‘Game of Thrones’ szn 7, ep 2: Make Westeros Great Again

“Stormborn” opened with a literal storm and Dany discussing strategy with her newly assembled crew. GOT has made a continued effort to show us how different Cersei, Dany, and Jon are as rulers. Cersei has surrounded herself with yes men. Jon does what he believes is right regardless of what his advisors say. Dany is learning to heed advice, specifically Tyrion’s, perhaps to a fault. As Olenna reminds her, she’s a dragon. Tyrion is correct that a straight up dragon attack on King’s Landing would kill a bunch of innocents, but at some point Dany is going to have let the dragons loose and channel her inner Targaryen if she wants to take the Iron Throne. Her and Tyrion going to great expository lengths to justify this patience wasn’t just so the Tyrell’s, Greyjoy’s, and Sand’s would understand; but so the audience would as well. Dany and Tyrion spent a decent portion of this episode defending the fact that they’re still doing little more than talking about conquering Westeros. Ugh.

I was very frustrated with the Dany-Vays conversation. First off, why now? If she wanted to grill him on his loyalty and character, why not do it right when she met him like she did with Tyrion? Second, we’ve been watching the show for seven seasons, we know Varys’ story. We don’t need to hear Dany recount it. Then she does the same thing with Melisandre seconds later! These are cases where the writers don’t trust the audience to grasp the basic context of the conversations unless it’s explicitly stated. 

Cersei is attempting to rally support with fear tactic narratives about dangerous foreigners. It’s a desperation move as traditional support for the crown is waning. She’s burned a lot of bridges, blown up septs, etc. While she finally sits on the Iron Throne herself, the choices that brought her to this point have backfired. Known bigot and wildling hater Randall Tarly seems down for the cause, at least. And Cersei has Euron Greyjoy working for her.

Speaking of Euron, it appears as if his gift for Cersei is Ellaria Sand and/or Yara Greyjoy. Quite the romantic, that Euron. The episode concluded with a big action set piece of Euron attacking the fleet Dany sent to lay siege to King’s Landing. It was an impressively executed scene -anytime you’re doing something so big on water it presents a lot of filmmaking challenges- and Pilou Asbæk does a fine job playing the menacing and cocky Euron. This was the first time we got to see Euron in action, where we learned his boasts about being the best captain in the world weren’t just all talk. But the way the episode was structured, the scene was supposed to be a high stakes “oh shit” moment. Unfortunately, the showrunners miscalculated how much (or little) viewers care about the Sand Snakes. Their introduction was butchered and they’ve had no arc. Seeing two of them die did nothing for me. I never considered them important players in the larger story. I’m not alone. They’re amongst the most hated characters on the show. Season five is generally considered the weakest season and they’re a big part of the reason why.

Just when we thought Theon had conquered his demons in full, we’re shown the trauma he’s been through will always be a part of him. Despite saving Sansa and making a rousing speech championing Yara at the Kingsmoot, he couldn’t muster up courage amidst the sight of Euron’s men cutting out tongues. I’m sure the show will find a way to have him redeem himself again, but I don’t care at this point. The cyclical storytelling with him has grown old. 

My favorite character moment of the episode came when Grey Worm performed cunninglingus on everyone’s favorite cunning linguist. His speech about love allowing him to know what fear is for the first time in his life was poignant, and Missandei is a sensitive listener. This is the strongest romantic relationship on the show. The relationship brings out the best in both characters’ individual stories, rather than just functioning as a convenient plot device (cough cough Dario and Dany).

Line of the Week

“You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” – Olenna

I’m confused as to what is happening with Arya. Last week, in the already infamous Ed Sheeran scene, Arya smiled and laughed for the first time in years. It was the first time we saw her genuinely happy, for even a brief moment, since season one. In this episode, she reunited with Hot Pie, but receives him relatively coldly. You’d expect some hugs and jokes and whatnot. But, nope. The scene’s atmosphere was very odd. Arya’s mind was elsewhere even before Hot Pie informed her that Jon is the King in the North. So what could’ve been a nice character moment existed solely to spark Arya’s decision to return home to Winterfell. At least her (and probably Bran as well) heading there should lead to a sweet Stark children reunion.

The highly anticipated “Jonerys” meeting is a foregone conclusion at this point. It’ll probably happen as soon as next episode considering how liberally GOT has handled travel time the last two seasons. There will be some tension. His primary reason for taking the meeting is getting Dragonglass and possibly Dany’s support in the Great War. She wants him to bend the proverbial or literal knee and help fight the Lannisters. Despite the fact that Dany-Jon are actually Aunt-Nephew, I sense that most fans are rooting for a romantic relationship to develop between the two. This is Westeros, after all. The social stigma of incest is little more than the occasional subtle asterisk on the line of succession. 

Littlefinger’s days seem numbered. He’s a man who trades in deception, plays sides against each other, etc. The problem is, he’s been exposed. Everyone, most importantly Sansa, has realized how he operates. With the Knights of the Vale now under Jon’s (and Sansa’s) control, he has zero leverage or real power. He’s Littlefinger, so he’ll conjure up some scheme. But he’ll probably get called out on it and end up with a dagger (or a “needle”?) through his heart. Arya is heading to Winterfell…

“Dragonstone” was an all-around frustrating episode. Individual scenes failed to land, and the hour as a whole was surprisingly stagnant considering the momentum from the premiere and fact that there are now just ELEVEN episodes left in the entire series. 

Five Random Thoughts:

  1. Next episode should be a doozy. Look out for the attack on Casterly Rock by the Unsullied, the Stark children reunion, and the Jonerys meeting.
  2. Jorah isn’t currently winning any ribbons for best beach bod.
  3. Where, exactly, is everyone’s favorite sellsword turned anointed knight?
  4. And, again, where is Gendry?
  5. HBOers, the fantastic Hacksaw Ridge became available to stream or watch On-Demand this weekend. Give it a look if you haven’t.

July Oscar Buzz

Last week, I put out feelers to a few people closer to the Oscar race than myself. Journalists, pundits, and a couple industry folk. Some of them were kind enough to get back to me and answer some questions. I can’t say who they are, obviously, and this is just my speculation based on their speculation based on information they have.  
So, do with the following what you will…
I’m hearing that Fox has been and will continue to push Logan hard, including campaigns for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. They believe the film will resonate with the Academy more than Deadpool did, and they’re prepared to spend whatever they need to in order to ensure it remains in the discussion all year. Even if the smash hit doesn’t land well with Oscar voters in major categories, it’s expected to be nominated in sound categories. Fox will also run an expensive campaign for The Papers from Steven Spielberg, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. 

Star Wars star John Boyega is supposedly the closest thing Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit has to a lead, but it’s a true ensemble film and any awards campaigns for its cast will likely focus on supporting categories with Oscar. Don’t fret about its Best Picture chances, however, as the last two winners (Moonlight and Spotlight), were both also ensemble films without an acting nominee in lead categories. 

Competing distributors already fear the Lead Actor race could come down to two people; Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and Daniel Day-Lewis for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s still untitled fashion drama. Oldman is one of the most revered actors in film, and he’s never won before. In fact, his only nomination came five years ago for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He certainly has a strong overdue narrative and a baity role. Day-Lewis is of course an Academy favorite. The last time he teamed up with PTA it was for a little movie called There Will Be Blood, for which he won the Oscar.

Outsiders believe Netflix has their best chance yet of striking Oscar gold with Sundance hit Mudbound from Dee Rees. It remains to be seen how the streaming company handles the rollout -they’ve been much less open to theatrical than Amazon- but the film is said to be an urgent masterpiece, and the best thing to come out of Sundance. Also with Netflix, nobody expects Okja to be much of an awards player, hence it becoming available online so soon after its Cannes premiere. 

The Weinstein Company could be looking to play the role of last-minute buyer like Fox Searchlight did last year with Jackie. The company’s two assumed players, The Current War and Mary Magdelene don’t look as strong as they once did. I’m hearing straight up bad things about the former (albeit based on test screenings) and the latter is supposedly playing up the Jesus & Mary romance angle, obviously a controversial choice, which could bother a lot of voters. For as what films they could be looking to buy? I, and the few people I contacted, are clueless.

The Oscar chances for Dunkirk are very real, and Warner Bros knows it. They think the film can have a similar awards profile to that of Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m yet to see the film but am told it could be a real threat in picture, director, screenplay, supporting actor (Tom Hardy), cinematography, editing, production design, costumes, sound editing, sound mixing, and original score. It could realistically get double-digit noms.

Hearing less-than-stellar rumors about Marshall but hearing strong rumors about Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!. The mysterious film stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem and could hit with the Academy like Black Swan did. For what it’s worth, the person who told me to keep an eye on it is the same person who told me to keep an eye on Moonlight six months before it came out.

More in the coming weeks as festival season takes shape.

‘Game of Thrones’ szn 7, ep 1: Thinking Out Loud (and cleaning poop)

Thematically speaking, “Dragonstone” was quite an interesting Game of  Thrones season premiere. We all know the show has now entered its final act; last season’s finale confirmed such. The pieces are all in place. The worldbuilding seems to be over.Winter is here. But “Dragonstone” actually made a concentrated effort to use events from the past to show who our characters are now.

Whether is was Arya -under the guise of Walder Frey- recapping the red wedding to the surviving Freys before she poisoned them, Jon Snow refusing to punish the Karstark and Umber children for their fathers’ betrayal (much to the dismay of Sansa), or a changed Hound having himself a moment as he sees the corpses of two innocents he wasn’t very kind to back in season four….previous events are what drove the meat of this episode.

Starting with Arya feels right since the episode elected to do so with the rare cold open. I really don’t care that she killed the remaining Freys. They don’t matter. I didn’t even think they’d appear again. But it was a strong scene in a vacuum, with Arya slowly revealing to them what was happening, much like Walder did at the red wedding with the musicians. On the Kingsroad, Arya then ran into a group of Lannister soldiers (on of them played by Ed Sheeran in a stupid cameo that took me out of the show for a minute). This was a really important scene though. Arya initially planned on killing the men, I believe. There was a neat editing trick where we got a shot of their swords sitting on a log, out of reach. She certainly could’ve killed them. But she quickly realized they were blameless, and even shared a laugh with them. It was the first time we got to see a genuine smile from Arya in quite some time.

As for Arya’s old traveling companion, The Hound, he also had an important character moment. He’s a cynic of course, but he can no longer deny there’s something to this Lord of Light thing after looking into the fire (and witnessing Beric be resurrected). His character arc has been perhaps the show’s most interesting, and seeing him bury the father and daughter he came across with Arya long ago brought that full circle. The big ugly man who murdered an innocent child in the first season has now become a tragic hero. Rory McCann continues to be brilliant in the role. It seems likely he’ll team up with Jon Snow soon, as the Brotherhood are some of the few who actually realize the threat the White Walkers pose.

Line of the Week

 “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe” – Arya

Jon and Sansa have differing opinions on various matters, but they’re very civil with each other. Jon’s word rules, however. He’s all-in on preparing to fight the whites, even imploring Northern lords to train their young women to fight, and completely ignoring threats from Cersei. It was cool to hear Sansa put her weird respect for Cersei into words. She even went as far as to call Ned and Robb stupid (which is true). 

My favorite moment was actually the already infamous poop montage with Sam. I love when GOT breaks away from its standard “eight minute scene where one character mentions another, then cut to the character mentiomed for another eight minute scene” structure. The show can get a bit repetitive and predictable at times because of this. Also, that’s the great Jim Broadbent playing the Archmaester. Broadbent won an Oscar for the film Iris. This show continues to surprise with cool casting choices.

Cersei and Jaime’s relationship has never been more interesting. They love each other, obviously, but it’s getting harder and harder for the relatively kind-hearted Jaime to overlook Cersei’s lunacy. Something is going to drive them apart. It’ll probably have something to do with Tyrion and Dany showing up, which is happening soon, as Dany’s fleet has finally landed in Westeros (albeit at the slightly disconnected Dragonstone). This was a major moment. I love the decision to have it be dialogue free, just Dany slowly taking in all the sites. 

As far as season premieres go, “Dragonstone” was much more interesting than we’re used to from GOT. Was it still a relatively minor episode? Sure, but most of it was handled very well, and there were enough exciting moments to quench fans’ thirst for a week.

Five Random Thoughts: 

  1. So, is tight-fitting black leather the new trend in Westeros? It feels like everyone is wearing it out of nowhere. 
  2. We checked in with most major players this week. Notably absent: Olenna Tyrell and the Sand Snakes.
  3. GOT starting late this year made it ineligible for this round of Emmy nominations. It appears as if HBO directed their campaign to Westworld (22 nominations).
  4. Remember, there are only secen episodes this season. We’re already 14.28% of the way done.
  5. WHERE THE FUCK IS GENDRY?

Homework, Hormones, & Happy Hogan: The balancing act of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Jon Watts is just 36, a baby by filmmaker standards. His first two films were Clown, a tiny body horror film that grossed just $2 million, and Cop Car, a very good but sparsely seen Kevin Bacon thriller that didn’t even gross $150K. I’m not sure what would make Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige pin him as the director capable of the very difficult balancing act that is Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s why Feige gets paid a lot of money to make these decisions and I get paid no money to react to them.

Homecoming is an experiment in genre. Within its superhero responsibilities -thrusting one of the two or three most iconic characters in American comics into the biggest franchise in American cinema- it also sets out to be a genuine coming-of-age high school film. Call it “Perks of Being a Wall-Climber”. It’s the first time in multiple big-screen iterations of the character that Peter Parker’s conflict is just as important to the film, if not more important, than Spidey’s conflict. Yes, Spider-Man wants to impress Tony Stark, officially become an Avenger, and stop the bad guy. But just as important to the film’s narrative is Peter wanting to impress his crush. Throughout the film Peter is forced to make decisions. Does he follow the van full of alien weapons? Or does he go to his crushes’ party? These decisions drive his character arc. Again, this is a true coming-of-age film, and a very good one. Peter is stuck in limbo between who he’s been and who he wants to be, both as a teenager and a superhero.

A hilarious early sequence shows us some events from Captain America: Civil War from Spidey’s perspective, via cell phone footage. It communicates Peter’s excitement perfectly. When the timeline fast-forwards to the present day, Peter is back in Queens, going to school, and fighting small-time crime after school, all under the watchful eye of Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter thinks he could be doing a lot more, but neither Stark nor Happy are returning his calls. He’s clearly not ready yet. His skills aren’t polished. He doesn’t even really know to use his fancy suit.

At school, Peter is a bit of a classic geek. He’s on the academic decathlon team. He and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) are the types who still get excited over a Death Star LEGO set. His crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), doesn’t seem to know he exists. While these dynamics may seem like clichés at first, they’re explored in real detail. There’s depth to the adolescent conflicts Peter goes through.

That’s a lot to balance in what’s supposed to be a lighthearted summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Watts and his exceptional cast were up to the challenge.

It all starts with Tom Holland, who almost instantly establishes himself as the best Spidey and Peter yet. He actually looks like a high schooler, for one. He also carries an effortless charm that makes his learning curve throughout the film heartwarming rather than annoying. There’s a concerned effort to capture the youthful exuberance of Peter in this film, and Holland proves the perfect muse for such a task. Physically, he has a real pep in his step. Whether in the suit or in typical milennial teenage attire, you can see Peter’s enthusiasm in the way Holland moves. There are even a few scenes that require some real dramatic acting, going as far as bringing the character to tears, and Holland nails it.

As for the villain, something that has plagued even the stronger MCU films, Homecoming succeeds effortlessly. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), a government-contracted metal salvager turned arms dealer who builds himself a winged suit. He has a real, believable, even relatable conflict. He’s not concerned with world domination. He doesn’t have some weird personal vendetta against the Avengers. He’s just a dude who gets screwed out of work and wants to provide for his family and the family of employees. The film has a few surprises with the character that I won’t spoil but are handled perfectly. There’s a scene where Toomes is in a car with Peter and a simple conversation makes for the most intense moment in the movie. Such is the power of Keaton, an actor of seemingly unlimited talent, capable of both finding the humanity in the character but also being genuinely creepy when the script calls for it. He steals every scene he is in. It’s a truly marvelous performance from one of our finest actors.

Another neat thing about Homecoming that sets it above other Spidey movies is it’s authentic New York flavor. There’s the diversity, for starters. Peter’s high school peers look like you’d expect them to given that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban hubs in America. But the film never goes out of its way to highlight this diversity. It’s just there, natural for all the characters. The film’s biggest action set piece takes place on the Staten Island ferry. Peter even has a favorite bodega. Being a teenager in New York is a huge part of Peter’s identity, and this is ultimately a film about his identity, so capturing that was important.

Homecoming, credited to a whopping six screenwriters and edited by Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman, is structured in a way so the dueling narratives unfold simultaneously. This isn’t a film that begins as a high school story and then becomes standard superhero fare halfway through. Both sides move forward with equal pacing, which really helps Peter’s character arc. Salvatore Totino’s photography is very smart. During major action scenes featuring the Vulture, who’s questionable CGI is the film’s one true weakness, Totino lights them dimly so that the questionable CGI is tougher to notice. And the editing team makes use of rapid cuts. It’s a very clever film, technically speaking. Do I wish some of the VFX work looked better? Sure. But here, unlike the countless films that feature middling VFX work, it doesn’t really get in the way. Watts and his team know this film’s strength is its characters, and that’s what is shown off.

As heavily as Robert Downey Jr. was featured in promotional material (which is understandable), he’s not as a big a part of the film as you’d expect. He pops in here and there to give Peter fatherly advice and criticism, lending trademark Downeyisms to the film, but never overstays his welcome. Happy Hogan is his surrogate in a sense, but even Happy doesn’t overpopulate things. This film is very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its obligations to the larger story never get in the way. If anything, the presence of the Avengers in the world of this film helps Peter as a character.

Everything in Homecoming works. Watts directs most scenes with an improvisational nature, fitting given the often comedic tone and the fact that most of the characters are just teenagers. His influences are clear; John Hughes, most notably. There’s a visual reference to Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  that’s maybe a bit heavy-handed but so charming that you’ll forgive its lack of subtlety.

This is *probably* the best Spider-Man film to date. It’s also one of the best MCU films, and perhaps the strongest blockbuster of a frustrating summer season thus far. A crowd-pleaser that’ll surely be a smash hit and reward repeated viewings, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph in popcorn movie-making. More of this, please.

 

‘Wonder Woman’ is just okay, which is good enough 

Gal Gadot has the perfect eyes for Wonder Woman. They can be fierce, as they are when she’s wielding her sword and shield and lasso. They can also give off a childlike sense of curiosity, as they do when she sees a peacoat (or Chris Pine’s dick) for the first time. If only Patty Jenkins’ film as a whole was as good executing this duality as Gadot’s eyes are…

Wonder Woman is really two movies. One of those movies is an aptly handled fish-out-of-water story; a genuinely funny, romantic, and inspiring tale of a woman who wants nothing more than to save a world she doesn’t really understand yet. The film’s strongest moments all come courtesy of this premise. Whether it’s a young Diana punching air and practicing moves as she watches the Amazon warriors train, or a fully-grown Diana having what amounts to a grade school sex talk on a boat with her tour guide and eventual love interest Steve Trevor (Pine), the first half of Wonder Woman is some of the best and most refreshing blockbuster filmmaking in years. And not just because it’s a female-driven work in an industry dominated by old white dudes. By any standard, regardless of what rests between the director’s legs, a lot of Wonder Woman is a damn fine movie.

Unfortunately, when this superhero film actually acts like a superhero film, it’s an unimaginative mess akin to what the reasonable amongst us have come to expect with the D.C. Extended Universe. The actual plot, and the various cardboard cutout villains who drive that plot, is never interesting. From the second Gadot & Pine share the screen to the second they no longer can, all story becomes just a lame distraction from their relationship. The scenes where Diana fights are frustrating. Jenkins shoots these scenes with such over-reliance on slow-motion that the few moments when Diana kicks butt in real time feel like godsends. The finale is a bland clusterfuck of surprisingly awful CGI that looks dated when compared to similar moments in recent films like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film’s aforementioned strengths only make these offenses seem even more egregious. 

Jenkins is an undeniably gifted filmmaker. Anyone who’s seen Monster -a legit masterwork and one of the finest films of the century- can tell you that. She certainly flexes her directorial chops here. All the early moments set on Themyscira, the no-boys-allowed island from which Diana hails, are stunning. Jenkins and DoP Matthew Jensen create these gorgeous sun-drenched images that appear otherworldly, as intended. The dialogue scenes are given a perfect improvisational tone. Jenkins’ WW1 set pieces later in the film look awesome. 

But everything comes back to Diana and Steve’s relationship. It’s an interesting dynamic. They both babysit one another in different ways. Diana literally saves Steve’s life early in the film and continues to do so throughout. Steve helps Diana navigate the social and systematic aspects of a world she’s completely foreign to. Both are good people who want to save lives and end the war, but they have very different ways of going about it. Hilarity ensues, organic romantic chemistry develops, and, in a bold move that’s not being talked about as much as it should, it’s implied that the two have sex. They need each other. Diana needs Steve’s grounded understanding of the world and the war as she learns the ropes. Steve needs Diana’s optimism and can-do wherewithal to combat some of his cynicism. Gadot and Pine are so, so good together. It’s a shame we won’t get to see these two more.

Wonder Woman is self-aware without ever becoming meta. It wisely avoids heavy-handed feminism with the exception of one brief moment (the awful “We call that a slave” line when Diana learns what a secretary is). I cannot speak to the minds of young girls, but it’s easy to imagine this film being inspiring, and it pulling that off while leaving its feminism as subtext is a pleasant surprise. Jenkins is a smart filmmaker. She knows how gorgeous Gal Gadot is, and she knows we know it. She doesn’t treat the audience like dummies and hide Gadot’s sexiness, nor does she obnoxiously flaunt it like Suicide Squad did with Margot Robbie. Gadot looks great. Men briefly ogle her. But that’s it. 

Gadot’s actual performance erases all the doubts fans had, given her relative lack of experience, years ago when she was cast. She’s a gifted actress and her turn reminds me a lot of Chris Hemsworth’s strong work as Thor. She can play dumb when the script asks Diana to react to all the new things she’s discovering. And she can play tough when shit gets real. I sincerely hope she is featured prominently in the DCEU moving forward. Her Diana is certainly more interesting than Ben Affleck’s Batman or Henry Cavill’s Superman.  

Chris Pine shines as Steve Trevor, and the script makes Trevor one of the best love interests in any comic-book movie. He has a real arc, while serving a purpose in both the larger story and Diana’s development. It’s another fantastic performance from Pine, and a very vulnerable one, that sees him willingly play second fiddle for the majority of the film while never allowing the character -a throwback heroic military man- to seem anything less than classically masculine, a natural archetype given the setting of the film. Pine has quickly become one of our finest working actors, a versatile performer seemingly capable of anything. 

Perhaps the most refreshing element of Wonder Woman, and what’s caused people to overlook its obvious problems, is the overall enthusiasm the film has. In a world filled with brooding superheroes, it’s a lot of fun to see someone excited about being a superhero like Diana is. Her presence in this franchise is crucial. So in a way, despite not being a particularly great film, Wonder Women did save the DCEU from itself. The absurd box office figures and overall acclaim suggest so.

The Top 100 Films of the 21st Century, Part 1

I’m not sure when or where it began, but the online film community has recently become obsessed with debating the best films of the century so far. Perhaps the discussion began when the BBC published a massive critics poll. Then the New York Times did one. And then everybody started doing it. I joined in on a the fun a few nights ago, half-inebriated, on twitter, sharing a quickly made top 25 list.

I immediately hated myself for my exclusions. A top 25 list of films since the year 2000 is impossible for me given to how much content the global industry puts out now. So I changed my list and extended to 100, figuring I’d leave some commentary on my choices here. I still hate myself. There are countless films I love and consider to be damn near perfect that I had to omit. But whatever, this is just for shits and giggles.

And for the sake of making this easier on myself, I’m not including documentaries or animated features.

This is part 1.

#100) The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

Skillfully navigating the potential pitfalls that often accompany sports and addiction dramas, the film focuses on community and family. It’s carried by exceptional acting across-the-board, most notably from the always-dedicated Christian Bale, who finally won an Oscar for his work.

#99) Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier)

Experimental in its literal staging, Lars von Trier’s bold parable of inherent human misery is oddly hilarious, thoroughly thought-provoking, and arguably anti-American. Added bonus, it features Nicole Kidman at her very best.

#98) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Behind a bravura turn from Elizabeth Olsen, Durkin’s film intends to disturb. It also shows off a filmmaker in complete control, utilizing visual and narrative tricks that could seem gimmicky in a film school sort of way if not for the haunting psychological subtext beneath every scene.

#97) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

So much better than it had any right to be. Ryan Coogler’s subtle touch and mastery of naturalistic dialogue turn what should’ve been a campy cash grab into crowd-pleasing tale of various loves hiding behind the guise of one of Hollywood’s iconic franchises.

#96) The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

One of the great conversation films ever made, and a treat for any David Foster Wallace fan. Ponsoldt’s understated direction is perfect for this interviewer-interviewee story. Jason Segel knocks it out of the park as the late, aforementioned author.

#95) The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Nolan’s attempts to bend your mind often work to the detriment of his films, but here, thanks to a genuinely captivating story that fits his ambitions, all those Nolanisms feel right at home. It’s also a beautiful film, complete with expansive period detail and more great work from DoP Wally Pfister.

#94) Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s films play like they’re made by an eccentric movie geek trying to riff on his genre favorites, because that’s exactly what they are. But his writing never allows that love be mistaken for cynicism. Hot Fuzz is strongest of his “trilogy”.

#93) Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

We don’t deserve PTA, a former wunderkind who’s more than lived up to our gargantuan expectations. Maybe Punch-Drunk Love is a minor work from him, but it’s a cute and hilarious rom-com unafraid of embracing its weirdness. A real treat and testament to Anderson’s ability.

#92) Mystic River (dir. Clint Eastwood)

Eastwood’s mystery is much like Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone in its attempt to show a Boston community through a grisly crime. Both come from the same author, actually. Eastwood’s reigns supreme though thanks to the strength of its leads and ability to keep you guessing.

#91) District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

The allegory is hardly subtle, but it needn’t be. The film is a poignant and visually inventive sci-fi drama that lands all of its punches. Blomkamp hasn’t topped it yet. I doubt he ever will.

#90) Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)

Maybe not the adaptation that the kids (or Warner Bros) wanted, but it’s gorgeous to look at and the melancholic tone actually lifts up the source material. Spike Jonze was given a lot of money to make a film about childhood. The result is astounding.

#89) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

You can feel how personal of a film this is for Chazelle by the details he chooses to emphasize. It’s a sharply edited collage of scenes showing relentless dedication and the issues it can cause. J.K. Simmons won a much-deserved Oscar, but it’s young Miles Teller’s nuanced turn that carries the film.

#88) Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s crime drama is every bit as stylized and beautifully perverse as you’d expect from the auteur. He loves playing with the audience and finding captivating images in unexpected places. I am so grateful for his weirdness.

#87) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese pulls out all the genre tricks he usually avoids to craft this carefully paced thriller. It’s so much more than just a twist ending. It’s a major filmmaker stepping far outside his usual bounds with a gripping piece of commercial entertainment. Robert Richardson’s photography is mesmerizing.

#86) The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

A welcome return to form for Mickey Rourke; the film finds serious emotional weight despite the narrative clichés. It’s wisely cut together in a way that emphasizes the thematic contrasts between the lead character’s professional life and personal life.

#85) Road to Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes)

The cinematography is staggering throughout, and it’s very fun to watch Tom Hanks play a hitman. This is a generally joyless film about fathers and sons stylized as a pulp-noir. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

#84) Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

It’s hard to put into words just how exceptional Charlize Theron is in this movie. More than just the jaw-dropping physical transformation, she communicates her character’s dark anxieties through glares. Jenkins perfectly handles a character impossible to love but hard to consciously root against in the timeline of the film.

#83) Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman)

A study of post-WW1 the English class and peerage systems disguised as a dinner party murder mystery, Altman’s film loves its characters; all of them. The camera moves smoothly and functions as a character itself. This is remarkable filmmaking on every level, a testament to Altman as one of the all-time greats.

#82) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

It made for one of the great in-theater experiences I’ve ever had. And beyond the technical mastery, it’s a strong survival story. Sandra Bullock gives what had to be difficult performance. This is the type of risk I wish studios would take more often.

#81) 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold)

Mangold’s action-packed remake is irresistible. The performances are so much fun, and the action sequences are staged in a loud, fast manner that’s never really been done in a Western before. It’s a joy throughout.

#80) Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

Haynes’ camera understands human emotion so much. It knows that a simple gaze can say much more than a line of dialogue. And there may not be two better actresses at selling emotion through gazes than Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

#79) Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to create one of the most wholly human films ever out of stop-motion animation. The film’s brand of melancholy is as hilarious as it is creepy. It’s a story about apathy, and the infamous sex scene is perhaps my favorite ever.

#78) Y Tu Mamá También (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Erotic and funny and more aware of its social ideas than it was originally credited for, Cuaron’s often explicit road movie upends the genre. Who knew teenage hedonism set amidst socioeconomic issues in turn of the millennium Mexico could make for such a fascinating story?

#77) In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

You’ll laugh out loud, hate yourself for laughing, and then laugh some more. Such is the writing of Martin McDonagh, a man who’s a blend of Wilde and Tarantino. This is a fun and at times genuinely moving film, an exciting directorial debut that reaffirmed the idea that McDonagh’s stage work could transition to the screen seamlessly.

#76) Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

An ominous film, maybe even a film bordering on sadism. But it’s so artfully done. Kidman’s performance is one of her very best, the minimalist cinematography is striking, and the film takes its time rather than going for the easy horror thrills its premise could’ve allowed for.

#75) Casino Royale (dir. Martin Campbell)

A reinventing of Bond. Daniel Craig gives the character more nuance than thought possible. The film also includes some of the the best action sequences in any Bond. Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen make the Bond girl and villain more than archetypes.

#74) Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s crime epic lets its various subplots play out in distinctive visual ways, and refuses to place simple moral judgements on its characters. The ensemble cast is fantastic. And nobody does hand-held camerawork better than Soderbergh.

#73) Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg)

A unique aesthetic thanks to Spielberg’s visualization of Philip K. Dick’s future and DoP Janusz Kaminski’s experimental take on a noir look by bleach-bypassing the film negatives. The story is also engaging and well-paced; consisting of some inventive action sequences.

#72) The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino’s latest experiment is perhaps his most mature film. A gimmick-free and leisurely paced whodunnit capable of finding tension in every frame. The cast is great, and Tarantino’s unapologetic handling of racial tension has never had more depth or historical awareness.

#71) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Chan-wook Park)

The strongest in Park’s trilogy (and yes, that includes Oldboy), this film shows off the director’s exquisite tastes when it comes to cinematography and production design. Like its sister films, it’s rather violent and twisted, but this one actually has some interesting ideas about violent revenge as an idea.

#70) Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

It’s not the complex mindfuck some pretend it is. Rather, it’s a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster filled with visual grandeur and strong performances. There are some incredible set pieces as well, proving that Nolan didn’t need the backdrop of Batman to create stimulating commercial entertainment.

#69) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)

It is perhaps the best prison film ever made, a bleak and sober character piece featuring exceptional performances from Jack O’Connell & Ben Mendelsohn. There’s some subtext about rehabilitation and the British penal system, but everything comes back to a rather moving short story about a father and son.

#68) Capote (dir. Bennett Miller)

Benefiting from a timeless turn by Philip Seymour-Hoffman as the titular author, Miller’s film is complex enough to look beyond the murder sensationalism, to look at a man who wanted to be (and thought he was) better than everyone else at what he did. Was Capote’s peculiar personality required to write something like In Cold Blood? That’s what the film explores, and wisely refuses to answer.

#67) We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker who refuses to put all her cards on the table too early. This is an eery film throughout, but its nonlinear narrative builds slowly to a climax that begins to feel inevitable. That doesn’t make it less powerful, however, since the most disturbing moments are simply gazes from Tilda Swinton. Ramsay and her team even work in horror tropes, creating a unique style that fits the subject matter perfectly.

#66) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

What a pleasant surprise this was. A smart sci-fi film that uses a time-travel premise to the benefit of its characters and world, rather than for cheap conflict. It also works well on the simplest of action movie terms. I now believe Rian Johnson can do anything.

#65) Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Garland’s film is much more than simple artificial-intelligence ponderings; what does it mean to be alive and all that jazz. It’s actually a film about male sexual fantasy just as much as it is a film about technology. A trio of great performances and a sleek visual style aided by strong color contrasts and fun production design make it hard to look away from. Its ending lacks real payoff, but that’s intentional.

#64) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)

Gunn’s sequel will age well. It’s funnier, contains more emotional heft, and is more bonkers visually than its predecessor. His irreverent style is essential to this offbeat group of characters. A perfect director-intellectual property match.

#63) Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)

Gus’ Palme d’Or winning is so sparse, refusing to stylize really anything. Given that the film concerns a school shooting, the directorial choices have a powerful impact. Many films that try to condemn violence do the opposite by making it extremely cinematic. Elephant does no such thing.

#62) Bamako (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

A thrilling courtroom drama on one hand, and on the other a detailed look at everyday life for various people in the titular Malian capital. Sissako would deservedly go on to receive serious international attention for Timbuktu, but this remains his best work.

#61) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson)

The entire trilogy is a marvelous technical achievement that inspired millions, but it’s this middle chapter that shines brightest as a standalone film, thanks to wise editing choices with its various subplots that culminate in perhaps the greatest battle in cinematic history.

#60) The Intruder (dir. Claire Denis)

It’s perhaps Denis’ most original film thanks to its story, which says a lot considering she’s a wildly original filmmaker whose camera loves to focus on bodies and emphasize sounds. It also features a powerhouse lead turn from Michel Subor.

#59) Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)

Within this story of changing schools of thought in baseball, Miller made a delicate film about personal perseverance. Brad Pitt gives one of his very best performances, and Sorkin’s script surprisingly finds the human element within Michael Lewis’ book.

#58) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

It’s strangely haunting, dabbling in magical realism as it shows a man putting quite literally everything into his work. It feels a bit meta for Kaufman, but never becomes too self-absorbed thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead. It has fun with its at times trippy visuals as well.

#57) Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You’re not supposed to really be able to follow what’s going on in Inherent Vice. It’s a film about a good-natured but perpetually stoned P.I. struggling in a turn-of-the-decade world that’s mostly left his counterculture ideals in the past. It’s much heavier thematically than it was given credit for, and it’s easily PTA’s funniest film, a subtle treat that rewards repeated viewings.

#56) Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

It’s a very heavy and depressing film. But Villeneuve can manufacture tension on a dime and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal he found two actors capable of aiding him in that. Roger Deakins’ photography is also perhaps the most impressive work of his legendary career. Prisoners was never going to have a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that.

#55) John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski)

This is almost a prestige action film. It’s framed and lit like something experimental with European roots. It’s incredible action choreography is gun-fu to the beat of electronic music. The film also manages to build its own interesting criminal underworld. What a pleasant surprise this was. I hope we get five more.

#54) United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Greengrass’ documentarian style here is essential in a film about regular people thrust into a tragic situation and then displaying true heroism. A more classically cinematic take would’ve played cheesy. But Greengrass, and his all-world editing team, never allow that to happen.

#53) A Seperation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Farhadi’s masterpiece is a complicated film about a relationship, for starters. As many of the finest Iranian films do, it cleverly navigates censorship rules. It’s also impeccably performed all around and gorgeously filmed, surprisingly intense as well throughout. An original gem worthy of all the awards it got.

#52) Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

It’s a bit bloated and extremely miserable, but it’s stuffed with fascinating ideas and moments. Lonergan’s sheer ambition is admirable, his ability to execute an atmospheric film from that ambition is remarkable.

#51) The New World (dir. Terrence Malick)

Another masterpiece from Malick, a beautiful and poetic take on the Pocahontas story whose messiness should not be confused for lacking in focus. It doesn’t claim to know about everything going on. It just throws image after image at you, letting you respond to those images however you please.

Check back soon for Part 2.

 

 

 

Zak’s 2017 NBA Mock Draft (Version 5.0)

More commentary and updates to come as draft approaches. This mock predicts trades as well.

And check out Cole’s mock right here

Updated June 22nd, 4:30 PM

Round 1

#1) Philadelphia 76ers – Markelle Fultz (G, Washington)

Duh.

#2) Los Angeles Lakers – Lonzo Ball (G, UCLA)

All the talk of Jackon or Fox going here seems to have been a smokescreen to convince the Celtics to take Jackson #1. I still think Lonzo is the Lakers’ guy. The trading of Russell all but confirms it.

#3) *Sacramento Kings – Josh Jackson (F, Kansas)

*via trade with Boston. Teams swap 3 & 5, Celtics get additional future pick.

Whether the Kings want Jackson or Fox, they have to move ahead of Phoenix to guarantee it happens.

#4) Phoenix Suns – De’Aaron Fox (G, Kentucky)

The Eric Bledose era in Phoenix is coming to an end and Fox is the best player on the board.

#5) *Boston Celtics – Jayson Tatum (F, Duke)

Boston gets their guy at 5, picking up extra picks along the way.

#6) Orlando Magic – Dennis Smith Jr. (G, N.C. State)

DSJ is the most explosive guard in the class and should make for a fine Elfrid Payton replacement.

#7) *Dallas Mavericks – Frank Ntilikina (G, International)

*via trade with T’Wolves. Teams swap picks #7 & #9, T’Wolves receive additional future pick.

Both Dallas and New York love Ntilikina. Here, the Mavs leapfrog NY to ensure they get their guy. He’s a big guard still developing but reminds me of a longer George Hill.

#8) New York Knicks – Jonathan Isaac (F, Florida State)

The Knicks would have to be ecstatic to see Isaac on the board here. He’s a tantalizing and diverse defensive prospect, who also has great touch on his jumper and plays within himself offensively.

#9) *Minnesota Timberwolves – Lauri Markkanen (F, Arizona)

The Wolves grab the sweet shooting seven-footer they probably would’ve taken at 7, picking up a future pick in the process. A wise move.

#10) Sacramento Kings – Donovan Mitchell (G, Louisville)

Maybe Mitchell won’t develop the point guard skills the Kings would like with one of their two picks, but he’s going to be an elite defender capable of guarding 1-3. 

#11) Charlotte Hornets – Malik Monk (G, Kentucky)

I really thought Charlotte might take a center here, but the trade for Dwight Howard would seemingly end that idea. Monk would make for a nice pick though and would elevate the Charlotte bench right away with his ability to score without being ball dominant.

#12) Detroit Pistons – Zach Collins (F/C, Gonzaga)

Whether or not they view Drummond as part of the team’s future, Collins is a nice pickup outside the top 10.

#13) *Phoenix Suns – O.G. Anunoby (F, Indiana)

*via trade with Nuggets. Phoenix sends Eric Bledsoe and a future 2nd rounder in exchange for #13 & Emmanuel Mudiay

Enter the polarizing O.G. Anunoby, who’s ready to be a plus defender right away and showed some nice strides offensively pre-injury. Phoenix lands him, after trading Bledsoe for this pick to clear minutes for Fox.

#14) *Los Angeles Lakers – Luke Kennard (G, Duke)

*via trade with Heat. Miami receives #27, #28, & a future pick swap rights in exchange for #14

The Lakers reportedly LOVE Kennard and want to move up to get him. A possible a Paul George trade package involving picks #27 & #28 complicates things a bit but if Kennard is still on the board in the 12-16 I wouldn’t be surprised to see L.A. pounce.

#15) Portland Trail Blazers – D.J. Wilson (F, Michigan)

An intriguing faceup 4 with a high skill level offensively and great measurables/athleticism defensively. He finally started to put it together this year and thus has risen up boards.

#16) Chicago Bulls – John Collins (PF, Wake Forest)

Best low-post scorer in the draft. By no means a position of need but Chicago is rebuilding soon and I think Collins is better than Portis.

#17) Milwaukee Bucks – Jordan Bell (F, Oregon)

Rising up boards because he can both protect the rim and move his feet. Has the makings of an elite defender.

#18) Indiana Pacers – Terrance Ferguson (G/F, International)

Not quite ready yet but oozes potential as a 3nD wing. High level athlete. would be a nice start to Pacers rebuild.

#19) Atlanta Hawks – Bam Adebayo (C, Kentucky)

Bam has reportedly impressed many teams in workouts. He didn’t always get to show it at Kentucky but he’s got a really high skill level for a guy who also protects the rim and mauls inside. Atlanta would be wise to start their frontcourt rebuild around him.

#20) Portland Trail Blazers – Harry Giles (C, Duke)

Apparently the medicals are promising. Portland has three picks this round and a full roster already, so it’d be a nice risk for them regardless.

#21) Oklahoma City Thunder – Justin Jackson (F, UNC)

I’m not sure how real Jackson’s improvement as a perimter shooter actually is, but he’s a player who keeps getting better and makes up for his thin frame/average athleticism with smart positioning on both ends.
#22) Brooklyn Nets – Justin Patton (C, Creighton)

Upside pick for Brooklyn. Patton probably isn’t ready to play major minutes yet but he moves really well for a seven-footer.

#23) Toronto Raptors – T.J. Leaf (F, UCLA)

Skilled big who projects as a nice offensive option off bench.

#24) Utah Jazz – Wesley Iwundu (G/F, Kansas State)

Skilled guy with point guard instincts who defends. Evan Turner but maybe a better athlete. One of my personal 15 favorite players in this draft.

#25) Orlando Magic – Jonah Bolden (F, International)

Fast riser, arguable lottery talent. He can move.

#26) Portland Trail Blazers – Anzejs Paseckniks (F/C, International)

With three picks this round, Portland probably needs to trade or draft-n-stash someone. Paseckniks has become a late riser and looks like a great bet to go in the first.

#27) *Miami Heat – Ike Anigobogu (C, UCLA)

A big, big man who should at the very least turn into a plus rebounder and rim protector.

#28) *Miami Heat – Dwayne Bacon (G, Florida State)

I think this bouncy bucket getter is higher on team’s boards than the media is giving him credit for. I know Miami has looked closely at him. He’s ready to play. My favorite sleeper this year.

#29) San Antonio Spurs – Jawun Evans (G, Oklahoma State)

Lottery pick if he’s 2″ taller. Creates his own shot, distributes, and defends. A complete backup PG prospect.

#30) Utah Jazz – Derrick White (G, Colorado)

Arguably the best senior in the draft, White is a very good offensive combo guard who could be this year’s Malcolm Brogdon

 

2nd Round

This round is a crapshoot. Half these picks will be traded. This is more of a stab at which guys will actually be taken rather than where they’ll go.

#31) Charlotte Hornets – Semi Ojeleye (F, SMU)

#32) Phoenix Suns – Ivan Rabb (F/C, California)

#33) Orlando Magic – Tyler Lydon (F, Syracuse)

#34) Sacramento Kings – Isaiah Hartenstein (F/C, International)

#35) Orlando Magic – Frank Jackson (G, Duke)

#36) Philadelphia 76ers – Jarrett Allen (C, Texas)

#37) Boston Celtics – Mathias Lessort (F/C, International)

#38) Chicago Bulls – Thomas Bryant (C, Indiana)

#39) Philadelphia 76ers – Devin Robinson (F, Florida)

#40) New Orleans Pelicans – P.J. Dozier (G, South Carolina)

#41) Atlanta Hawks – Kyle Kuzma (F, Utah)

#42) Utah Jazz – Sterling Brown (G, SMU)

#43) Houston Rockets – Caleb Swanigan (F, Purdue)

#44) New York Knicks – Johnathan Motley (F, Baylor)

#45) Houston Rockets – Vlatko Cancar (F, International)

#46) Philadelphia 76ers – Edmond Summer (G, Xavier)

#47) Indiana Pacers – Tony Bradley (C, UNC)

#48) Milwaukee Bucks – V.J. Beachem (F, Notre Dame)

#49) Denver Nuggets – Cameron Oliver (F, Nevada)

#50) Philadelphia 76ers – Aleksandar Vezenkov (F, International)

#51) Denver Nuggets – Sindarius Thornwell (G, South Carolina)

#52) New Orleans Pelicans – Josh Hart (G, Villanova)

#53) Boston Celtics – Rolands Smits (F, International)

#54) Phoenix Suns – Isaiah Briscoe (G, Kentucky)

#55) Utah Jazz – Kobi Simmons (G, Arizona)

#56) Boston Celtics – Alec Peters (F, Valparaiso)

#57) Brooklyn Nets – Damyean Dotson (G/F, Oregon)

#58) New Yorks Knicks – Jaron Blossomgame (F, Clemson)

#59) San Antonio Spurs – Frank Mason (G, Kansas)

#60) Atlanta Hawks – Davon Reed (G/F, Miami)