The Blog


  • Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)

    Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig)

    Lady Bird is a loving tribute to Sacramento, California, specifically growing up there as a teenager, from the perspective of a main character who hates Sacramento. Writer and director Gerwig opens the film with a travelogue of Sacramento streets and locations, a device she repeats sparingly (only significantly in the fantastic finale); Lady Bird is set in the fall of 2002; Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy shoot it in a grainy, succulent style. It looks seventies; only it’s very, very 2002 (and 2003). It’s particularly particular when Gerwig does an absurdist—but grounded—comedy aside.

    It’s a gorgeous film, start to finish, and Gerwig’s enthralled with her subjects, whether setting, scenery, or character.

    Despite an exceptionally on-point opening quote and irregular narration from lead Saoirse Ronan (and despite her being the Lady Bird of the title), the film is not a character study. Especially not of Ronan. Laurie Metcalf gets scenes from a character study, which ends up just making Gerwig’s big swing of a finale even more successful. Ronan is the daughter, Metcalf is the mom. Lady Bird is all about the two of them missing each other, hating each other, loving each other. From the start.

    Before the Sacramento montage, which turns into a Catholic high school ground situation montage, Gerwig and Metcalf are on their way back from a college visit. They’re bonding over the Grapes of Wrath on audio cassette (2002), and then one of them says just the wrong thing, and the other one gets pissed off, and they argue and ruin their moment. As the film progresses, Gerwig’s going to reveal the depth of their emotionally rending relationship, layering in the details from conversations between the two, but also just comments from the supporting cast. Because Gerwig and Metcalf’s relationship is at the core of the family dynamics; dad Tracy Letts plays peacekeeper, while brother Jordan Rodrigues and his live-in girlfriend Marielle Scott watch from the sidelines. Everyone’s got a slightly different perspective on it, whereas Ronan just thinks Metcalf can’t stand her.

    Which isn’t wrong.

    The family drama is backdrop. In the foreground, it’s Ronan’s senior year of high school. She goes to a ritzy Catholic school on a scholarship. Her best friend is another scholarship kid, Beanie Feldstein. Their friendship is one of the film’s tectonic plates, and they’re fantastic together. Lois Smith is the nun in charge. She encourages Ronan to try theater, which leads to her meeting Lucas Hedges, her first love. Except then they all go to a Thanksgiving concert, and Ronan gets a look at moody boy Timothée Chalamet, and things start getting complicated.

    Chalamet runs with an entirely different crowd—the rich and popular one—while being a tragically hip, soulful, Goth anarchist who sits through everything performatively reading A People’s History of the United States. Chalamet simultaneously looks twelve and thirty-eight; when he’s going, everything stops and stares—Ronan, Gerwig, the viewer. He’s captivating. And such a perfect little jackass.

    But it’s not like Hedges doesn’t come with problems, and Ronan’s never met anyone like Chalamet. She’s not in college yet, where she’ll discover he’s just a trope, albeit with some substantial motivation with his own home life. Besides Ronan, the most family we get is from Feldstein and Hedges, but it’s there for all of the kids. Metcalf’s very aware she’s living working class in expensive circles, something she tries to impart to Ronan without success.

    Things get worse when Letts loses his job, especially since it adds to the things he keeps from or downplays with Ronan. The character relationships are delicate and precise, with Gerwig and editor Nick Houy making all the right cuts.

    The film’s technically superlative. Gerwig’s direction, Levy’s photography, Hoey’s cutting, Jon Brion’s music (though the soundtrack is more important, and—in what can only be described as a baller move—Gerwig has the stones to turn liking a Dave Matthews song into a plot point), and then April Napier’s costumes. But the film’s all about Ronan’s performance.

    Watching Lady Bird is watching Ronan to see what she’s going to do next. The same thing happens with Metcalf, which is such an outstanding echo—but Ronan’s in the spotlight. Gerwig throws a lot at her but then—especially in the second act—skips significant dramatic moments, so Ronan doesn’t have a steady character development arc. Instead, Gerwig uses skip-aheads to adjust the narrative distance, finding a different angle to inspect Ronan’s performance. Ronan’s full-stop great, but Gerwig hinges the entire thing on her being able to do the development arc in summary; Gerwig’s incredibly trusting and fully rewarded for it.

    Ronan, Metcalf, and Chalamet are the best performances, but there aren’t any slouches. Letts, Feldstein, and Hedges are all great too. Smith’s awesome, as is Stephen McKinley Henderson as the theater teacher priest.

    Lady Bird’s one of a kind from its first story beat (in the prologue) and then, over and over, one of a kind. It’s even magical at times. Gerwig, Ronan, and Metcalf do incomparable work.

    It’s so damn good.


    This post is part of the Fake Teenager Festivus hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.


  • The Jericho Mile (1979, Michael Mann)

    The Jericho Mile (1979, Michael Mann)

    The Jericho Mile plays a little like a truncated mini-series. The first hour of the film introduces the characters, the ground situation, and does an entire arc for six characters. There’s a minimal subplot about prison psychologist Geoffrey Lewis trying to convince seemingly super-fast-running inmate Peter Strauss to open up in therapy. Lewis then gets the idea to have Strauss run against some college runners; the subplot involves warden Billy Green Bush and track coach Ed Lauter, but it’s all just set up for the second half.

    The first hour is all about Strauss and best friend Richard Lawson. Strauss is the quiet, obsessively working out white guy, Lawson’s the affable Black guy. They stay away from the Nazis (Brian Dennehy, Burton Gilliam, and Richard Moll), and they stay away from the Black Liberation Army guys (Roger E. Mosley and Ji-Tu Cumbuka). They’re just friends, and it’s a beautiful arc. Both Lawson and Strauss get epic monologues, with director Mann showcasing the performances. Mile’s technically uneven for a TV movie—there’s clearly different film stock, and the sound’s terrible—but Mann, Strauss, and Lawson were definitely approaching the film as an acting showcase. It’s almost stagy, but never in a bad way, just Mann spotlighting the acting well.

    Lawson needs to bump up a visit from his wife and newborn baby, and only Dennehy can get it done, which pisses off Mosley. It feels like a short story, but immediately after, there’s this sports movie about Strauss’s Olympic possibilities uniting the prison behind him. The first hour directly informs the second half—Strauss’s reasons for trying to compete, for example—but there’s also all the ground situation to build on. Mann opens the film with a five-minute montage of life on the prison yard. Mosley’s pumping iron, Dennehy’s holding court, Miguel Pinero and the Mexican gang are playing handball, Lawson and Strauss are running. There’s this great prison newspaper sports page narrative device to kick off Lewis’s interest in Strauss (only not really because Strauss was on his radar already). It goes nowhere in the second half, which is weird, but Mile runs out of track in the third act, so it’s not a surprise….

    Anyway.

    The wide-reaching character development arcs in the second half all build off material Mann subtly baked into the film. Mile’s exceptionally well-directed. It’s a shame Rexford L. Metz’s photography and, especially, Michael Hilkene and James E. Webb’s sound isn’t better because it ought to be a sublime viewing experience. Mann directs it; budget and circumstance don’t allow it.

    The problems all come as the big race approaches. It’s a sports movie, after all, there’s got to be a big race. There are some existing problems, like Bush busting ass as the warden and never being good enough. The part’s written like a reformer with political ambitions, but Bush plays it without motivation and then makes some bombastic choices like he ought to be wearing a novelty hat. In one shot, Lauter appears just as confused by Bush’s behavior as I am.

    And some of the performances aren’t as good as the best performances—Strauss and Lawson—but the movie’s all about showcasing those performances. Mosley, Dennehy, and Lewis are all solid as the main supporting players, but their parts are limited. They exist to react to Strauss and other events, to provide fisticuffs to delay the race.

    Everything’s going along just fine until they need to resolve Strauss’s therapy arc, which they create right at the end of the second—it’s running and then, wham, great Strauss monologue—and then resolve two or three scenes later after the race. It’s so fast, and there’s none of the promised character development for lifer Strauss going outside the prison. Instead, it’s just the second part of his therapy breakthrough monologue.

    It feels like they had three one-hour episodes; they kept the first one, then cut the second two hours down to one. The second act’s bumpy at times too, but Mann nails the sports movie, so it’s okay. But the finale’s just too messy.

    Excellent performance from Strauss, a really good one from Lawson. Strauss gets better writing (script credit to Mann and Patrick J. Nolan).

    Jimmie Haskell’s music is interesting. About a quarter is great, a quarter is bad, another quarter is just there, and then the rest is Sympathy for the Devil but in a non-copyright violation-y way. The movie’s theme music is Sympathy for the Devil, which is on the nose considering it’s about a sympathetic prison inmate.

    Still. Jericho Mile’s beautifully directed, with some phenomenal performances and strong writing.


    This post is part of the World Television Day Blogathon hosted by Sally of 18 Cinema Lane.


  • Werewolf by Night (1972) #25

    Werewolf by Night (1972) #25

    Werewolf by Night  25

    I can’t imagine Werewolf will keep it going, but somehow they find themselves this issue. I mean, it’s Doug Moench’s surfer bro pulp and Don Perlin’s “what if I just page layout like it’s 1952” penciling and inking, but still. They’re in sync here, and it’s… fine?

    Or at least closer to fine than I’d have thought. I was dreading Perlin taking over the inks, but it ought to be okay if he keeps aiming low.

    Now, there are caveats, of course. Perlin’s figure drawing is hard to describe without sounding ableist. He seems to draw an oval for the body, an oval for the head, not thinking about necks, shoulders, or chests. There is one panel where he seems to be doing a Mike Ploog homage with Jack’s features. However, Perlin’s got no consistency with Jack’s features, so maybe it’s just roll of the dice.

    The story finishes up last issue’s modern Jekyll and Hyde story (sort of). Wolfman Jack escapes the police—after wrestling with the obnoxious cop in the worst drawn net I’ve ever seen or imagined—and fights the Hyde monster on the streets of Pasadena or wherever. It’s the first time the werewolf seems to have killed someone in ages (for all the killer werewolf talk, Jack’s only killed like one guy), but then Jekyll recovers to turn out to be a future foil.

    Jack’s stepfather (and uncle) Phillip and sister Lisa show up for a few panels. She’s still waiting to turn eighteen and werewolf out; the funny thing about Werewolf is the monthly structure means you could count how many months since Jack’s eighteenth birthday (within a two-month margin of error). In other words, this Lissa thing better pay off.

    (It won’t).

    The finale brings back a previous villain, which is perilous. Moench doesn’t have the space to go overboard with narration (Perlin’s got six landscape panels most pages, no deviations), and it helps immensely. We don’t get seven adjectives a sentence anymore.

    But Werewolf’s in precarious “harmony.” Too much personality from a villain might break it.

    I’m not exactly enthusiastic about Werewolf, but I’m not dreading it… which usually lasts two issues. We shall see.


  • Catwoman (2002) #4

    Catwoman (2002) #4

    Catwoman  4

    And here’s how you do a comic book. I was wondering when Catwoman was going to click and level up, and it’s this issue. It’s not just Darwyn Cooke’s pencils, though he’s got dozens of great panels in the issue. Pretty much everything except Selina fighting Clayface Y2K’s muck is great. The muck stuff is fine, but it’s gross, and it’s just muck. Worse, it’s pink flesh muck. Icky bad.

    The issue starts with Selina confronting the killer and hearing some of his origin story. U.S. soldier, battlefield injury, weird experiment, dumped as a monster on the streets of Gotham by the U.S. Army. Tracks. She thinks she can talk him down and get him some help from that dickhead Batman (who does end up cameoing and is a complete piece of shit, gloriously rendered in a forties nod from Cooke and inker Mike Allred). She’s not entirely wrong, but she’s not right enough not to have a big supervillain fight. Except she’s Catwoman, and she’s not ready to fight fleshy muck monsters.

    Writer Ed Brubaker does an exceptional job writing the fight scene. It’s a character development micro-arc for Selina as she realizes the new responsibilities she’s taking on; there’s doubt, regret, turmoil, all in rapid-fire as the fight progresses. Brubaker captures these snapshots into Selina’s experience through the text, tied to the visuals, and it’s phenomenal stuff. I knew Catwoman was going to get good, but I didn’t think it would get this good this fast.

    Especially when the epilogue involves setting up the series proper, with Holly becoming a Kyle Investigations operative and Leslie Tompkins firmly established in the supporting cast. Except Brubaker writes it as a contrast to dickhead Batman, who doesn’t care about sex workers getting murdered and thinks writing Leslie a check fixes all the problems with the poors.

    Only then Cooke (and Allred and colorist Matt Hollingsworth) turn the final splash page into this Batman visual homage deep cut. It’s so good.

    This opening arc has got to be a killer trade.


  • Shadows on the Grave (2016) #6

    Shadows on the Grave (2016) #6

    Shadows on the Grave  6

    Shadows has a nice rally this issue. It works out even when the stories are too long (or too slight). They’ve all got eight pages, but creator Richard Corben and (especially) first story writer Mike Shields pace them out beautifully. Also, there aren’t any stories on repeat this issue, which is nice.

    Although, that first story does open with a con man approaching a small, isolated town, ready to score off the yokels. It quickly becomes a comedy of errors, with the townspeople mistaking the con man for someone else, and he’s all too happy to pretend, so long as he can still get out ahead. The story feels like it’s at least twelve pages. Another page in the resolution would’ve probably made it feel like sixteen; Shields is writing a feature story and getting all the Corben art he can for his script.

    It’s a standard, not-unpredictable story, but it’s still awesome.

    Then the second story—Corben writes the rest in the issue—is this fantastic art piece about a trapper on a snowy mountain hunting the wrong kind of animal. Corben goes from whiteouts to blackouts, with lots of playing with the narrative distance as the trapper gets increasingly afraid. It’s a simple story, maybe three events, and Corben draws the heck out of it to fill the eight pages.

    The third story combines talking heads and a graveyard scare story. A guy’s in with his therapist, talking about his recurring nightmare of a zombie stalking him through a cemetery–lots of good scary art, excellent talking heads composition, and a familiar but solid twist ending. Again, Corben uses empty space to pace out the story but also takes the twists into account to change the reading pace. The trapper story’s better because the art’s got more places to go, but Corben’s story is tighter here.

    And then the Greek epic chapter is back on track. Corben does a slightly different style for one of the scenes, and it nicely turns it into a prologue, though the chapter benefits from a second read, thanks to the reveal. But the story gets back to the main characters, throwing them on an unexpected story arc. I’m still confused why the ninja isn’t around; I guess she’s not coming back, which is a shame.

    Corben gets to do an Ancient Greece subterfuge sequence followed by a hack-and-slash fight scene. Great pacing, plus a glorious two-page action spread.

    I’m not sure if this issue’s the best overall, but it’s a serious contender. It’s an awesome start to finish.

    Oh, the bookend one-pagers. There’s a creepy eating thing with Corben and co-writer Beth Corben Reed showing off how gross certain words can be to read; then there’s another food-related punchline color strip for the back page. Good stuff too, but the meat’s inside.


  • Legion of Super-Heroes (1980) #260

    Legion of Super-Heroes (1980) #260

    The Legion of Super Heroes  260

    Writer Gerry Conway finds his tone for Legion of Super-Heroes and it’s Silver Age homage. The issue has Joe Staton and John Calnan on the art; it’s not great, but it doesn’t have to be for a Silver Age homage. Obviously, the costumes are different, and it’s hard to imagine Wildfire having his temper tantrum in an older book, but the story’s silly Silver Age.

    So, in the future, the only thing no one in the galaxy thought about doing except humanity is circuses. The circuses take up giant space stations, but their content is the same as always, which will be important when the Legion goes undercover. But first, there’s this very deliberate Legion action sequence where Conway showcases how the individual heroes’ powers come together to Voltron out and defeat the bad guy.

    Or, in this case, save the intergalactic circus barker from a crashing spaceship. It’s implied the spaceship is trying to kill him, but they never actually confirm it. It could’ve been a coincidence.

    The main action involves the Legionnaires pretending to be circus attractions to ferret out the assassin. Some of it is just regular circus stuff, only with the occasional alien around. For some reason, Conway draws attention to how circus “oddities” don’t make much sense in the future when people aren’t shitty to each other but then leverages them anyway.

    There’s also Staton’s best page in terms of composition, with annoying bro Timber Wolf—pretending to be an acrobat—recovering from a fall. Glorious splash page. It’s still weird looking because it’s a strange mix of Silver and Bronze Ages, but it’s the first time Staton has come through with movement.

    The story ends with a cliffhanger—the Legion (thanks to now fully reformed Brainiac 5’s intellect) has their prime suspects, but is there someone even more nefarious behind the circus-hating villainy? Sadly, yes, we’re going to have another circus issue.

    But it’s better than I was expecting. Maybe Conway really did just hate having Superboy around.


  • 709 Meridian – 5×6 – Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986)

    709 Meridian – 5×6 – Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986)

    WHERE TO LISTEN

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  • Onesies – 4×12 – Police Squad! (1982)

    Onesies – 4×12 – Police Squad! (1982)

    4×12 – Police Squad, 5 of 6 Onesies

    Emily and Andrew are back on the beat with another episode of POLICE SQUAD IN COLOR. Listen as they regal Peter Lupus and Leslie Nielsen, talk repetitive jokes, and argue about the shoe shine guy.

    WHERE TO LISTEN

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  • Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022, Kim Han-min)

    Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022, Kim Han-min)

    About half of Hansan is a naval battle. The second half. The first half is a combination history lesson, period espionage and turgid war thriller, and naval warfare theory symposium. The film’s about Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who kicked the invading Japanese navy’s ass in the sixteenth century. Despite being in command, lots of folks questioned Yi, and then he also was trying new tactics and types of warships. Park Hae-il plays Yi. He’s almost indistinguishable from a wax sculpture; Yi was a pensive, reserved fellow, but Park plays him without any personality whatsoever. Not because Park’s bad, but because director and co-writer Kim Han-min doesn’t do character. Hansan’s utterly absent memorable characters, which is something else for a war movie.

    It’s also fine because Hansan is a history lesson. There’s a compelling but narratively problematic prologue with Japanese admiral and general dick Byun Yo-Han inspecting a destroyed warship. The Korean navy has some kind of “turtle ship” with a Dragon head on it, which terrified the ship’s crew as it destroyed the vessel. Now, there have been numerous movies about mystery vessels; at least three James Bonds and maybe a Godzilla. Except there’s no mystery. It’s just Park’s latest idea, though he doesn’t like the dragon head.

    Kim and co-writer Yun Hong-gi pull back on the narrative distance so incredibly far their characters lose all perspective. Despite Hansan’s first hour being about Byun wondering what Park’s going to do, while Byun’s allies give him shit and Park’s allies give him shit, and they both try to spy on one another, no one ever learns anything in the film. It’s a history movie with the cause and effect removed.

    It also doesn’t matter because the second half is a thrilling naval war movie about the application of firepower on sea-going vessels. Hansan shows its hand in the first half; Park drills the Korean navy with the tactics he’s going to use in the second half. The movie shows off the shark first thing (relatively) but still gets plenty of mileage out of it in the battle. There are some surprises, of course, which unfold the same way as the rest of the film’s reveals. A character is alone, remembering a plot twist a few scenes before, completely changing the nature of their subplot. The film does it at least three times, possibly four, saving a major—but not—reveal for the finale.

    But it all still works because Kim pulls off the sea battle. There are some land battles too, which he does okay with, but clearly, the thought went into the warships, and it shows.

    The best performance is easily Byun, who gets to relish in unrestrained villainy while almost everyone else has to show some decorum. Kim Sung-kyu is good as an enemy prisoner who coincidentally encountered Park in the flashback. Park Ji-Jean has a fun part as the shipbuilder. Park’s okay; the movie doesn’t ask him to do anything, just stand there. Admittedly, there aren’t many options when you’re just supposed to be watching some quiet thinking guy quietly think.

    The technicals are all solid. Han Hyun-gun and Lee Gang-here’s editing is a little impatient in parts—there’s a three or four-minute history lesson montage after the prologue, and it’s too hurried. After threatening dozens of characters, Hansan boils down to like six people before the sea battle. Kim and Yun get way too complicated. Once it settles into the espionage subplot, with actual players, it works much better.

    But, again, doesn’t matter so long as the sea battle pays off. The movie starts promising a great sea battle, then delivers it. Along the way, there’s some good filmmaking, decent acting, and compelling history, if not character drama.

    Hansan’s a qualified, impressive success.