Thursday, December 28, 2017

Now Playing 1997-2017

In March 1997 Paul Markoff and I produced, hosted, and recorded our first episode of NOW PLAYING. This movie review show was created to run on the public, educational, and governmental access channel WOCC TV3, which was funded by the city of Westerville and operated by the staff and students of Otterbein University.  On December 13, 2017 we recorded our 550th, and final, episode.

WOCC TV3 is ceasing operations at the end of this year, so as the cable channel shuts down, so has production of the TV show.  I think it’s fair to say that neither of us could have expected that for almost 21 full years we would be on TV, with complete editorial control, to discuss movies.  Much of the show was given to reviewing films playing on a few hundred or thousands of screens, but it's a point of pride that we were able to be a rare place on TV devoting a few minutes to show clips from and talk about less widely familiar titles such as HOLY MOTORS, ABOUT ELLY, and THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER.  We’ve been very fortunate to have the platform and privileged that anyone would take the time to watch.

Contrary to what some might think, making the bi-weekly, half-hour movie review show was not a full-time job for either of us. As an Otterbein employee helping with WOCC operations, I have been able to incorporate producing NOW PLAYING as a small part of my work day duties. Paul holds a full-time job elsewhere. It would have been understandable if changes in life circumstances and demands on time might have brought about this show’s end sooner, but both of us have remained committed to doing it because it’s something we enjoy.

Still, NOW PLAYING would not have been possible solely because of our dedication to making it.  The show also needed the colleagues who granted permission for it to go on the channel and provided other behind-the-scenes assistance, not to mention the students who have worked as crew members as part of their education. We’re thankful to them.

We’re also thankful for the viewers, some of whom we’ve met by chance around town. For various reasons NOW PLAYING was more of an old media program and had little internet presence, so we’ve neither had the positive nor negative interactions with our audience that we might have had if this show lived online.

While NOW PLAYING's final episode will run for a few more days, this is not the end of us talking about films for those who are interested in hearing what we have to say. We’re developing a podcast with a new, to-be-determined name and hope to start making it available in January.  More information about it will be published on this site as we figure out the future.

Whether you have agreed with our opinions or not, we hope you’ve been able to find some of your new favorite films through our discussions on NOW PLAYING. Thanks for watching.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Post

THE POST (Steven Spielberg, 2017)

When the New York Times starts to publish reports from the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) bristles at the competition’s ability to break such big stories. In THE POST his newspaper is viewed as a local publication scratching for access to the President’s daughter’s wedding rather than a national outlet revealing how multiple administrations got the country involved with the Vietnam War. Even when the paper gets its hands on some pages from the classified Department of Defense studies, the Times is already ahead of them.

Opportunity arises when the Nixon administration pressures the Justice Department to impose an injunction blocking the Times from printing stories based on the Pentagon Papers. Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), but as he and other writers and editorial staffers work furiously against the deadline, legal concerns may kill their pieces. It’s ultimately up to Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the first woman in the country to hold such a high role, to decide whether or not to risk going to press. Not only does she and others risk being charged with a felony and a prison sentence, but such an action could also drive investors to pull their funding of the Post’s initial public offering.

Collected with LINCOLN and BRIDGE OF SPIES, THE POST completes an unofficial American civics trilogy from director Steven Spielberg. All three films depict the struggle to live up to the country’s foundational ideals and the openness needed for a healthy democracy to function. The camera glides around the official and unofficial newsrooms, and telephones are like physical extensions emphasizing the connections to spread the information to the masses. Still, many of the most consequential conversations occur in confined spaces, marked by characters closing doors and showing how the biggest decisions are made by a select few out of view.

Spielberg ensures that this isn’t stodgy history about the importance of a free press. THE POST is paced, shot, and lit like a thriller. The delivery of a shoebox is fraught with the uncertainty of the explosiveness of its contents. Although a cardboard container wrapped in twine is less ornate than the Ark of the Covenant, the low angle opening of it is treated as though it too holds unimaginable power. When the printing press rumbles to life to produce the Post’s first Pentagon Papers story, Spielberg makes its strength known by showing items bouncing around on a desk like the ripples in a cup signalling a Tyrannosaurus rex’s arrival in JURASSIC PARK.

THE POST recognizes that rights are meaningful as long as they are exercised. In that way the film honors the people who jeopardized their well-being for the greater good. Hanks has grown to stand for Hollywood’s conception of American decency, a modern Jimmy Stewart, and although his newspaper editor acts with self-interest, his position is built upon principles he believes are essential to free society. His performance crackles with humor and righteousness, in part because Bradlee is privileged to be able to express himself unquestioningly. Streep is more reserved but no less determined. THE POST often shows how Graham is overwhelmed in rooms by men and how women are often split off from where power resides. Streep is so good at showing how her character thinks through the situation and stands up for her choices even as her board and advisers challenge her decisions. THE POST understands that bravery can take many forms, even if it’s merely ink on a page.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Shape of Water

THE SHAPE OF WATER (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

The life of a mute cleaning woman in the early 1960s changes dramatically when she encounters the strange creature being studied in THE SHAPE OF WATER. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) found an amphibian man (Doug Jones) in the rivers of South America and brings this great discovery to an aerospace facility in Baltimore with the intention of using it in research to assist the U.S. in the space race with the Soviet Union. While working the late shift there, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) grows curious about this humanoid animal.

Injuries as an orphan have left Elisa unable to speak, but lacking a voice is no barrier to communicating with the amphibian man. Elisa feeds him hard-boiled eggs, plays him music, and teaches him signs. She is horrified by the abuse he receives from Strickland. When she overhears that the amphibian man is to be vivisected, Elisa is determined to break him out. She executes her plan with the help of her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and, to her surprise, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian mole posing as an American researcher.

As strange as it sounds, THE SHAPE OF WATER might be thought of as AM√ČLIE meets CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s ravishing film swirls together fantasy, romance, black-and-white Hollywood musicals, and old monster movies into a simple and oddly affecting love story. The film emphasizes the power of being seen and accepted as one is, even if in this instance half of the unlikely couple looks like the sort of abomination spoken of in legend to terrify children. Through the perspective of del Toro, whose fondness for monsters runs through his body of work, and Elisa, who can identify with feeling out of place, the amphibian man is not to be feared but empathized with. Alexandre Desplat’s lush score feeds the sense of longing that pumps through the lovelorn characters.

Hawkins grounds the film with the soft heart and dancer’s grace she brings to Elisa. THE SHAPE OF WATER hinges on her expressiveness. Listening and reacting are often said to be the most important parts of acting, and Hawkins does both beautifully as she manifests her emotions and thoughts through the looks she gives and the smoothness of her movements.

THE SHAPE OF WATER cuts to the feelings, working in broad strokes and bold colors. The visuals are drenched in gorgeous, storybook tones indicative of the time in which the film is set and its fairy tale qualities.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Disaster Artist

THE DISASTER ARTIST (James Franco, 2017)

In TO DIE FOR Nicole Kidman’s aspiring TV news anchor is said to believe “you’re not really anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” For wannabe actor Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in THE DISASTER ARTIST, the same sentiment applies to the movies. Tommy envisions himself as a to-be-discovered Hollywood star, but as much as he wants it, no one else sees this indeterminately-accented, much-older-than-he-claims oddball as a screen idol. Deep down Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) surely doubts Tommy’s ability to make it too, but the timid nineteen year-old can’t help but be won over by the enthusiasm and unself-consciousness of his new acting friend. Plus, Tommy has an apartment in Los Angeles that he offers to share with Greg if he’s willing to make the move from San Francisco.

Rejection comes frequently for them in Tinseltown, but Tommy knows how he can turn their dreams into reality. He will write and fund a movie called THE ROOM for them to make. It’s all terribly exciting even as it becomes clear during filming that Tommy’s ambition far exceeds his abilities and his ego is jeopardizing other opportunities for Greg. To most of the cast and crew, Tommy is a laughingstock, but Greg still feels obligated to defend his friend.

Plenty of bad independent films are made every year and go unremembered and unseen. THE DISASTER ARTIST, based on the book Sestero co-wrote about the making of THE ROOM, describes the conditions for creating a cult film howled at as one of the worst movies of the century. If it weren’t for Tommy’s willingness to promote it and, more importantly, the notorious reputation and mocking laughter it produced, his passion project would have suffered a similar fate as so many other forgotten indies. Rather than hide from the derisive acceptance of audiences, Tommy embraced his role, doing his weird laugh all the way to the bank.

Tommy’s utter ridiculousness and Franco’s spot-on impersonation never cease to be funny. He’s able to convey how Tommy’s strength of conviction, not to mention a lot of money, is generally enough to get people to execute the strange and nonsensical choices in his creative vision. Tommy isn’t especially charismatic, but Franco locates a certain charm in his flat delivery, even if it is just affirming to people that they can become stars. In fact, he may be more encouraging to those in his orbit because he’s so obviously out of his element. If this guy can get a movie made, who’s to say I can’t break into the industry?

Nevertheless, THE DISASTER ARTIST peddles a false inspirational story that settles uncomfortably. While there’s value in accomplishing what you set out to do, Tommy receives tarnished glory. He achieves fame and acceptance but at the cost of demeaning himself. THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t seem to see any problem with that. The misguided opening scene features celebrity testimonials regarding their enjoyment of THE ROOM. That section plays like the cool kids egging on an unpopular student to act foolishly for their amusement. I laughed quite a bit during THE DISASTER ARTIST and the incompetent film it recreates, but as director Franco comes up short in examining the thematic complexity.

Grade: B