Once upon a time, I decided it was a little close-minded of me to intentionally write off an entire genre of film because of my crackpot political beefs with the Walt Disney Corporation. (For anybody new here, I haven’t watched a superhero film since about 2012 because I realized they were all the same and resented that they took up so much market space that could be occupied by any other type of movie. Anyway.) So I decided to swallow my pride and see what these were about. Obviously something was there, since they continue to make crazy money and increasingly garner critical respect.
I chose to focus on Marvel films, since they at least have the reputation for general competence and seem to follow some sort of road map. And my initial findings were…unsurprising. Basically they were entertaining enough while I was in them and had some good lines. There were often some fundamental storytelling issues (the largest of these problems is exposition—explaining stakes, identifying rules of the story universe, etc.—which we’ll perhaps get to at a later date) but overall things were cohesive enough for a movie that didn’t actively expect anything of me.
By the time I got to Iron Man 3 (Ironest Man?) though, things started to feel different. For most of this film, Tony Stark uses not his suit, but actual guns, to fight and eliminate bad guys. And this felt like something of a departure. Previously we’ve seen him use his arc reactor shooty things (yes, and sometimes rockets, but whatever), which don’t really look like guns and can therefore leave the audience with a nonlethal impression whenever he zaps someone at close range. Handguns, not so much.
Then I got to Winter Soldier.
In this film, the antagonist ends up being deep-state Hydra, but for most of it Steve Rogers is just on the run from who he thinks is SHIELD, the American intelligence agency he works for. There is the predictable vibrator-shield violence in these encounters, which, fine, whatever. He probably just knocked all those guys out. The problem for me came at the end of the film. Hydra’s plot involves three of the helicarrier things from Avengers which are being fed a Minority Report algorithm in order to eliminate potential enemies of Hydra. Captain’s plan involves disabling the algorithm and instead having the helicarrier things shoot themselves down. It’s a nice slam-bang finish for your third act and freedom endures for another day.
Here’s the thing though: while the film shows us that the helicarriers’ targets go down from hundreds of thousands to just three, there are still probably quite a few people on the ships when they shoot themselves down. Members of Hydra, yes, but also, you know, human citizens of the United States, who Captains aren’t supposed to just kill.
I’ve noticed a thread through several of these films so far: basically, if a guy is bad enough, our systems of justice are assumed incapable of handling it and “true” justice must be meted out by vigilante superheroes operating outside the law. This usually involves a death that can be attributed more to the bad guy’s monomania than, like straight-up murder or whatever. This is kind of a cynical worldview to cast in the kind of unambiguously heroic terms these films employ, but it’s all over the place. And it’s what we get in this film. Hydra is so abominably bad that Captain—the catalyzing symbol of the American Way™—essentially orders the deaths of dozens, maybe hundreds of people, in peacetime, on American soil. (This scenario feels very different if it’s, say, a Hydra base in Germany during WWII.) These people are also mostly not leaders, just the guys that work in the helicarrier engine room or navigation or whatever.
Obviously Hydra is bad. That’s not the issue. Captain really goes out of his way to convert back Winter Soldier, AKA Bucky, AKA The Best Friend A Guy Could Ever Have, who is arguably the most Hydra of them all since he’s been doing it more actively for more longer. But for the people who were working for SHIELD, who didn’t go to super villain school and possibly didn’t know what the helicarriers were actually up to in the first place, no dice. Captain’s ideals of justice for all stop somewhere before that.
Which, whatever, maybe he’s flawed like that. Would that such were the case, that the audience could be treated to such internal conflict in this previously conflict-free protagonist. (Side note: I hate super heroes as characters because their conflicts are almost unfailingly external rather than internal, meaning they don’t grow or develop or change or think thoughts, meaning they aren’t characters. Fight me.) The problem is nothing in the film portrays any flaw. His actions are only portrayed as Righteous, Selfless, and Heroic. Which means that the version of Captain America walking around Disneyland to the idolment of small children uses massive violence to enforce his singular views of justice and freedom. Just because they sound like good ideals doesn’t make that any less problematic.
I guess this is possibly the largest issue with inflating comic book stories into event cinema. I think there is still something kind of benign if, in a comic book, Captain blows up a helicarrier to save the day. It’s a cartoon after all, and he’s just getting the bad guys. (I did so much worse to my Lego bad guys when I was a child.) But by portraying such acts in a realistic, cinematic way, the violence of those acts is greatly compounded, as are the implications of what such portrayals of violence can mean. It is not a cartoon, after all. If it’s intended only for adults, like Jason Bourne or James Bond, whatever. But if it’s intended to also sell toys to children, we might need to seriously reëxamine our relationship with it.
I thought it was high time to pollute the Inter-waves with more of my un-asked-for opinions about the movies, this time by introducing an ongoing series of some of my personal top 10s. I thought it would be fun to eventually accumulate a diverse collection spanning all kinds of things, from individual moments to a canonized list of my Favorite Movies of All Time™ (if we're lucky--absolutes are hard!).
All of these are going to be, obviously, incredibly subjective and arbitrary, but I also firmly believe that I am infallible so I look forward to not reading your comments. With love of course.
So without further ado, let's jump in with a look at scores!
Ground rules: basically I restricted this category to music originally composed for the film in which it appears. And for the sake of succinctness, technically these are ranked as individual selections from the larger score, albeit the ones I tend to think of when considering the score. (For the most part... Anyway.)
10. "When You're Next to Me" (A Mighty Wind)
This song is one of many original numbers composed by the cast for the 60s folk tribute the film centers around. The film itself is a delightful farce from the people who brought you This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, but the music is often surprisingly heartfelt. Duo Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) gift us with the most genuinely emotional musical moment of the film with "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." This song, while only featured in the credits, is my favorite of their programme though.
9. "Feed the Birds" (Mary Poppins)
Sherman & Sherman
So, Julie Andrews is a queen. But this song is more a sermon, one that I don't think would show up in any film other than one produced by Disney Studios at the end of the great man's life. I've heard it was his favorite composition from all of his house's films, and if that's true I can't find anything with which to dispute it. I can't help it, the instrumentation over the bridge takes my breath every time I hear it.
8. "Solace" (The Sting)
Marvin Hamlisch/Scott Joplin
OK, OK, I know, I'm cheating on this one. But just slightly. Hamlisch based his entire score for this fantastic grifter film (featuring Paul Newman and peak-sexy Robert Redford, you're welcome very much) on Joplin's iconic ragtime music. But his orchestrations and arrangements give them a life they wouldn't have had otherwise. So it's a tiny fudge, but now you all know about the wonderfulness of the music and are going to watch the film, so that evens everything out.
7. "Gabriel's Oboe" (The Mission)
There is a very convincing argument to be made that Ennio Morricone is the greatest film composer there has been. And his work on The Mission, a film about two 18th-century Jesuit priests in Brazil, does much to bolster that argument. His music is infinitely listen-able without surpassing the films they accompany. This score in particular has a searching spirituality that elevates the film while grounding it, making the priests' toil in starting a mission in the jungle a personal journey for the viewer.
6. "Wild Theme" (Local Hero)
Knopfler is primarily known for his effortless-virtuoso guitar work playing in Dire Straits in the 80s. You also probably know his music for The Princess Bride. But before that, he scored a tiny independent Scottish production about the confluence of the modern world and traditional Scottish coastal life called Local Hero. Blending synths and sublime guitar, he perfectly captures the essence of that idiosyncratic life by sea that was so quickly becoming a thing of the past.
5. "For the Hungry Boy" (Phantom Thread)
It also feels like cheating to put a selection from such a recent film so high on this list. But I think it is fully deserving. As I've said before, the score's rich tones are as romantic a thing as there can be in music, a perfect blend of Debussy and Oscar Peterson. It is Greenwood's greatest collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood notwithstanding) and the perfect pairing for a complicated narrative of two complicated, yea, even dark, lovers. But it is from start to finish a delicious listening experience.
4. "C'Era Una Volta il West" (Once Upon a Time in the West)
I tried to avoid duplicating composers, but Mr. Morricone is unavoidable. He rose to instant recognizability with his iconic work on Serio Leone's three Eastwood westerns, but with this final effort he went positively operatic. The score was written and recorded prior to the film's production, and Leone played characters' leitmotifs on set to help them get a sense of each scene.
**This video has the entire score, which is all a treat, but I recommend especially the first section, which begins the film and runs through about 3'45 or so.**
3. "John Dunbar Theme" (Dances with Wolves)
This is, in my opinion, the one western film with a score better than those of Ennio. If he reached for and (more than attained) iconic melodies and operatic proportions, John Barry's work on Dances with Wolves achieves true symphonic depth. It is the majesty and romance and eventual decline of the American West transcribed, without flaw, into music. Listen to this music on a trip across country, through mountain pass or over plain and you'll see exactly what I mean.
2. "Penelope's Theme" (The Brothers Bloom)
The Brothers Bloom is another great grifter movie but could hardly be more different than The Sting. Bloom's score is playfully wistful where the other is nostalgic and even vaudevillian. Nowhere is this better captured than in the theme for Penelope (played by Rachel Weisz). It is first love and regret and hope melancholy wrapped into a few notes, a combination potently kept in balance throughout the film and a large reason Rian Johnson was one of my favorite working filmmakers (until his abduction by Star War but we won't talk about that).
1. "The Vote" (The Village)
James Newton Howard
To top this list I had to go with what has been my favorite for the longest. This is the rare score that contains no filler--each note is perfect and necessary. It is subtle and poignant, yet crucial to the success of the film. I content that those who misread this film do so primarily because they ignore Howard's work. The score is, above all, a deep lament not untinted with an illusory hope. Hilary Hahn's violin is, in many ways, the film's main linking thread: without it I do not think the film could work or sustain its own weight. And it is a delicate and fitting note to end our little quest on today.
So! What did I miss or what surprised you? I won't be reading about it but go ahead and chat/fight amongst yourselves. More importantly, if there are films on this list you haven't seen, I can heartily endorse them all and definitely encourage you to check them out in lieu of Dinosaur World this weekend. Cheers!
To start things off, here's a conversation I have fairly regularly.
Me, to a friend: "Hey I think you should watch [some movie]."
Friend, to me: "Oh, really? Is it on Netflix?"
Me: "I don't know, I don't have Netflix."
Friend: "You don't have Netflix? Why don't you have Netflix? I thought you liked movies."
Since it seems like it's been a while since I've alienated any of my 7 readers, I thought now would be as good a time as ever. We need to talk about Netflix. If you saw my column on VidAngel, this piece will not focus on Netflix's business practices (of which it divulges nearly nothing but at least seem above-water). No, I will instead focus on the company's impact on the world of film, specifically its needlessly antagonistic view of film as a whole and the potentially catastrophic effect the service could have in the long term.
But first: what even is a movie? One of the things Netflix has forced us to do since its inception is to question in new ways what it means to be a movie. Specifically, does where or how it is watched make a difference?
Some, including Netflix, would say, "No." It's simply a moving picture. It may or may not contain narrative elements, sound, or color, but the forms in which it is created or exhibited make no effectual difference. And I would agree, in part. Whether a film is short or long or produced for TV or the big screen or is never seen by anyone again, it is still a film. But I would certainly claim that the where and how make a tremendous difference in how one experiences the film, even that such considerations are essential when thinking about movies. And Netflix does not give two of your neighbor's dog's old turds about that.
Film is a unique art form. On the one hand, it is the most holistic of them all, combining elements of every other form of art Man has yet invented: visual composition, storytelling, music, and on. It relies on the talents and cooperation of a large group of collaborators even for the simplest of endeavors. For this reason, it has had a much more intimate and fraught relationship with corporate business than any other art form. Yes, they all require some sort of sponsor at some level, but how many sponsors will devote hundreds of millions of dollars to the commission of a single piece? So, yes, film is undoubtedly, unabashedly commercial. But it is also fine art.
Netflix does not see that. And indeed its business model is actively hostile to any notion of "art." It sees what it terms to be merely "content" to be "consumed." I take serious issue with both of those words. Art is not "content." The endless and meaningless material that spews from a company's social media manager is "content." Logan Paul is "content." Baking hacks are "content." Art is meant to make a mark; "content" merely to wash over or through its audience in as constant a stream as possible. Netflix's users are encouraged now to merely consume what is given them, not to be a reflective, discerning audience enjoying and being impacted by the artistic statement of other human beings. Indeed, Netflix is anathema to art.
Surely that is a strong word, but I stand by it. For most of the history of film, it was, like theatre or music, a performative art. It was shown, in public, at given times that were not negotiable. In order to see it, one might have had to wait in line for hours. If the performance was missed, it was missed without recall. And once a film was through with its public performance, very few ever saw it again. It was an event.
But it was an accessible event. People who could not afford to see a stage play or symphony or opera had a nickel or two for a nice Saturday matinee. Film, next only perhaps to popular recorded music, became the great democratically enjoyed form of art in the 20th century.
The advent of home viewing removed some of the "event" status of film while expanding the democratic elements. Now one could own a copy of a favorite film and enjoy it at will. And rather than devalue the theatrical viewing experience, I think it opened up a beautiful new opportunity: the potential for a curated collection of art. Like one might collect treasured and meaningful books and music and paintings, one could now do so with the motion picture. In a form different from its original presentation, yes, but with all crucial elements intact.
It is the express mission of Netflix to set fire to all of that for the powerfully undemocratic purpose of pushing "content."
For with Netflix, one does not get a cultural event on the level of King Kong or Jaw or (dare I say it) even Infinite Wars. Neither does one get a personalized collection cultivated over years, an accumulated statement of enjoyable and perhaps important expressions of art to be admired and discussed and studied. One gets a parade of "content" tailored only to keep you watching enough to warrant your monthly subscription. With Netflix and its ilk, it is as though we collectively decided to tear down our libraries and book stores and entrust our literacy to the algorithmic recommendations of e-readers we have no control over.
But surely that is a little overdramatic. Netflix isn't Fahrenheit 451ing on us. Are they?
It's hard to tell for certain. Netflix is notoriously non-transparent, and this carries over into their searching capabilities. Browsing their categories feels like cycling in an endless loop, with titles appearing through multiple genres with little rhyme or reason. With that and no complete catalogue available from which to glean titles, no one really knows what is on Netflix on a given day. But I wanted to know. The best I could do was to enter in all of the DVD titles available to me, which totaled 415 (not all mine, I protest, but I don't disavow a perhaps-misspent youth). The number of those titles currently on Netflix?
For those keeping score, that's less than 8 percent. "But!" I hear you protest, "That's an incredibly skewed sample!" True. The home-viewing habits of my associates and I are arguably more niche than that of Ma and Pa Kettle. But, for a service that still clings to the public notion that it has everything and that states that it honors and promotes film, there is an incredible amount of embarrassing omissions, and what it does have is haphazard and even lazy. For example:
"Yes, but you're still not reconciling your crappy sample size," you say. True. But let me just point out one more thing. Prior to entering the streaming game, Netflix had amassed a library of some 35,000 DVD titles. To put that in context, the current American commercial film market produces around 300 titles a year. At that rate, it would take more than 115 years to create such a body from scratch. So the Netflix library of yesteryear would have contained contemporary and popular hits as well as a HUGE catalog of classic and international pictures. If Netflix didn't have what you were looking for, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that it couldn't be found.
I'm sure that now their library still ranges into the thousands, but it is a library bereft of any weight or purpose due to its incomplete arbitrariness. For example, it does not contain:
So how could any company that depends on giving customers what they're looking for get away with such a reckless disregard for the goods it provides? Easy: due to the runaway success of some of their original programming, Netflix has learned that it doesn't need to keep a sizable or competitive film library because people are fine with spending 8 bucks a month for Black Mirror and Stronger Thongs (excuse me, "Stranger Things"). In fact, Netflix recently announced a plan to spend $8 billion on original content this year, equating to some 700 (!) movies and TV series in various languages.
This investment is impressive and no doubt exciting for fans of their programming. But it should also give you serious pause. That doesn't look like the kind of company that wants to stand out from its competitors by offering selection. It looks like a company that just wants to be its own network.
"But what makes that any different from any other existing studio or network?" you ask. The difference is that Netflix has destroyed movie renting and is waging war on the public exhibition of films. It almost acts insulted when, as Cannes had the nerve to do recently, film organizations require that films be shown theatrically for consideration for awards. As Netflix continues to demonstrate that it doesn't need public showings to make money or even garner industry respect, other producers will surely take note. And first look no further than Disney, who are preparing their own streaming service armed with their stable of popular titles ranging from their own classics to Star Wars and Marvel and, now, potentially all of Fox. Considering how crappily they tend to treat theaters and how hellbent they are on total industry domination, don't be surprised when they first discontinue circulating DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital copies of their films, then move to "exclusive" material only available on their service, then finally a gradual discontinuance of any public exhibition at all. If every family in America is paying them 8 bucks a month whether they watch anything or not, why would a studio consider any other business model that requires them to give a cut to manufacturers or distributors?
To be bluntly clear: I do not think that Netflix in its current iteration is doing anything good for movies. Indeed, I say that Netflix is possibly the worst thing to happen to film in the history of the form. It is actively and needlessly hostile to the distribution and exhibition of films. It is going out of its way to destroy access to a century's worth of films from around the world, substituting the potential for cultural literacy with a bafflingly crappy algorithm. It has taken the great art form of the modern era and watered it down to "content" used to fill the gap between crappy comedy specials and TV you are supposed to like because everyone at the office does. ("This show is like we're in the 80s again even though I born in 1998!") And, I fear, Netflix will teach other producers and distributors of film that how something is watched doesn't really make a difference; that, as long as your subscriptions continue to grow, it doesn't really matter what you make because you are getting paid regardless.
Users of Netflix, I plead with you: cut your ties with them. They don't need you, and are offering you increasingly poor returns on your subscription at the cost of the reason you started subscribing in the first place: movies.
Hey, remember that time that Jim Halpert and Mary Poppins made a movie together, and it was really, really terrifying?
I'm glad we live in a time where that is now a thing we can say. Yes, real-life Most Adorable Couple In The World Emily Blunt and John Krasinski teamed up to make, of all things, a limits-pushing horror film. And yes, you should see it.
A Quiet Place is a tricky little film operating on a deceptively simple premise: What if there were vicious monsters that hunted only by their sense of hearing? This initial conceit is a perfect, pulpy little kernel that leads to an excellent portrayal and exploration of primal fear.
I love it because it feels like the kind of thing Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson would cook up, an arbitrary menace making something as commonplace as a closing door a potential death-knell. It's also the kind of story that if you squint too hard at seems a little ridiculous: really, monsters that are basically ears with teeth? But it's also the kind of story that, due to its extreme formal limitations, yields really intense, terrifying results from competent, creative hands.
Director Jim's hands are, indeed, very much up to the task. He claims to have not seen many horror films prior to making this one, and in a way I think it shows. He is often loathe to indulge in the features that plague so many mediocre horror outings--for one, he does not rely on a theatre's overloud sound system to deliver the percussive shots indicating when to jump. In this case, any sound--even quiet ones--are scary. For this reason, the film is one of the most tense films start-to-finish I can think of. There aren't the typical "quiet" moments where characters regroup because they are all quiet moments.
I guess I can't say much about the film other than I think you should see it. If you are a die-hard horror person or general film enthusiast, you'll find the film's imposed limitations a delightful, highly-effective novelty in a world of doll-hauntings and other spooks-of-the-week. More importantly, if you are a person that doesn't really get into horror, I think this film still has a great deal of appeal for you. Indeed, in many ways I'd say it was made with you in mind. Who knows, it might even end up being a gateway of sorts. C'mon, everybody's doing it.
A Quiet Place features John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, and is rated PG-13 for general scariness, but zero swearsing because you can't curse if you can't talk.
Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
Directed by John Krasinski
Welcome back movie lovers! Now that the holiday fog has lifted and screens aren't being tied up by Disney's really upsetting screening requirements for their latest Star War, the rest of us are getting a chance to look at some of the films that snuck in at the end of the year. For me, that meant getting out to Phantom Thread.
This is the latest from eclectic writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and the supposed swan song of legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In my estimation, neither disappointed.
The film is the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a fastidious high-end dressmaker in 1950s London. He meets and becomes involved with strong-willed Alma (Vicky Krieps), and a provocative relationship ensues.
As with Anderson's other films, 'Thread' almost develops its own cinematic language. People have criticized them for being opaque or unsympathetically misanthropic. I think those readings are tremendously flawed. I believe he throws some audiences because, in many ways, his films do not function like most tend to. They often have no endgame, no fixed narrative point toward which everything hurdles or grand mystery to unwrap. Instead, they explore relationships, often through a series of interactions that may or may not build off each other or lead to one another directly, but that combine to form complete portraits. Characters are contradictory, feature uncomfortable elements, and subvert genre expectations. 'Thread' does this within the confines of postwar England, draped in a beautiful, inviting claustrophobia.
It wears the clothes of a period costume drama. I've heard comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, comparisons which are, I think, appropriate. But it is also, perhaps more so, one of the most subversively provocative films to come out in a good while. 'Thread,' over the course of its two-plus hours, asks repeatedly the question: "Is love, either as an act or idea, inherently selfish?" And it answers that question with a resounding "Yes!--but that is no bad thing."
An example: Toward the middle of the film, Alma decides she wants to "surprise" Reynolds with a dinner she has prepared for him. It is how she must show him she loves him. Reynolds, however, is decidedly not pleased with her gesture; indeed he feels attacked, asking her in exaggerated jest if she has a gun as well.
We, like Alma, are hard-wired to assume that romantic gestures are and should only be taken as the well-meaning tokens they are. We tell ourselves they are meant for the benefit of the lover, but how often are they designed more for our own gratification? 'Thread' sees this, calls it out, and then settles on that being perfectly acceptable.
Love (even the emotional type of love explored in the film) is, after all, an appetite. And appetites can only be satisfied by the requirements of the one that hungers, not the one that supplies.
All of this is wrapped up in a superbly-written, ravishingly photographed battle of two persistently immovable people. And did I mention the score? Johnny Greenwood has produced some incredible scores during his decade of collaboration with Anderson, but he has far outdone himself here. It is by turns overwhelming romantic and deeply unsettling, taking influence from Debussy and old Hollywood romances: a perfect counterpoint to a film that flirts with and defies those same states. See it for no other reason than to bask in the sounds he conjures for a couple of hours.
There is also, of course, the leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (matched perfectly by Vicky Krieps, thankfully with a long career ahead of her yet). It shows the kind of control we have come to expect from him, with impossible nuances of expression in a character who spends the entirety of the film in essentially a single gear. It is a delight to behold, and I am glad to know it will be his final performance. It is a worthy send-off for a modern master, and one that will continue to yield fruit as the film ages.
So, yes, go see Phantom Thread. Go find a theatre showing it and support them. Go enjoy this complicated, demanding, and exquisitely delicate piece of motion picture art.
Phantom Thread features Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Leslie Manville, and is rated R for a little bit of angry swearsing.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
by Chase Harrison