Ahead on Differential

movies

The final board.

Inspired by the fine folks at the Ringer's Big Picture podcast, I somehow convinced my friends to indulge me and participate in what is likely the dorkiest group activity I have ever suggested: a movie draft.

The goal is simple: create your best possible team of seven movies. There are only two rules: all movies bust the listed as a movie released in the year or the draft (in this case, 2009) on the Internet Movie Database, and by the end of the draft, you need to have one movie in each of the following seven categories:

  • Blockbuster (domestic gross >$100 million)
  • Drama
  • Action/Comedy
  • Science fiction/Fantasy/Horror
  • Animated/Foreign Language
  • Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake
  • Wild Card (any movie can be a Wild Card)

Armed with nothing but their wits, our movie GMs duked it out and picked their movies serpentine-style, as is tradition. Here were the results:

  • Person A: Avatar, Orphan, The Hangover, The Road, Fast & Furious, Dogtooth, Whip It
  • Person B: Star Trek, Coraline, I Love You, Man, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Antichrist, Brothers, Up in the Air
  • Person C: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Law Abiding Citizen, Sherlock Holmes, Jennifer's Body, Black Dynamite, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Princess and the Frog
  • Person D: Inglourious Basterds, Drag Me to Hell, Fantastic Mr. Fox, In the Loop, A Serious Man, Valhalla Rising, Universal Soldier: Regeneration
  • Person E: Up, Watchmen, Taken1, Zombieland, The Final Destination, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Brüno
  • Person F: District 9, Moon, Crank: High Voltage, Dead Snow, Pandorum, Daybreakers, Redline

Now it's time for me to put on my Mel Kiper hat and break down these drafts.

I think A's only real faux-pas was taking Avatar first. I understand the reasoning: it's the highest-grossing movie of all time, just sitting there. But I don't think this movie has fans. Like, Titanic has fans. Other juggernauts have fans. I don't think I've heard anyone talk about Avatar after that awards season. My point is this: I think A could have gotten Avatar in the third round. With everything else on the board, this was not the way to go. I will note that the rest of their draft is very good: picking up The Hangover in the third was good value, Fast & Furious was as good a sequel there was, and Orphan is a movie that continues to be slept on. If A hadn't picked Avatar first, they probably would have won.

B said they were making their first pick with their heart, and I can't blame them. The Abrahms Star Trek was going to get taken eventually, and they wanted it, so they took it. Now, is that sound draft strategy? Maybe, given that the other people drafting, yours truly incuded, are total fucking nerds. I had Star Trek as a second-round pick, but then again, what do I know. I do know this: B made zero bad picks, including a sneaky/clever Sequel/Prequel/Reboot/Remake pick with Brothers (though I would have slotted Bad Lieutenant there to free up the way-more-open Drama category). All in all, if I'm programming a day of TV, I want B's roster, but I'm making sure to bury Antichrist, a movie I was too chickenshit to finish, deep into the overnight.

I have no clue what the fuck C was doing. The writing was on the wall when they drafted the sixth Harry Potter joint (a) third overall, (b) as their blockbuster when the sequels were already thin. And then they drafted Law Abiding Citizen, a diet Death Wish joint I didn't even consider for my mock list2, in the Top 10. What the fuck. From this point on, C started to get their shit together. After some deliberation, the Committee accepted that Sherlock Holmes qualifies as a reboot, which was a great morale booster for C after being clowed on mercilessly by yours truly for their first two picks. C then followed that up with three more solid picks, four if you're among those who like Parnassus. I wouldn't know, I haven't seen it, and funnily enough, neither has C. Their draft was like watching a kid ride a bike with no training wheels for the first time: an immediate faceplant followed by tenous, tear-streaked wobbling around the block.

D was given a gift, and that was being able to pick Inglourious Basterds fourth overall. I could have sworn this would have been off the board within the first two picks. Shows you what I know. Was D able to capitalize on the best film of 2009 falling into his lap? Well... that's hard to say. Taking Drag Me to Hell ninth overall seems way early for a movie not all that many people seem to like or even remember, but A Serious Man is great vaule for a fifth-rounder. For better or worse, I think D was playing a different game than everybody else. It's not that the picks were bad, per se. Their picks were too inside-baseball, too eager to play the knowing video store clerk. What exactly are you gunning for if you pick fucking Valhalla Rising and a Universal Soldier movie made in the 21st century? That's not playing to win, that's playing for yourself.

After round two, I was terrified of E's board. Boom, Up. Boom, Watchmen. Two clean chalk picks, in the right categories and everything. Then, a crack in the armor. E picked Taken third, which snuck by the Committee even though it was an invalid pick. Taken would have been another ruthlessly efficient pick had the year of release been correct. Zombieland, good value as a fourth-rounder. But then, the wheels started coming off the war machine: E took The Final Destination as a horror film, which is a more egriegous, more costly version of B's Bad Lieutenant play. At this point in the draft, even okay sequels and reboots were at a premium, while there were still some pretty decent SF/F/H choices on the board. Starting with round five, E didn't so much shoot themselves in the foot as much as empty the whole clip into it. By taking The Final Destination, they fucked themselved into Underworld 3. And Brüno? Well, that's a movie I really don't like. I don't like that schtick. I kind of wish E would have gone for a troll pick instead.

F's board is the one I have the least context for. I think they took Moon at the exact right point, and for my money, I think Crank 2 was the highest-value sequel in play. Smart, small-ball drafting. Then F started balling out proceeded to fill their board with three mid-budget European genre movies and topped it off with a dollop of high-octane weeb content. And you know what? I respect it. This was the game D was trying to play, but with no pretense. No critic's picks, no Film Twitter touchstones, just slightly-under-the-radar idiosyncracy. I don't think F won, but they earned my respect as a GM. And much in the same way that I would take B's roster to program a day of TV, if I were takes with programming a Midnight Madness-style card for a festival, F's roster is the one I want in my corner.

What do you think? Who won this thing?

1 This pick was voided by the Committee because, while it was released in America in 2009, the film is in fact listed as being a 2008 film on IMDb. Tough titties.

2 If this movie would have been made in 1994, it would be awesome.

#movies #moviedraft

I'm with you up until, like, number seven

I found this in my desk at work and I guarantee you this list is different now.

#movies #lists

The GOAT, talking shit

I am back in the swing of things at work, which is great for my livelihood but not so good for my writing. Thankfully, I love writing lists, and since it was both Hayao Miyazaki's birthday (happy 80th to the GOAT) and just another day on the internet (nerds having opinions about Wes Anderson, yours truly included), I wrote up some lists. I love making lists. And I hope you love reading (or arguing with, whichever suits your fancy) them.

Wes Anderson, Ranked

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel. It took me a long time to admit to myself that not only is it my favourite, but that it's a five-star film.

  2. Moonrise Kingdom. Maybe I just like the cute/funny Wes movies rather than the sad ones.

  3. Rushmore. The first one I saw. For a kid from the sticks, the movies Wes makes might has well have been set on Mars, but that was part of the appeal. What wasn't alien was kick-ass rock music, crushes on people I had no business having crushes on, and, in retrospect, being an annoying precocious asswipe.

  4. The Royal Tenenbaums. Bet you 20 bucks this goes up two spots on rewatch.

  5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. See above. Might resonate with me more now that I'm over 30.

  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox. Can't help but feel I lowballed this on the first go.

  7. Bottle Rocket. Wes's first is his least quintessential, but I love how shaggy it is. Come back to us, Owen Wilson, all is forgiven.

  8. Isle of Dogs. Uh, well... the dogs are cute? The sushi prep scene is cool? Strong weeb vibes coming off this one.

  9. The Darjeeling Limited. Man, I don't want to talk about this one, this one's kinda of rough. I think it's the only complete misfire in the run.

Top 10 (Paul Thomas,Paul W.S.,Wes) Anderson Films

  1. Boogie Nights. It's not the Great American Novel if there's no dick and no cocaine.

  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel.

  3. Inherent Vice. Up in smoke.

  4. There Will Be Blood. I'm starting to suspect that PTA is attracted to these widescreen American tragedies with mad barons and charlatans and shit in them.

  5. Moonrise Kingdom.

  6. The Master. This is what Joaquin should have gotten his Oscar for. Either this or You Were Never Really Here.

  7. Phantom Thread. Motherfucker really went and named his character "Woodcock," huh.

  8. Rushmore.

  9. The Royal Tenenbaums.

  10. Event Horizon. Hell is outer space.

Hayao Miyazaki: A Tier List

  • N/A: Porco Rosso, Ponyo. I'll get to them eventually, I swear.

  • D tier: Hayao Miyazaki has never made anything less than good and to claim otherwise would be heresy of the highest order.

  • C tier: Castle in the Sky. As with any of these lists, this is subjective, but this is the only one that doesn't, you know, move me.

  • B tier: The Castle of Caglisotro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle. The first one is really fun heist movie, and Howl might be Miyazaki's most phantasmagorical film, and yes, I'm aware Spirited Away is a thing.

  • A tier: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises. I especially like The Wind Rises, because it's the most politically complex film of the bunch. What does it mean when the thing you love is turned into something that brings hell on Earth?

  • S tier: My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke. Two perfect films, what can I say. Two very different way of communing with nature. Sometimes it comes to you softly, and sometimes it comes to you with a vengeance. Plus Totoro is south of God's Runtime, which as we all know, is 87 minutes.

#movies #lists #listsoflists

Last night I watched Jodie Mack's excellent Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (elevator pitch: experimental stop-motion documentary about the rise and fall of a poster shop run by the director's mom and the history of the poster as cultural object, all set to a charming lo-fi rewrite of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). I got to thinking about the decontextualization and recontextualization of pop imagery, of posters as contemporary icons; the Scarface posters used in Dusty Snacks of Mom mean something very different than a Scarface poster on a dorm room wall. The movie destroys the image and warps the soundtrack to shed light on both not as works of art, but as commodities.

Which got me thinking about Ways of Seeing. The 1972 BBC series hosted by John Berger is nearly 50 years old, but has lost none of its freshness and power. Having posters front of mind while rewatching it proved resonant. In the second episode, Berger breaks down the tradition of the classical nude, whose subjects Berger says “seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” The same can be applied to cheesecake posters. The fourth and final episode concerns the imagery of advertising (which is what poster is, ultimately, extending the tendrils of brand awareness one dorm wall at a time), whose chief purpose is, in Berger's words, manufacturing glamour.

blog_20200104

Says Berger in the preamble to the final episode:

Where do they exist, these fabulous rewards and objects and people? Where do they belong to? Here, there, or nowhere? They come with us everywhere. We take them away in our minds. We see them in our dreams.

#tv #movies #criticism

Between putting out great in-depth videos about interpersonal beefing and hosting the work of the brilliant Jon Bois, SB Nation currently runs one of my favourite YouTube channels. Their Rewinder series, which contextualizes seismic moments in sports history, is consistently entertaining and informative (episodes include the 2008 Wimbledon men's final, the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and, uh, Mark Sanchez's butt fumble). It's great stuff even if you're sports-agnostic.

This time around, in the spirit of April Fools' Day, SB Nation writer Seth Rosenthal does a deep kayfabe dive on Michael Jordan's climactic game-winning dunk from the 1996 blockbuster Space Jam (a movie I 100% wore out the tape of as a nine-year-old). High points include a critique of the players the Nerdlucks stole skills from (no Shaq? no Hakeem?), a reconsidering of Marvin the Martian's alleged impartiality as referee, and the folding of real-life events into the machinations of Space Jam's deeply silly, deeply crass plot. Rosenthal is a good writer, so good in fact that at several points in the video I forgot that it was a goof.

Come on and slam

This video actually pairs up nicely with an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Blank Check with Griffin and David, where they discuss Space Jam in depth as the dumbfounding cultural artifact that it is.

Also... Michael Jordan kind of looks like a wax sculpture of Michael Jordan on this poster.

(via SB Nation on YouTube)

#youtube #movies #sports

The man, the myth, the legend

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Roger Ebert, one of my film-crit heroes, died six years ago today. I owe Roger more than I care to admit. He was the first person I encountered who looked at movies as art objects. He wrote with warmth, clarity, and respect for the medium. He was smart and persuasive even when I disagreed with his conclusions (and seriously, if you're not locking horns with your heroes on a semi-regular basis, what the hell are you even doing?). He taught me to trust my gut. His work will always be a resource and an inspiration to me.

I really, really miss having him around.

#movies #obit

Harry Brewis (YouTube codename Hbomberguy), better known as of late for his “Donkey Kong Says Trans Rights” charity stream, has a deep library of good video essays about pseudoscience (he's not down with it), woke brands (he's also not down with it), and VHS tapes (he's down with it). And his latest one is a 45-minute reflection on the 1986 feature-length toy commercial The Transformers: The Movie, aka The One Where Optimus Prime Dies.

Brewis juxtaposes the light, sugary Saturday morning antics of the TV show (which, I insist on repeating, was a glorified toy commercial) to the darker, more nihilistic tone of the movie. He calls it the point in his life where he realized that all things die. It's not exactly a close reading, but it gets to the heart of why this movie is so beloved people or a certain demographic without chalking it up to pure capitalistic cynicism or multimedia brand loyalty.

There's a prevailing sentiment that nostalgia should be looked at with deep suspicion or even outright hostility. I do get that. At the risk of making outlandish statements that I can't possibly back up, nostalgia has poisoned the pop culture landscape. It's why we're stuck in an ongoing cycle of regurgitated IPs spearheaded by warring monopolies, or why grown men who bequeath sacred cow status to a fart comedy where Dan Aykroyd gets a blowie from a ghost derail actual-ass human lives with cries of “cooties!” Nostalgia is a tempest that provides its own teapot, only now that teapot is the internet, and we all have to live inside of it.

But nostalgia is also a useful lens through which to view the artifacts of our past. This is how Brewis frames The Transformers: The Movie: a not-great film that shines brightest when it leans into a kind of optimist philosophy, where “the power of leadership and hope and unwarranted positivity in a dark universe has successfully vanquished the pessimistic nihilism that encroaches upon us all when bad things happen in our lives.” Galaxy brain shit maybe, but still a fun, thoughtful, emotionally-engaging trip through the cultural detritus of the 80s. Also any excuse to jam arena-cheese titan Stan Bush or force of good in the universe “Weird Al” Yankovic is right on by me.

Speaking of Yankovic, Brewis's journey with The Transformers: The Movie mirrors mine with UHF. It was one of the first DVDs I ever owned and I played the shit out of it. I thought of it as little more than a series of goofy pop culture riffs that 0% of my peers got. Which obviously it still is. Now, a lot of those jokes haven't aged well (is there an actor who got a rawer deal in the 1980s than Gedde Watanabe?), but I still love this movie because there's a community-minded anti-establishment streak to it. Goofiness for the common good. Daring to be stupid, if you will.

#movies #youtube

Poster for Dark Star

The first hint is right there in the poster copy: “The Spaced Out Odyssey.” The photo beneath the tagline, of a body on ice with electrodes affixed to its face, would normally evoke chills. But in context, we understand that a face frozen in a rictus of dulled pain visually rhymes with what being gacked out on primo bud looks like.

Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, premiered on 30 March 1974 at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition. At the risk of being glib, it plays like a stoner Alien (not surprising since O'Bannon strip-mined Dark Star for parts for his Alien script), similarly concerned with the existential tedium of being a working stiff on the final frontier. But it is above all else Carpenter's weed-dad opus, a heady, rambling, pseudo-philosophical cosmic yarn about mental entropy that for no short amount of time prioritizes a slapstick set piece featuring an alien that looks suspiciously like a beach ball. This movie would slot in nicely on a shelf next to Star Trek: The Motion Picture on VHS or a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There isn't really much competition for Dark Star's weed-dad title belt in Carpenter's oeuvre; after his debut, his movies almost immediately became leaner, sharper, and more sinister. The only real challenger for the crown is They Live, with its EC Comics-indebted anti-authoritarian, anti-consumerist sci-fi phantasmagoria. And if there's two things weed dads hate, it's the Man and how the Man tells 'em what to do, man. But there's too much ire and fury in They Live for it to be Carpenter's weed-daddest movie. The key moment of political discourse in They Live is Roddy Piper beating the dogshit out of Keith David so he can make him wear his false consciousness-obliterating sunglasses. The key moment of political discourse in Dark Star is when a Bill Ward-looking motherfucker raps with a bomb about phenomenology to keep it from exploding. Far out.

#movies

Mandy, or Nostalgia as Cinematic Language

It's getting to be list season very soon, and while there are a bunch of movies that are in the running for my big gold belt that I have not seen yet (I'm looking at you, The Night Comes for Us), I sincerely doubt anything will knock Mandy from the throne. It's no secret that I am in the tank for this movie (wrote a glowing review of it and everything). After watching the equally mind-melting Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2011, I was excited to see what writer/director Panos Cosmatos had lined up next. My patience was rewarded with what is not only my favourite movie of the year thus far, but a surefire first-ballot entry into the Head Film Hall of Fame. There's rad bugfuck details stacked floor to ceiling, but it's also a film of cosmic sadness and great warmth (Nicolas Cage gets to be wild and tender in this).

And it looks fantastic. Cosmatos and director of photography Benjamin Loeb (Hello Destroyer, King Cobra) saturate the frame with bold colours, evocative lighting, and glorious phantasmagorical excess. The always-perceptive Evan Puschak over at The Nerdwriter released a video last week diving into the film's style by examining its use of grain as an aesthetic signifier. What has come to be an analogue fetish object in a digital age, Puschak explains, is delpoyed by Cosmatos as a tool rather than as a reference. Even though Cosmatos' pool of images is easy to parse (70s/80s Euro-trash, sci-fi paperbacks, prog rock album covers, back issues of Heavy Metal), the way he creates his visual tableux are unbound in time and inextricable from the story. “Style over substance” doesn't hold water as an argument when the two are so deeply intertwined.

I can't wait for number three.

(via The Nerdwriter)

#movies #youtube

I found a couple of orphaned capsule reviews in the Dim the House Lights archives and decided to put them here.

The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961) What you first notice is Jerry Lewis' eye. He has a gift for cock-eyed mise-en-scene, staging and blocking that feels familiar and yet is somehow... off. The second thing you notice is his pronounced goofiness, the yelling, the fodder for cheap jokes and bad impressions. Sure, this is silly as hell, but not really the work of a master. But then you get to the scene in the elevator, a comedy high-wire act, the tension and claustrophobia contorting Lewis' face as his character Morty Tashman tries to keep this whole interaction as close to a normal as he can. Then you get to the boardroom orchestra scene, as simple and as elegant a formalist gag as they come, and you realize that yes, you are indeed in the hands of a virtuoso for whom the gag is king, yes, but the craft is the crown. But the best gag is the throughline: this is literally a movie about Jerry Lewis wreaking havoc on the Hollywood machine from the inside. Self-aggrandizing, sure, but also self-deprecating: only in a system this ill-calibrated can a clown like him become a cultural force, a fitting mantle for auteurism's holy fool.

The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961) Jerry Lewis' other 1961 film has a set-up not wholly dissimilar to that of a second-tier porno: a jilted college grad (Lewis) becomes celibate and gets a job at a handyman at women's boardinghouse, where he is at the beck and call of dozens of sexy ladies. The story is by far the flimsiest aspect of the film, playing second-fiddle to the real stars of the show: sumptuous colours, opulent dollhouse-like sets, and brilliant choreography. Lewis the director is in top form, trading in the claustrophobia of The Errand Boy for lush, lilting movements that tinge his work with the surreal. There are the usual Lewis shenanigans on display: mispronunciations, mugging, chaos on a set. The gags land and fall flat in roughly equal amount, but they are all executed with equal brio. After all, Lewis is not one to half-ass things. Case in point: the magnificent dance sequence he shares with dancer Sylvia Lewis (no relation), who is introduced suspended from the ceiling from a black cotton cocoon. The pair then engage in a chase/dance while Harry James and his band kind of just appear from behind a wall, decked out in white like big band angels, and just start to wail. A jewel of a film.

#movies