In 2019, Netflix released the first season of The Umbrella Academy, a 10-episode series based on the 2008 Dark Horse comics of the same name written by aging emo heartthrob and My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way. The platform described the series as "Watchmen Meets the Royal Tenenbaums," which happens to be my favorite graphic novel of all time and one of my favorite directors. Naturally, I was excited to brush up on these before binging season 1 and newly-released season 2. As it turns out, the Netflix series is not at all reminiscent of either of these movies.
An Oldie but a Goodie: Watchmen (2009) (film based on the graphic novel)
Worthy of the legendary graphic novel, Watchmen is easily the best superhero or antihero movie of the last decade+ and quite possibly the best comic book movie adaptation ever made, from DC or Marvel, with a star-studded soundtrack to match. A uniquely dark, cerebral, and positively disturbing take on the genre, it uncompromisingly follows the source material almost to the letter, which can make it a bit confusing to those not familiar with it. The movie stays fiercely loyal to the cult favorite, but conjures up something both outrageous and Shakespearean in its execution. It is somehow serious yet ridiculous enough to keep fans fighting (hate it all you want, but I love the sex scene). In my opinion, Zac Sydner’s controversial style is this controversial story’s biggest asset; scenes range from bombastic to brooding, claustrophobic to window-shattering freefalls from a high rise. Comprised of half bitter realism and half science fiction, it does seem to give a nod to films like Apocalypse Now, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and The Green Mile, and few directors could tackle a story so structurally, morally, and tonally complex and do this well. A film even Terry Gilliam quit after describing it as “unfilmable” became a hard-bitten, magnificent $185 million dollar box office smash. 10/10
(I'm not saying I agree with Scorsese, but I think it's high time to end the Marvel franchise to make room for some fringe comic adaptations. Nationalist-propaganda-disguised-as-superhero-movies is so 2012. Do not even get me started on the Batman/Joker/Harley Quinn fuckery. Black Panther can hang though.)
“And I Don’t Even Like Animated Movies!” Said Everyone: Isle of Dogs (2018) (film)
Listen, you insufferable dorks, you’re not hip for hating on Wes Anderson. Some of us actually do want the same coming-of-age story in every flavor. Some of us have shit to work out. And clearly, it's not just me - auteur Anderson has cranked out four wildly successful feature-length films in the last ten years alone: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Isle of Dogs (2018); and maintains the recognizable style throughout both kid and adult films. Modern directors can only hope to make the artistic mark on cinema the way that Anderson has, passing down the good genes of pithy and apathetic dialogue and immaculate, stylized settings. (Sure, he's eccentric, but you make excuses for Tarantino.) Instead of revisiting Rushmore/Royal Tenenbaums-era Wes Anderson, I decided to analyze his second most recent film.
Created by the same collaborative efforts of producers Jeremy Dawson and Scott Rubin that created Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is a fresh, wide-eyed tale of a boy in search of his dog in a futuristic near-dystopian Japan where all dogs have been banished to a remote island due to a curable sickness and left to die alone. Shot in bright, rococo stop-motion and complete with Anderson’s signature fast-paced dialogue from his familiar ensemble of actors, jet black irony, and impeccable symmetry, Isle of Dogs takes a meaningful bite out of weighty themes like corruption, industrialization, and abandonment through the innocent eyes of a child and the disguise of a children’s movie. Technologically impressive, morally relevant yet incredibly accessible, and other high notes include a powerfully percussive Japanese score, a haiku that evokes empathy from an entire nation, and a very cute pug named Oracle. 9/10
Apocalypse TV Guide Vol. 2: Period Pieces to Help You Forget That Now is Actually Also Pretty Terrifying
And sweet, sweet nostalgia for stuff you never experienced.
I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying: Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019) (film)
Utterly ravishing. Elegant. Passionate. Slow-burning. An 18th century period piece without men. Irreparable heartbreak. Longing. Greek mythological literary allusions. Harpsichords. The female gaze. Lesbian tears. A perfect film. 10/10
Groovy and Smells Like Weed: American Hustle (2013) (film)
Corduroy, crochet, and chest hair galore. American Hustle is a lush to death and expertly manicured inspired-by-a-true-story story of two con artists in love and in trouble, both rife with complication. This film’s selling point is truly its commitment to the late 70’s texture, as evidenced by the sets, the costume design, and the location shots all curated to sepia-stained perfection. But more than a satisfying pastiche, characterizations are well-defined and well-executed, each one earnest, flawed, and believable. The disregard for moral absolutism is palpably erotic, fun, sad, cheap, melodramatic, and gross at times. All the right hairs are out of place. Even Jennifer Lawrence is good in this movie. And Bradley Cooper is actually kind of a good dancer??? 8/10
Rich Girls Still Don’t Marry Poor Boys: Great Gatsby (2013) (film)
Speaking of killer textures, Great Gatsby goes big in exactly the opposite way. Luxe Roaring Twenties art deco, delightfully anachronistic, and dripping with the glitz and glam of modernity, the film and its half hip-hop/half electroswing soundtrack breathe fantastic new life into a high school English classic. Baroque and bejeweled, the fast pace and dramatic camerawork take a surrealist approach to a grounded story. However, my chief beef is its depiction of the titular character, Jay Gatsby, whose composure slowly deteriorates over the course of the film. Maybe I’m a book nerd, but in the novel, Gatsby was cool and collected to the bitter end, and in my mind, deserves to stay that way. Dazzling in true Baz Lurhmann form, but just a little too distant from its beloved source. 7/10
Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo, now with 70% reduced misogyny! - Spellbound (1945)
Vincent Price: House on Haunted Hill might be a classic, but it’s also a snooze. How about a film that is either scary or hilarious? Entertaining regardless, just depends on how you feel about bugs. - The Tingler (1959)
Quentin Tarantino: If you liked Pulp Fiction, but have now realized you’re no longer 15 years old, here’s a movie with a hip new thing called character development. - Jackie Brown (1997)
Carol Reed: Okay, actually, you’re right, The Third Man is objectively a masterpiece. But you should also watch this. - Night Train to Munich (1940)
Jean-Luc Godard: Listen, everyone swoons over Breathless after undergraduate Global Film 101. It's a phase, and you'll grow out of it. If you like grit, arrogance, road movies, legendary directors, and French New Wave, may I suggest something a little heavier? - Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985)
Movie and TV reviews finally finished during quaran-time. Favorite films from the last decade, first time viewings, binge-watched TV series, foreign and classic films, snuck-in book reviews, gay stuff, wildcards. No particular order.
Existentialism Lite™: The Good Place (2016-2019) (series)
Drawn in by positive critical reception and the regionally famous “I should get to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati” line, I quickly found The Good Place to be a lighthearted, wholesome, and occasionally thought-provoking little romp. From the creator of TV hits such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, writer/director Michael Schur pumps out yet another twee but bingeable series. Repetitive at times and a few minor plot holes, but with easily digestible 22-minute episodes and clever, lovable characters, those four seasons go down fast. Season 1 is by far the most amusing as you get to know each character, and by the Season 3 finale, you’re wholly invested in the absurdity. With a brightly lit and colorful palette, great one-liners, Maya Rudolph being Maya Rudolph, and Michael’s (Ted Danson) bowties on point, it's an enjoyable-for-what-it-is 8/10.
Damn Good Reporting: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) (documentary)
Raw, unfettered commentary about the police negligence of the violence against trans women, particularly trans women of color. Heart-wrenching firsthand stories, tender black-and-white nostalgia, and just as much about Sylvia Rivera, Victoria Cruz, Islan Nettles, and an entire movement as it is about a vibrant, loving Marsha. Johnson's murder remains unsolved due to unwinnable systemic circumstances, and the storytelling evokes a deep helplessness. Although, Victoria explains that her motives for re-investigating are to shed light on injustice and bring new hope to forgotten (ignored) cases of victimized women - and that it does. Watching Sylvia Rivera’s impassioned speech at the 1973 march and her ultimate redemption does the soul good. A lo-fi, no-frills political doc that inspires anger, action, and pride. Gay power!!! 9/10
Sophomore Slump: Midsommar (2019) (film)
He says it better than I could. Director Ari Aster's second feature-length film after horror success Hereditary (2018) is visually stunning and meticulously composed; reminiscent of Wes Anderson, The Wicker Man, and Ingmar Bergman (eh, maybe just because it’s Swedish); and has beautiful, sun-soaked cinematography and an artfully anxiety-inducing score. Alas, there is no real character development. Other than Dani, (Florence Pugh, who is as good as ever in this role), the film generally resorts to trite and standard horror movie character tropes. There’s an interesting, pseudo-intellectual back-and-forth between actual sociological critique and a dumb willingness to suspend moral judgment for the sake of appearing culturally sensitive. A black man infringes on some white people’s culture? That has to be a joke, right? (No, it’s deadly serious.) I liked the film more after I read Aster describe it as a "big operatic, apocalyptic breakup film.” It’s far more satisfying that way, because otherwise, it's pretty thematically stunted. Christian (Jack Reynor) sucks, I’m glad he gets toasted in a bear suit, and I need an all-female empathetic screaming circle. 5.5/10