Chekhov’s Cock: ‘Boogie Nights’ turns 20.

September 11, 1997.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Buzz was palpable before anybody saw a single frame. Anderson’s wholly original and lively script had been circulating the desks of Hollywood players for years*, with William H. Macy even calling it the best thing he’d ever read and saying he’d “read the yellow pages if Anderson was directing”. The film was an instant success. Reviewers praised it as one of the most groundbreaking films of the 90’s, something akin to Pulp Fiction or Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Anderson was hailed as a wunderkind; comparisons to names like Altman and Kubrick and Scorsese didn’t seem too far-fetched. The ensemble cast was lauded as well, with particular praise going to Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore (both of whom would go on to receive Oscar nominations for the film).

*For more on the development of the film and a script that almost became an urban legend, check out this exceptional oral history of the film from Grantland (R.I.P.)

Boogie Nights was a smash hit with audiences as well. It grossed $43M (nearly 3x its budget) despite being a 150+ minute film with a hard-R rating that lacked both an established star in the lead and the backing of a major studio. It’s only grown in stature in the two decades since.

It’s easy to see why. For a film with so much thematic weight and so many big ideas, Boogie Nights never sacrifices entertainment value (the same can’t be said for Magnolia, Anderson’s brilliant but challenging follow-up). Much of that is thanks to Anderson’s script being really funny. I often think back on the scene when Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) goes to a party at Jack’s house and first meets Reed (John C. Reilly). Reilly is used perfectly. The character wants to impress everyone, but nothing about him is particularly impressive. He claims to look like Han Solo, but obviously lacks Harrison Ford’s handsomeness. He claims to work out a lot, but doesn’t seem to be in good shape. He attempts a flip off a diving board, but all he does is hurt himself.

As the drugs flow more and more, Reed’s detachment from reality only grows, bringing Dirk along as well. If you’ve ever had any experiences with cocaine or witnessed the experiences of others, you know that when someone is geeking they’re confident to a fault. No scene I’m aware of captures this as brilliantly as the recording studio scene in Boogie Nights. Dirk and Reed, coked-up to the point where their legs are restless and the cigarettes burn at a rapid rate, wholeheartedly believe they’re making the next hit single with “Feel My Heat”. Only, it’s awful. Unbelievably awful. Hilariously awful. The engineer in the studio can hardly keep a straight face. It’s a very funny scene, but also somewhat of a tragic turning point in the film. Dirk and Reed are so far gone off the drugs and their own egos that they can’t see how ridiculous they look/sound.

Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sees it though, only he’s too bashful to speak up. He truly loves Dirk, and his overall timidity stems from the fact that he’s a relatively flamboyant gay man living in a time and working in an industry not exactly open to such lifestyles. He’s a great tragic character. The most heartbreaking moment in a film filled with heartbreaking moments comes at the New Year’s party when Scotty arrives and shows Dirk his new car. Dirk couldn’t care less, but he’s too nice to let Scotty know it. Scotty bought the care with the sole purpose of impressing Dirk, even as going as far as saying he’ll return it if Dirk doesn’t think it’s cool. Then he tries to kiss Dirk. Dirk’s very polite about turning down the advance, but it still crushes Scotty. Dirk goes back to the party, while Scotty gets in his car and bawls his eyes out. This was Scotty’s most significant moment in the film but probably something Dirk forgot about the next morning. A minor scene in the larger context of the movie, but a monumental moment for Scotty, and a nice reminder that what’s insignificant for some is often life-or-death for others.

The entire New Year’s party, welcoming the 1980’s, is an important thematic moment in a film that’s very much about the ending of eras. Now, this turn-of-the-decade may not mark the clear cultural shift that the previous one did (which Anderson would go on to explore in Inherent Vice), but it functions that way in the film as from here on out things get really dark. The energy and optimism of the films first half ends abruptly. Every character hits rock bottom, and those moments are cut together perfectly. Kicking it off is Little Bill (William H. Macy), who again witnesses his promiscuous wife (played by none other than porn superstar Nina Hartley) fucking another dude without even making a real effort to conceal it. This is the third time we see this. Bill has reached his breaking point. In what makes for one of the most iconic extended shots in cinematic history, Bill walks in on his wife, then emotionlessly walks through the party out to his car, gets his gun, walks back through the party, murders his wife and her lover, and then kills himself in front of the whole party. Boom. The gunshot brings in the 1980’s, and functions as the moment when Boogie Nights starts to become a tragedy. 

Sticking with the “end of an era” theme, Anderson works some meta-commentary on the film industry in. Famed porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is resistant when his financier insists he begin making the switch from film to video, which is cheaper to shoot on and distribute. Jack considers himself a filmmaker and an artist, and to make this compromise is to surrender his integrity. The same transition was happening with Hollywood at the time of Boogie Nights’ release, and the fight would continue. It’s over now. Almost everything is shot and projected digitally. But Anderson is still a champion of film. It’s funny to see him arguing for the merits of shooting on film stock via a story about the pornography industry in the 70’s. It wasn’t an accident that this bit was included.

I can’t believe I’ve written 1,000 words on Boogie Nights without talking about Dirk Diggler’s penis. From the very first scene we’re told it’s quite the penis, something capable of inspiring awe even in folks who work around big penises everyday. Many of the film’s most memorable images are of other characters seeing Dirk’s package for the first time. Anderson has fun teasing us. Everyone in the movie gets to see it, but the audience doesn’t, at least not until the film’s final scene. It’s remarkable visual storytelling by Anderson. I’m heterosexual (I swear it), yet when watching the film for the first time I was emotionally invested in seeing it. After all, this penis is the catalyst for the whole film. We never get to meet this eccentric cast of characters Dirk’s now legendary prosthetic dick doesn’t entice Jack.

As Boogie Nights tumbles to a close -I say “tumbles” because once 1980 hits it’s really all downhill for these characters- we get to an uncomfortably intense scene that has our characters wondering what went wrong to get to this point. I’m of course talking about when Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) visit the home of Rahad (Alfred Molina) for a drug deal. Unbeknownst to Dirk and Reed at first, Todd brought along a gun and plans to rip the dealer off. We know something bad is going to happen, so during the deal, when Rahman dances and air-guitars to “Sister Christian”, we should be laughing at how ridiculous Molina makes it look. But we can’t, because of the black cloud hanging over the scene. Exceptional acting from all involved and a testament to Anderson’s ability as an atmospheric director. He’s toying with us. Again. You can’t help but be completely acquiescent to Anderson’s cinematic whims.

A big part of what makes the film so endearing is the lead turn of Wahlberg*, who would go from underwear model to serous movie star overnight. The raw, unhinged sexuality he brings to the role fits perfectly. When he freaks out and his voice gets high, we remember Dirk is really still a kid (he’s 16 at the start of the movie). Wahlberg nails every emotional note the script calls for, which is an awful lot of range for such an inexperienced actor to show off. It remains the best performance of his career.

*Oddly enough, Anderson originally wanted Wahlberg’s ‘The Basketball Diaries’ co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, but Leo chose ‘Titanic’ instead. Then Anderson wanted Joaquin Phoenix, but he had reservations about playing a porn star. Ultimately, after being referred to Anderson by Leo, Wahlberg won the role.

For all the film’s formal merits -groovy costumes and set design, stunning photography courtesy of Bob Elswitt- it’s not the film’s technical achievements that make people come back to Boogie Nights after all these years. It’s the characters. We return to see Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) unofficially adopt Rollergirl (Heather Graham) over a great many lines of coke. We return to see Buck’s (Don Cheadle) dream of premium stereo equipment at discount prices become a reality. We return to see Maurice (Luis Guzmán) endlessly beg Jack to put him in a porno despite his hairy beer belly. Anderson loves all his characters, and he loves all their flaws. He forces us to love them too.

6 Directors We’d Love to See Get Fired From a ‘Star Wars’ Movie

A couple days ago, news broke that Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World fame will no longer be directing Star Wars Episode IX. Much like literally every other time in history somebody in Hollywood is fired, the PR spin calls it a “mutual decision” and says it’s due to “creative differences”. Considering the film is still only in scripting/development stages it’s not the craziest thing to see the director replaced. What makes it alarming is that this is the FOURTH time LucasFilm president and super-producer Kathleen Kennedy has removed a director from a project in her still short tenure as Star Wars boss. With Rogue One, which was ultimately quite successful, Kennedy forced director Gareth Edwards to take a backseat during re-shoots and post, bringing in Bourne veteran Tony Gilroy to spearhead the film’s completion. Josh Trank couldn’t even get his standalone story off the ground, and just this year Kennedy fired Phil Lord & Chris Miller off of the upcoming Han Solo movie IN THE MIDDLE OF SHOOTING, replacing them with the experienced and competent but often bland Ron Howard. Something is clearly up at LucasFilm. Kennedy is the one in charge and if she sees things differing from her vision, she’s quick to make a move.

Our team -Zak, and Zak after five expired Coors Lights- thought it’d be interesting to put together a short list of directors we’d like to see get hired and then fired by Kennedy. 

Also, I would never actually root for someone to lose their job. This is for fun. 

Let’s begin with…

George Lucas

Much to the chagrin of the goddamn nerds who continue to push the awful myth that the prequels were anything other than crap, George Lucas has had no involvement in Star Wars since he sold his company to Disney. I would love to see Lucas brought back into the fold, only to be let go after the first draft of his script dedicates its entire third act to regulations in the scrap metal industry on Jakku.

Also, Lucas and Kennedy (and Steven Spielberg, and Kennedy’s husband fellow super-producer Frank Marshall) have all been close friends for decades. I’m a huge fan of personal relationships being destroyed by professional rifts, personally. 

Patty Jenkins

Jenkins is fresh off the wildly successful Wonder Woman, a film that champions strong ladies in an industry that is still run by a staggering number of old men. What’s lame about that is, journalists and fans are now talking about Jenkins like she’s the only female filmmaker. Any time there’s a job opening, her name is brought up as the progressive choice. Like, really? Patty has already “made it”, folks. So have Kathryn Bigelow and Ava DuVernay. If those are the only three female names you can conjure up when fan-hiring a female director, you’re part of the problem. Studios should be trying to balance the scales by finding the next Jenkins.

So I’d love to see Jenkins hired but then replaced by another filmmaker on the cusp of the superstardom Jenkins has already achieved, like Susanne Bier or or Dee Rees or Michelle MacLaren (who was actually originally hired for Wonder Woman.)

Quentin Tarantino

Here’s a hypothetical…Kennedy hires the lauded Tarantino as an unexpected coupe. Fans everywhere are excited. We all imagine the insanely talented Star Wars cast reading Tarantino dialogue. But when the script is finalized, Tarantino has Finn saying the n-word every other line and cast Samuel L. Jackson as his father. Can you imagine someone telling Finn he needs to go back to Jakku and him screaming, “N—-, what?”. Would that be too controversial for a Disney-backed franchise film? Would Tarantino be fired on the spot? Would Spike Lee emerge from thin air to remind everyone that Django Unchained was both bad and extremely problematic (which he’s right about, btw)?

Christopher Nolan

“We’re going to shoot this film on both IMAX and 65mm film stock. Actually, we’re going to invent a new film stock, like 95mm or something. Then, we’re going to build an actual working, flying Milenium Falcon. NASA will help with the costs. Then, we’re going to write a nonlinear script that closes by pondering if the entire trilogy was just a dream. Then, we’re going to cast Cillian Murphy as Kylo Ren, and have Tom Hardy in there somewhere, and maybe Michael Caine. Also, fuck Netflix. Did I mention that? Then, we’re going to enlist actual astronauts to-”

“Chris, get the fuck out of my office.”

Woody Allen

I lied earlier when I said I’d never root for someone to actually get fired. I hope Woody Allen gets fired from something. Fuck Woody Allen. Maybe getting fired from such a high profile film would make everyone realize he’s really just a rapey pedophile whose works have aged poorly for everyone who isn’t a Brooklyn-based posh fuck who subscribes to The New Yorker and never reads it but makes sure to bring it everywhere with them and have its logo hang out their Patagonia laptop case yet they couldn’t tell you who Junot Díaz is despite having the last 5 NYer issues on the over-priced minimalist coffee table in their Scandinavian-influenced apartment that smells like an odd mixture of cat urine and bush weed that they refuse to tidy up because the filth makes them feel like real Brooklynites and not the ugly mustache-having fucks guilty of gentrification that they actually are. You know, the types who’d actually be excited for a new Woody Allen movie.

Fuck Woody Allen.

Clint Eastwood

Clint works so damn fast, often developing and shooting and editing an entire acclaimed film in the span of six months, that Kennedy might even get the chance to fire him. Kennedy would show up with some script revisions only to find Clint already made the whole damn movie. 

‘Game of Thrones’ szn 7, ep. 3: Is Jaime about to become a cuck?

For all the dragons and armies and boobies, Game of Thrones is at its best when it’s at its quietest; that is, moments when it’s just two or three or maybe four people in a room talking to each other. In “The Queen’s Justice”, by far the strongest episode of a season that’s already 42.8% of the way over, we saw a handful of accelerated action sequences sandwiched in between a couple of killer conversations.

Let’s start with the obvious one, the most anticipated meeting in GOT history. Dany and Jon. Ice and fire. Auntie and nephew. The two characters this show has set up as the likable leads ever since season one. All that jazz. Despite the one-note nature of the Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington as of late*, there was still some stirring dialogue here. I credit the larger context of the the conversation; context that the viewer, but not the characters, understand. There’s this “rule” in storytelling that for a scene to have real tension, someone has to be hiding something from someone else. Either one character knows something the other doesn’t, or the audience knows something neither characters do. This was of course a case of the latter as we all know Dany and Jon are related. Everything they do and say to each other before they learn the truth carries extra dramatic weight. It must be really fun to write dialogue this way, and harkens back to just how perfect is was to reveal Jon’s lineage to us last season before he met Dany.

*Just how many times is GOT going to make a joke about Jon Snow brooding before it, you know, has him do something other than brood?

Dany and Jon were at a relative stalemate at first. She wants him to bend the knee and support her claim to the throne. He wants her to give him dragonglass and join his side in the coming war against the dead. Luckily, Tyrion is there. He’s the best talker of the bunch and somewhat in the middle of the two. He’s loyal to Dany and wants to see her destroy Cersei, but he also knows Jon is an honest dude who probably isn’t making everything up. We saw him able to convince Dany to budge a bit and allow Jon to mine dragonglass. But it’s not like Dany and Jon are best buddies just yet. As Jon asked, how does he convince people he doesn’t know that a threat they don’t believe in is coming to kill them? That’s the story for the remainder this season.

I don’t care about Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes dying.

Line of the Week

“They just like severed heads, really” – Euron

Bran is sort of a weirdo, no? I understand his role as the Three-Eyed Raven requires him to act a certain way, but good god, that reunion with Sansa was cold. He hadn’t seen her in years, more or less since he could walk, and the first thing he said to her boiled down to “you looked pretty that night you were forced to marry and raped by a monster”. Bran is clearly a huge part of the show’s endgame, but his last few scenes have been uncomfortable to watch, and not in the way GOT scenes are usually uncomfortable to watch.

Ramsay Bolton, the aforementioned monster who terrorized Sansa, may be dead, but the show has been quick to replace him with Euron Greyjoy. Euron is a much more interesting character than Ramsay, however. Euron at least has understandable motivations, a certain method to his madness. Ramsay was a sadist who existed on the show for the sole purpose of giving the viewer someone easy to root against. It was fun to see Euron parade his captors through the streets of King’s Landing on his way to the Red Keep. Mark Mylod, a veteran director of GOT and other HBO shows, made a strong effort to shoot the walk from the same angles as Cersei’s “walk of shame” at the end of season five. It wasn’t too long ago that the same commoners were throwing shit and food at a naked Cersei; now they’re doing it to their enemies. It was a neat way to show the fickle nature of the people. “They just like severed heads, really,” as Euron said.

I still don’t care about Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes dying.

Cersei and Jaime’s wartime strategy certainly one-upped Tyrion and Dany’s yet again this week. I enjoyed the way the attack on Casterly Rock was staged, more or less as a montage narrated by Tyrion. In doing so, the show was able to not waste any time with a relatively insignificant plot point but still work in some action. It was a callback to Tyrion’s heyday of entertaining whores, much like Jaime’s decision to give up The Rock in favor of easily taking Highgarden was a callback to a similar tactic Robb Stark deployed against him back in season two. Also, the show didn’t make it clear, but the logic behind taking Highgarden instead of defending The Rock is so the Lannisters could use the loot from Highgarden, the richest place in Westeros, to pay back the Iron Bank. On top of that, Casterly Rock is on the other side of the world. Now without ships, Grey Worm and the Unsullied are basically stuck away from where the war is. If you’re Cersei/Jaime and had to chose having control of just one of the two, Highgarden is the obvious choice.

I absolutely adored the performance of Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell throughout her run on the show. Her scathing wit made every conversation she took part in entertaining. She was a true scene stealer. At no moment was that more clear than her final scene. Even facing certain death, literally having just drank poison, she still won the moment vs Jaime. The look on his face as she explained Cersei’s monstrosity and admitted to killing Joffrey was priceless. He knew everything she was saying was true. It’s yet another scene where Jaime’s allegiances are subtly tested. He loves Cersei and he probably always will. But there has to be a breaking point sooner or later. 

More subtext from the Jaime-Olenna convo…Olenna admitting to killing Joffrey, and Jaime clearly believing her, means he now knows Tyrion FOR SURE didn’t do it. And more importantly, he now knows Cersei wanted Tyrion, a brother who Jaime loves, dead regardless of his non-involvement. Tensions in that bedroom should be at an all-time high.

The Sam/Jorah/Citadel subplot has been very underwhelming. First off, the legendary and incurable sickness greyscale is in fact quite curable. It was as simple as peeling the stuff off then applying a little ointment*. Sam’s presence at the Citadel to this point has been nothing more than convenient placing to drive the plot. It hasn’t done anything to forward his character arc. He surely has more to learn there -the common theory is that he’ll be the one to discover Jon’s lineage- but the writers have sacrificed one of their stronger characters for narrative ease to this point in the season.

*It should be noted, however, that Shireen Baratheon was not treated that way. She still had visible greyscale on her face, it just stopped spreading.

“The Queen’s Justice” was an overall solid episode. It featured real forward motion, a highly anticipated meeting, and one of the finest scenes in the series’ run with the Jaime-Olenna ending. It still feels like things are moving a bit slow considering how little time is left, but we’re getting there.

I still definitely don’t care about Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes dying.

Five Random Thoughts:

  1. If for some reason you aren’t reading/watching Jason Concepcion of The Ringer, please stop reading this and do so. As The Ringer’s in-house GOT nut and self-described Maester, he knows more about the show and books than anybody. His content is always essential. His “Ask the Maester” mailbags are very educational for non-book readers.
  2. If you haven’t heard, there was a major hack of HBO. The company fears that scripts and even full episodes have been stolen. Add this to the fact that the entire plot of this season has been on Reddit for over six months (and it’s been accurate thus far), and we’re looking at a larger problem with cyber-security in relation to spoilers with GOT. In full disclosure, I am vaguely familiar with what’s rumored to go down. But I would never spoil anything.
  3. We got some Bronn this week! Albeit in a speechless cameo when Jaime took Highgarden.
  4. No Arya this week. Also, nothing from The Hound and the Brotherhood again. Expect Arya to return to Winterfell and be featured prominently next week.
  5. Get Diana Rigg a goddamn Emmy. That is all.

‘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.

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.