New Articles for the Week of January 12th: So Long 2013 Edition

71st Annual Golden Globes A belated Happy New Years to you, dear reader. Lots to catch up on, what with this being the first update in nearly two months. Probably for the best though, as it’s been a slow start to 2014 on my end, so at least I’ve got a healthy backlog to bring to your reading attention. First, a quick rundown of a few theatrical releases I reviewed, before the big TV list promised so long ago:

Philomena: A nice little movie about a nice little old lady, featuring a nice little supporting performance from Steve Coogan. That I remember almost nothing else from this probably means I should be the one reading the review, if anyone.

Saving Mr. Banks: Ditto for this one, which I’ve only soured on more after reading about the real relationship between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers. Read Genevieve Koski’s review and analysis of “brand deposits” over on The Dissolve to understand the full ickiness I feel about this movie.

Out of the Furnace: I’d be lying if I said review scores don’t matter to me, simply because being well outside the mean distribution of critical math-ery increases your likelihood of being yelled at by people. Writing a downer review for this a full month before its release left me a little nervous to see whether I’d be an outlier, which turned out not to be the case. Part of the fun of seeing movies way before the hype machine kicks in is getting to watch them in a vacuum of buzz, which this one (rightfully) didn’t end up generating. Still love me some Christian Bale though.

American Hustle: Which is also probably a good reason why I continue to like this one a lot more than other critics. Well, reading Rottentomatoes and Metacritic scores would tell you a whole lot of critics liked this one a bunch, but since we now live in a world of Criticism 2.0, the press lifecycle of this film has accelerated faster than I reasonably would have thought.

With major awards season kicking off tonight with the Golden Globes, the widely agreed upon greatness of films in 2013 will now be boiled down to a couple of DVD box tag lines and historical footnotes, so it’s understandable why a lot of critics are upset that American Hustle is going in as a presumed favorite against the likes of 12 Years a Slave, and Inside Llewyn Davis. And yeah, I’d be disappointed if American Hustle won any of the major awards (save for any acting award they want to throw at Amy Adams, who’s totally deserving, though that's not to say most deserving), but more so because of the historical backlash it would cause that turns an unworthy, but still very enjoyable film into the worst thing to happen to movies since Crash won Best Picture.

The acceleration of the awards season cycle has caused a dogpile onto American Hustle recently, perhaps in an attempt to sway academy votes. That’s a fair enough goal, but misses the larger issue that awards fever causes the film industry. Why is it that a light, empty, but wickedly fun movie like American Hustle can so easily take gold off the table of more important, timeless pictures? My thinking is that it's because voters are human, and like to be entertained. I’ve likened the film elsewhere to being The Fast & Furious of prestige dramas, in that it’s just a bunch of likeable people having a good time for no real end or purpose. And if you do that well enough, as David O. Russell has, of course voters are going to glom onto it, because there simply aren’t enough films like that, which target adult, film-loving audiences that like to have a good time at the movies.

We need there to be more films like American Hustle, not less. Its success speaks to how badly adult audiences are looking for well-acted, well-crafted entertainment that doesn’t involved superheroes or mass destruction. If there were more movies out there balancing American Hustle's same mix of mature filmmaking and immature, "let's just have some fun" attitude, then critics wouldn’t glom onto it like a life raft. Yes, 12 Years A Slave is a more important, powerful film, just as Her is a more emotionally affecting one, but if you starve awards voters of purely enjoyable film experiences, then they’re going to be absolutely over the moon when one like American Hustle comes along, and gives them the easy satisfaction wider audiences get week after week in the summer blockbuster season.

I think American Hustle is a great good movie, while the other nominees it’ll be facing off against range from good great, to simply great great films. In every case, the great film will be the one remembered by history, but there’s still room for just good, enjoyable prestige films to exist, so long as they don’t make it easier for awards voters to screw up the one thing they have to do: pick the film that best represents the year, either on a qualitative, or idealogical level.

Now, the danger of getting more films like American Hustle is that instead of proving their disposability by satiating the baser urges of voters, the nominee lists will instead be overrun by films that spectacularly clear an insanely low bar. This would be a fine result too, in my opinion, because it would offer us the last hair fiber of proof to show that, for fuck's sake guys, awards are almost never right. To quote the immortal words of The Wire's Snoop Pearson (or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, if you wanna be anal about it): deserve got nothing to do with it. As far as I’m concerned, the year’s best films were decided last month, when critics I love and respect made their cases for what they thought were the best movies. Look no further than Film Crit Hulk’s amazing take on the Top 10 list to see how completely arbitrary picking “bests” is, especially coming off a year as amazing as 2013.




By the way, here’s my Top 10 list of TV shows for 2013! So as to save myself from a very severe case of hypocrite-lash, let me be upfront by saying I would have chosen to not even rank these if I had my druthers. I was wishy-washy about all the numbering from conception to posting, and don’t considered myself held to the ordering in any way. You can check out my big 10 on the link, but I also just want to take a minute to highlight another 10 series from the year that didn't make the cut, roughly in ascending order of my enjoyment of them:

Homeland: Oh, Homeland. I’d say you broke my heart, but you never really had it to begin with. You had my attention all through season one, as Carrie Matheson elbowed her way into the anti-hero pantheon, and Damien Lewis put on an acting clinic every week. And for the first half of season two, you had me by the shorthairs, what with your inspired and insane willingness to barrel the plot forward at an alarming pace.

But then the rest of season 2 happened, and like a lot of other viewers, I got nervous about what would emerge from the rubble of the show’s late 2012 implosion. What we got in 2013 wasn’t an embarrassment, but it does prove the sneaking suspicion early critics had about Homeland’s success being intrinsically tied to momentum. It still looks great, and the performances are strong, but I’m not sure I’m getting much else out of it each week.

Broadchurch: Check my mega-blog from a few months back for the full scoop, but I found a lot to like in this morbid little seaside murder mystery. Here’s to hoping the American remake, and another series of the original don’t completely throw this show’s legacy off a cliff.

New Girl: I was late to the New Girl party on both ends, as I wasn’t in time to praise the strong back end of its second season we got in 2013, and have only now caught up, when the show is seriously struggling to maintain its momentum. Jake Johnson is practically carrying the show on his shoulders at this point, so this might be the only time New Girl makes a best of list for me. But, hey, at least they’ve cut down on a lot of the ironic racism humour that plagued the first couple seasons! That’s something, right?

Archer: The fuel gauge is visibly starting to dip on one of my favorite animated comedies, though word is the quickly approaching fifth season makes for a revitalizing gamechanger. This is a show I usually like watching more the second or third time than the first, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Season 4 is a whole lot better than I give it credit for. If for nothing else though, the show gets points for collapsing the H. Jon Benjamin voiceover universe into a singularity during its Bob's Burgers crossover in the premiere, which was just fantastic.

Parks & Recreation: My love of Parks still runs deep, but it’s deep enough to know that I'm about ready to say goodbye. I still love the characters and world of P&R, but as with all comedies, what made them identifiable and relatable continues to get stretched by the increasingly cartoonish lengths needed to land a joke. I’m a Legacy-ist in a lot of ways: it’s better for a show to live fast and die young than to risk overstaying its welcome. Parks isn’t nearly at that point yet (I laughed my ass off at the touching 100th episode they just had), but the show’s 3 season golden age might be forgotten by history the longer it’s followed by diminishing returns.

Scandal: Jumping off of Parks, the best way I can describe Scandal is to say that if Leslie Knope is TV’s Superman, Olivia Pope is its Batman. Scandal is a cynical soap opera thrill ride that’s only recently shown signs of flagging. It’s a show I love for a number of reasons, chief among them being how aggressively, at times embarrassingly, progressive it is. It’s almost certainly run out of juice at this point, but considering the levels it was operating at through all of 2012 and most of 2013, can you blame it? Not since Spartacus has a surface layer of trash hidden some of the most effective and thought-provoking writing on TV.

Game of Thrones: I think I ruined Game of Thrones for myself right after episode 9 of the first season (yeah, that episode), when I decided I couldn’t wait a whole week for the finale, like some sort of impulse-control-having sucker. I burned through the first book before the first season’s finale, but felt much less excitement and enjoyment when watching HBO recreating something I had already read. The same muted feeling has persisted since reading all the books, and seeing the show adapt them. It's still so incredibly well made, and so well acted that it’s almost impossible to comprehend that something like Game of Thrones not only exists, but is one of the biggest things in TV. Still, I can’t help but feel like I love Game of Thrones more in book form, and simply appreciate and respect the TV version more than feverishly devour it like a lot of other people do.

Hannibal: God bless Bryan Fuller for not only proving that serial killer television doesn’t have to be bad, but for also showing that a remake of a known property doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever. Coupled with the best cliffhanger ending of 2013, Hannibal’s first season will give you ample reason to be unbearably excited for the quickly approaching second.

Orphan Black: I’m running out of word fuel so I’ll keep it brief: watch this show. Maureen Ryan sums up best why little shows like this are some of the most important out there, but even as pure entertainment, Orphan Black is a smashing success. If Tatiana Maslany wins the Best Actress Golden Globe, it will be deserved, and make up for any and all future snubs by the HFPA.

The Returned: The third of Sundance Channel's trio of esoteric shows to premiere in 2013, this late 2012 French series was even more frightening than Hannibal, despite very rarely giving in to horror/thriller cliché and tropes. It’s a disturbing little show in a lot of ways, capable of making very simple images incredibly unnerving, but it’s all in service of a thoughtful, emotionally balanced look at loss and grief. Don’t let subtitles be a barrier to entry, or you’ll be missing out on one of the most haunting and beautiful shows 2013 had to offer.

That’s all for now, I’ll be back with more updates, once I’ve got some stuff to update you with! Play me off into 2014, mysterious and ethereal Mogwai soundtrack!


New Articles for the Week of November 18th: Penultimate Listageddon Edition

Theater waters are being thoroughly chummed with Oscar bait, and there doesn’t seem to be much anything good on TV anymore, so you know what that means: time for year-end awards! Yes it’s the most, liscticle tiiiiiiiiime of the yeeeeeeeeeeear. It’s been a slow month for me in terms of actually producing new content, as prep for click-mongering Top 10s and Best Ofs has had me busy catching up on a lot of programming I failed to get around to earlier. So let’s call this month’s post a practice round as I present Woolf On Film’s: Top 5 Pieces of Content from November!!!!!! (Feel free to flick your light switches a bunch and make some wooshing noises between each entry for added dramatic effect)

5) Interview with Gavin Hood On Ender’s Game: So this was pretty fucking crazy, seeing as A) I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life, let alone an Oscar-winning director, and B) it was held at a Trump Hotel, and I’ve never stepped foot in anything much nicer than a Marriot. I expected to get bounced the second I walked in, which would have been something of a relief. Yeah, I was nervous as all hell about spending 15 minutes talking with a guy I’ve never met, seeing as who exactly the fuck am I? I can barely make it through watching interviews hosted by actual professionals, so the prospect of doing one myself was more than a little terrifying. The artificiality of it always just weirds me out: actors and creatives giving the same canned answers to the same questions they’re going to get 20 times from a revolving door of press correspondents sounds just horribly awkward no matter how you cut it.

So my primary goal going in was to at no point stoop to something like “SO WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH HARRISON FORD?!?! YOUR MOVIE IS SET IN SPACE, AND HE WAS THAT GUY IN THAT MOVIE SET IN SPACE!!!” But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that it seems preeeetty unlikely I’ll be able to just walk into this thing and totally reinvent the rules of movie publicity. At the end of the day, this sort of thing is just a transaction: we get content, they get to pimp out their project. It’s all part of the marketing game –and it’s a game that lets me meet an Oscar-winner in person, and maybe snag a couple Trump coasters while I’m at it. Not bad, all told. 

It was no small relief then that when I actually sat down with Mr. Hood, he answered my questions with an energy and verbosity that not only made my job easier, but also actually gave me first hand evidence of what an interview can be useful for. Gavin’s passion and excitement when speaking about the film was really quite inspiring, and I hope it translates into the written version. The guy has a background in acting originally, so yeah, part of me is still suspicious as to how much of that enthusiasm is legitimate. Again, the whole point of the press tour is to get people hyped for his movie, and you’re not going to do that unless you can look them in the eye and say without hesitation their next big project it’s is better than sliced bread.

But dammit, I wanted to believe him by the end of it –not so much his confidence in the finished product, which even he was modest about, but in the idea that people are making these giant, $150 million movies because they want to share something they feel passionately about with the world, and not just because the studio thinks they’ve got a shot at cashing in on a known property. After all, this is the adaptation of a 30 year-old sci-fi novel by an author who’s spent the last 30 years proving he’s a complete fucking wacko, so it’s not like this thing was gonna be a calk walk.

4) Ender’s Game Review: Did I mention Orson Scott Card is a piece of shit? Sorry, let me rephrase: Orson Scott Card is a colossally homophobic, ginormously bigoted, 12-piece bucket-sized piece of shit. But I still liked the movie they made out his book. Despite how positively my interview with Gavin Hood shaped my opinion of Ender’s Game’s director, it didn’t make me feel more confident that the movie itself was going to be anything but a massive flop. How big a bomb it’ll be once all is said and done is still up in the air, but its soft launch was hardly surprising.

Part of the reason: the book’s reputation was poisoned, then stabbed, then beaten to an inch of its life and left bleeding at the side of the road by its author, Orson Scott Card, every time he opened his mouth, and discussed his views on religion, sexuality, government –pretty much anything that doesn’t have to do with the book he wrote. This was a huge problem for the film adaptation to get from screenplay to screen, seeing as people understandably might not want to have their money going into the pocket of a giant asshole. Granted, if we aired all of Hollywood’s dirty laundry, I doubt you’d ever be able to see a movie and have a clean conscience about where your money’s going. But Card’s been open about his opinions, and in a way, I respect him for not hiding them, no matter how hateful. At least this way, I knew I wouldn’t want to pay to see a movie that has an asshole scoring points on the backend.

Or so it seemed. Despite Summit Entertainment spending more time distancing the project from Card than actually promoting it, the last minute announcement upon its release that Card wouldn’t be getting residuals off of ticket sales hinted at the toxic word of mouth the film was premiering to. I was happy about this, as having seen the film a week earlier, and having generally enjoyed it, I felt more comfortable in being able to recommend people purchasing tickets for the film, instead of just recommending the film itself.

That all bears out in the review, in which I caught some flack for overly emphasizing my dislike for Card. In my defence, all the extratextual discussion is presented up front, and meant to establish my conflicted position: my opinion of the film wasn’t influenced by my opinion of who came up with it, but considering the large population of viewers who probably wouldn’t want to give money to this guy, I figured it was important to address the controversy directly. Whether or not that was effective I’ll leave up to you, and in the future, I’ll try to use a defter hand the next time a complete dickbag has me feeling conflicted about whether or not I can recommend a movie to someone. But hey, I got a positive review on Existimatum, the site that reviews reviews. So that’s something.

3) Dallas Buyers Club Review: Here’s a movie I saw that I gave the same rating as Ender’s Game, and caused far less grief. It’s quite good. You should see it. Matthew McConaughey has a really great mustache in it, and I really should be reviewing more of his movies, if for no other reason than because I should probably have figured out how to spell his name properly at this point.

2) Thor: The Dark World Review: Oh shit, more ratings kerfuffles! I really, really wish we as a culture, as a people, and as a species could just do away with review scores. I totally get why they exist, seeing as our need to codify and categorize entertainment for convenience sake only gets more pressing the more entertainment there is to be labeled and listed, but seriously, if your viewing habits are dictated solely by IMDB star ratings and a rotten tomatoes score, you're doing it wrong.

So yeah, when I gave Thor: The Dark World a 3 out of 5, and an ever so slightly rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I knew I was going to get in some shit from Marvel die hards. Sure enough, haters did hate, as is their wont, though when it comes to criticizing my criticism, I generally don’t respond to comments that are attacking me, or the existence of my review, as opposed to what I’m trying to say about the movie. Which can be hard! It’s incredibly tempting to jump down in the comment section muck and articulate as politely as possible why it is someone is a fucking idiot. But getting involved only fans the flames of outrage sparked by those insecure enough to take a star-rating on a movie they haven’t seen as an attack on their being, so I do what I can to stay out. Still, when you don’t get a ton of feedback on your work, it always sucks to go through the thought process of “oh hey, someone left a comment! Lemme just take a look and –oh god, what did I do to these people to offend them so personally?!”

So when I did come back to that Thor review a whiles later, and saw two -heroes? Yeah, I’ll call them heroes- basically saying exactly what I would have said myself...well goshdarnit if that didn’t just set my cockles to max heat. I actually almost wish the comments sections were full of nothing but the non-stop hate, so that that way I could always just ignore them. Instead though, people who might themselves disagree with my opinions on a movie, but acknowledge the right for them to exist, are out there fighting the good fight on my behalf. And I thank them for that. 

1)   Under the Dome Boxset Review: And coming in at number one with a Price is Right fail trombone is my final word on Under the Dome. Why did I take this assignment after spending the better part of 3 months complaining about this show? Good question, shitty answer. See, the special addition comes packaged with its own dome. Way I saw it, it'd be an excuse to try a boxset review, which I'd never done, and I'd get a trophy out of it. Also it was free, so that was a big motivator. Buuuuuuuut then they didn’t send me the special edition, just the regular one, which doesn't come in its own tiny plastic dome so why in God's name would anyone ever want to own it? Needless to say, I was heartbroken. Hard as it was to believe, Under the Dome found a way to disappoint me one last time. It’s almost poetic.

That’s all for now. Got a couple movie reviews slated for later in the month, but it’s mostly gonna be a whole lotta TV writing for the rest of 2013. I’ll be doing an official top 10 list elsewhere, but might do something a bit more extensive and free flow here later down the road.

New Articles for September: TIFF Happens Edition

TIFF 2013 Hey, TIFF happened! And I was there! Well, the festival covers almost all of downtown Toronto, and since I work in the financial district, it was kinda hard not to be there. But thanks to some writing connections, I actually wound up at some press screenings, a couple premieres, and even a press conference. Considering I've never been to TIFF, or a proper film festival, the last two weeks have been very exciting. And tiring. Tiring and exciting in equal measure. So lemme just quickly list-off the hot 'n steamy industry awards-bait I lucked my way into seeing, lest this wind up running overlong like that last post (hyperlinked titles lead to actual review).

Rating: 3 out of 5

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, and Daniel Brühl

Alternate title: The Anti-social Network

The Wikileaks Cablegate scandal represents a major flashpoint in the early 21st century's defining civil rights debate, privacy vs. security. Seeing as the site's founder, Julian Assange, only rose to public notoriety in the last few years, you might think it's too early for a biopic to be made properly. You would be right. The Fifth Estate is perhaps the most lavishly produced, best acted made-for-TV movie ever made. It's good for some soapy fun, but those looking for either a history lesson, or a look at the Wikileaks message instead of the man who started it, will have to wait.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Starring: Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal

Alternate Title: Les Miserablists

I really enjoyed, or rather, appreciated Denis Villeneuve's 2010 drama Incendies, despite the grimness of its subject matter. Understandably, some critics accused Villeneuve of hackish exploitation of war crimes, rape and incest for dramatic effect, and also understandably, those same people are not happy about the child-kidnapping drama Prisoners. I can sympathize with calling out the film for using low-hanging alarmist fruit for a premise, but the exploration of that premise makes for a well-paced, and gorgeous looking police procedural.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Starring: Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet

Alternate Title: Love in the Time of Cobbler

Two things that automatically predisposed me to liking this one: 1) director Jason Reitman makes really, really good movies, and 2) I'm a sap. Labor Day is a rural weepie through and through, but it's a really well-acted, warmly shot and heartfelt rural weepie. To really get swept up in all the melodrama, go in with open arms, and stomach empty (not since Waitress has pie been filmed so lovingly...or frequently). I'll add an addendum later once the press conference I covered for the film is posted, which includes a couple neat little tidbits from Reitman and 2/3rds of the cast.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Starring: Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo

Alternate Title: White People and Guitar - A Love Story

Photogenic movie stars playing musically talented dreamers looking for a shot at stardom/redemption? Love letters to the enduring vibrancy of New York City? Guest appearances by Cee-Lo Green and the guy from Maroon 5? Yup, this thing is pure, uncut, Bolivian-grade catnip for white people. So sure enough, me and the rest of the near-monochromatic audience I saw it with were pretty thoroughly won over by this one. The review is basically me writing an 800-word caveat, before ending with, "buuuuut, if you can ignore the core phoniness at the heart of it all, it's pretty great." I'm also one of those guys who unironically likes a bunch of Taylor Swift songs, and as we've already established, I'm a sucker for schmaltz, especially when it sounds this good.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Alternate Title: Fuck You, Space

So basically, Alfonso Cuarón decided it would be really funny if he based his next film on my biggest nightmare. Yeah, Gravity is the closest i'll ever get to becoming an astronaut, both for adding another compelling and discouraging example of the many, many ways space is a never-ending deathtrap, and for being one of the most immersive and visceral film experiences I've had in ages. Somehow, 2013 has turned out to be the year of me becoming an IMAX pitchman, because just like Pacific Rim, this one needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can sit yourself in front of. The script is nothing to write home about, but it's not insulting or problematic in the way most effects-driven epics tend to be. This was the definite highlight of the festival for me, and I'm strongly anticipating/dreading getting the chance to see it again.