times in this film, currently the #1 movie at the box office (take that, ROGUE ONE!), that young moviegoers may feel like the filmmakers are comically stretching reality way too thin to make a point.

Like in the scenes that show mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) having to walk, and sometimes run, a half mile across the campus of Virginia’s Langley Research Center, to the “colored” ladies room several times a day during her long shifts.

But, as folks who know history will attest, this was the era of “separate but equal” segregation, and their framing of Ms. Johnson’s predicament is apt as it symbolizes how rough it was for many African Americans in the workplace.

There are other times when it seems that director/writer Theodore Melfi’s (ST. VINCENT) movie takes some liberties with some major moments as when astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell, portrayed as much as a dreamboat as possible) tells the team of engineers that he’ll be “good to go” on the launch of the rocket that officially put a man in space for the first time if they “get the girl to check the numbers” – referring to the aforementioned Ms. Johnson.

But according to transcripts of the event, that actually happened, and this film portrays it perfectly. There’s just no way around that being a feel-good, empowering moment in which we see how important the contributions of black women like Johnson, and her colleagues - Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – were to NASA, back when the space program mattered the most.

That would be the ‘60s, when the U.S. was in a space race with Russia to being the first to put a man on the moon. The story focuses most on Henson’s Johnson as she adjusts to being assigned to the Space Task Group headed by group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Costner’s Harrison is a stern by-the-book boss who doesn’t appears to have a racist bone in his body, but Johnson’s co-workers, especially NASA engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) all give her disgusted looks (it should be noted that Stafford didn’t exist; he’s an amalgam).

Things get worse when Johnson finds that her all-white office mates have labeled a small empty coffee pot “colored” for her.

Henson’s Johnson also gets a love interest in the form of Mahershala Ali, who’s really been making a name for himself lately in such worthy projects as Luke Cage and MOONLIGHT. Here Ali, as a smooth-talking military man, gets to join the movie’s male contingent in having to learn that the times are indeed a-changin,’ and they should never underestimate any woman’s abilities.

Meanwhile, Spencer’s overworked Vaughan, told repeatedly by her boss Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) that she won’t be getting a promotion, learns the programming language needed to program the new IBM computer which leads to her being made NASA’s first black supervisor.

The third lead, Mary Jackson as played by musician/model Monáe in her first starring role in a major motion picture, may not get the lion’s share of screen-time, but makes the sassy best of her storyline involving sweet talking a judge into letting her take classes at an all-white school so that she can get a degree in Engineering and become NASA’s first black female engineer.

Many critics have called HIDDEN FIGURES: “THE HELP meets THE RIGHT STUFF,” and, yeah, that’s valid. There is certainly a lot of cheesy, made-for-TV-style packaging surrounding this unapologetically inspirational history lesson, but at no times does that diminish the film’s earnest tone and heartfelt spirit.

Henson, best known as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series Empire, owns her role as the central protagonist as she holds her own with Costner, who’s right at home here as he’s been in a bunch of movies set during this era, and Parsons, whose character is like a racist Sheldon Cooper without any snarky one-liners.

Spencer gets the film’s maybe funniest and most on point moment in a bathroom scene where has a supremely cutting comeback to Dunst as her superior. I won’t spoil it, but will say it really riled up the audience at the advance screening I attended.

It’s a big cornball crowd-pleaser for sure, but HIDDEN FIGURES earns its place as a piece of primo entertainment with an important message. That being, if, as a people, we can overcome assholish, bigoted oppression, we can reach the stars.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Was 2016 The Worst Year Ever For Sequels?

It sure seemed like last year was crowded with bad sequels, and it’s true – from ZOOLANDER 2 to JASON BOURNE to NOW YOU SEE ME 2 to ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS to INFERNO to BAD SANTA 2 to…okay, you get the idea – there were a whole lot of follow-up fails in 2016. But was it the worst year ever for sequels?

To answer that, let’s take a look back at sequel history. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK epic BIRTH OF A NATION, may not be the first feature length film (this piece makes the case that Charles Tait’s 1906 crime drama THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG holds that honor), but it did have the first sequel ever, THE FALL OF THE NATION, released in 1916.

Then came the first film trilogy, a horror film trilogy at that, about a clay statue called a golem that comes to life – THE GOLEM (1916), THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL (1917), and THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (1920).

After that there were various film series over the next several decades including the Universal Monsters movies, the Inspector Hornleigh trilogy, the Dashiell Hammett THIN MAN series, and all those Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello BEACH PARTY flicks in the ‘60s.

The ‘60s also gave us James Bond, a franchise that’s still going strong with its most recent installment, last year’s SPECTRE, being its 24th. The ‘60s also brought forth Sergio Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy (three classic westerns that starred Clint Eastwood as “The Man With No Name”), Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers' PINK PANTHER films, the German “Dr. Mabuse” series, and various Godzilla and King Kong movies, including one in which the two iconic creatures fought each other.

But it wasn’t until the ‘70s that sequels really became a thing. The decade hosted THE GODFATHER PART II, CLASS OF ’44 (followup to THE SUMMER OF ’42), 
JAWS 2, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, FRENCH CONNECTION 2, the AIRPORT series, the PLANET OF THE APES series, the DIRTY HARRY series, and more Godzilla, Bond, and PINK PANTHER movies.

However, that was nothing compared to the ‘80s, when sequels dominated the box office, and franchises really began trending. The summer of 1980 could be considered the first big sequel summer as it boasted

The rest of the ‘80s was sequel crazy, with each year packed with more and more film follow-ups averaging to 10-12 sequels a year by the end of the decade. 

1989 was particularly notable as ’88 only had one sequel that was in the box office top 10 for the year (CROCODILE DUNDEE 2 – yes, really), but ’89 had four big brand franchise entries that ranked among the biggest hits of the year – INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, LETHAL WEAPON 2, and GHOSTBUSTERS II. I’m really not sure why some sequels get roman numerals in their titles while others just go for plain numbers, but I digress.

The sequel thing died down a bit in the ‘90s. Not that there weren’t a lot of sequels being made (1990 had a record high of 14 sequels), but less of them made the box office top ten for their perspective years. There were only two years of the last 40 in which any sequels failed to make the yearly top 10 movies at the box office and they were in the ‘90s – 1993 and 1996. Mind you, both those years had movies in their top 10 that led to sequels (’93 had JURASSIC PARK and THE FUGITIVE, while ’96 had INDEPENDENCE DAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE).

In the 2000s, franchises became stronger with sequels appearing more rapidly (THE HARRY POTTER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and the Marvel movies particularly). A record seven sequels made the top 10 in 2003, helped by the fact that there were two MATRIX movies that year. That was out of the nearly 20 sequels that were released in ’03.

After that, every year until now sequels made up half or more of the annual box office top 10 lists. 2011, which set the record for the most sequels to date (26), had nine sequels in the top 10 (the only non sequel that year was THE SMURFS, another that led to a sequel).

This has been the norm with every year following bringing around 30 sequels, a handful of which that are among the biggest box office draws.

In 2016, the two sequels I enjoyed the most, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and FINDING DORY, were also the two biggest grossing films of the year. The rest of the top 10 was made up of spin-offs (ROGUE ONE, FANTASTIC BEASTS, DEADPOOL, and SUICIDE SQUAD), a remake (THE JUNGLE BOOK), with only two original entities – the animated hits ZOOTOPIA and THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS in the mix. Oh, and #6 at the box office, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, which wasn’t technically a sequel, but it’s sort of difficult to not think of it as one.

In tallying up sequels from the last 40 years, 1994 stands out as a particularly bad year as there was only one sequel in the box office top 10 – CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, the third installment of the Jack Ryan series, and it just got in under the wire at #10. CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER was well reviewed – it stands at 82% on the Rotten Tamatometer, but the rest of that year was littered with a dozen horribly panned, low grossing sequels including BEVERLY HILLS COP III (really? That gets a roman numeral?), CITY SLICKERS 2: THE SEARCH FOR CURLY’S GOLD, THE NEXT KARATE KID, D2: THE MIGHTY DUCKS, HIGHLANDER III: THE SORCERER, MAJOR LEAGUE II, MY GIRL 2, NAKED GUN 33⅓: THE FINAL INSULT, THE NEVER ENDING STORY III, and DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, which got a 0% on the Rotten Tomatometer.


That’s six bad sequels more than ’94, and several more than every other year.

So, in my book, or on my blog, 2016 definitely comes in as the worst year for sequels in film history. Sure, that’s another reason to be happy that the year is over, but, as people keep point out on other fronts (especially politically), 2017 doesn’t look like it's gong to be much better.

There’s nearly three dozen sequels scheduled for the next 12 months including more STAR WARS, KONG, ALIENS, Marvel superheroes, DC superheroes, Universal Monsters, TRANSFORMERS, SAW, SMURFS, APES, and that hugely anticipated, but largely feared BLADE RUNNER sequel. No doubt, 2017 has powerful potential to destroy 2016’s worst year for sequels record.

So be afraid, be very afraid – and Happy New Year!

More later…