Tuesday, January 8, 2019

2018: Some Odds and Bitter Ends

Image result for 2018 films
Now that we've moved from the Best and Worst of 2018 (So Far), it is time to look at some other categories that I think merit special note.

These other categories allow me to expand my views which would not fit into a Best Of/Worst Of List. Enjoy!


I Can Only Imagine
I've been critical of 'Christian cinema' as many faith-based films and filmmakers tend to either 'preach to the choir' or be more focused on the message than on the delivery. In the former, that's fine: if you don't want your film to be for general audiences but a specifically Christian audience only, more power to you.  If you are in the latter, you cannot and should not sacrifice craftsmanship for sermons.

I'm looking at YOU, Alex Kendrick...

However, I Can Only Imagine, like last year's The Case for Christ, took a positive step in Christian/faith-based filmmaking. It focused on Bart Millard's story while not watering down Millard's Christianity. His faith is important in his story, I imagine even the central part of his life. However, I Can Only Imagine does what good Christian films should do: tell the story efficiently but not beat the viewer with messaging.

The film did not preach about salvation. Rather, we found in Millard someone we could relate to, someone who was 'just like us'. It reminded us what is true: Christians are just like other people. They are not 'free from sin', they are fully functional people who have moments of anger, regret, even genuine kindness.

Middle America is right to complain that Christians are almost always portrayed on television and film as vile people. I Can Only Imagine reminds us that, to coin a phrase, 'Christians Are People Too''.


Solo: A Star Wars Story

There were many disappointments this year, but I think this newest film in the Star Wars Cinematic Universe is at the top of the list.

Ever since Disney got their hands on that galaxy far, far away, it has been hellbent on milking its property for every cent it can get. Sometimes they managed things well (Rogue One). Sometimes it's been bad (The Last Jedi). Their next decision was to have prequels of all our characters, and the first one was on our roguish Captain Han Solo.

Solo: A Star Wars Story's failure has all but killed future 'origin' stories for other characters. It wasn't necessarily a financial failure (though it will never really make up the money spent on it) but a thoroughly artistic failure. The original directors, Christopher Miller and Philip Lord, were fired almost near the end due to Disney's displeasure at Solo being more comedic than what they envisioned. Ron Howard, as workman-like a director as can be found, was brought in to finish a more 'standard' Star Wars film.

The end result is more an endless series of 'fan-service' than a truly original origin story. LOOK! Here's Han and Lando gambling over the Millennium Falcon! LOOK! Here's that famous Kessel Run you've heard all about FINALLY on-screen! LOOK! Here's how Han and Chewbacca finally met for the first time!

I've talked to other, bigger Star Wars fans who say it threw in too much into it. I think there was panic, a greater focus on film-via-committee than in making something Star Wars fans and general audiences would actually embrace. Disney gave people what they thought people wanted.  They ended up pleasing almost no one.

What can one say about a film where Alden Ehrenreich's not-good/not-bad version of Han Solo was one of the least criticized aspects?

In what can be seen as sweet revenge, our duo of Miller & Lord went on to produce Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film both critics and Spidey fans love. Imagine if they'd been allowed to do their version of Solo: A Star Wars Story.


A Star Is Born 4.0
Some of my regular readers and correspondents think I started out hating A Star Is Born, or as I call it, A Star Is Born 4.0 given it's the fourth version of the story. That's not true. I didn't go in or even leave the theater hating A Star Is Born with the burning fury I have now. That level of despising that I have against it now grew, and it grew because my brethren lost their collective minds over this bit of fluff.

My fellow critics have every right to see something as they wish to. However, once they started referring to A Star Is Born 4.0 as 'transcendent', declaring it not just one of the best films of the year but of all time, some turning point in cinematic or human history, then I began to grow more and more passionately against it.

I have nothing against Lady Gaga, who I think can become a fine actress. However, she is essentially playing herself, and I'm agog at Gaga's elevation to being thought of as the new Vivien Leigh or Katharine Hepburn or even Barbra Streisand. Streisand at least had Broadway acting experience by the time she reprised her role in Funny Girl.

Same goes for cowriter/director Bradley Cooper. I don't understand why his lush is held up as something that would bring envy to Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton (both no strangers to boozing). The critical worship and adoration for A Star Is Born 4.0 astonishes me. Even the praise it has received I could live with, if the film were actually that good.

It's the third-best version of a story told four times.

Perhaps it is because I've seen all four versions and know the story well, but why so many in the theater were sobbing their eyes out when Jackson Maine hangs himself is a total mystery. Even my mother got in on the act, telling me how tragic this version was because he dies at the end. "Mom, the guy dies in EVERY version", I replied, which surprised her.

It's one thing if you don't know A Star Is Born isn't original, as I think many sobbing did. It's another when film reviewers/critics, who should be more versed in cinema, behave as though A Star Is Born 4.0 is original. Truth be told, I think just about everything involving A Star Is Born 4.0 is...Shallow.




For the first time in these annual lists of Odds and Bitter Ends, I find two films that I think have been unfairly bashed and trashed. The odd thing is that on one of those films, I myself did the trashing and bashing.

I make no argument that either Venom or Acrimony are 'good' films. In fact, I gave Venom a negative review and do not regret it. It is almost a spoof of comic book-based films.

How does one take Venom seriously when you have Tom Hardy jumping into a lobster tank and acting like he's trying out for Son of Bobby Boucher?

However, I know the audience I went with loved Venom. They seemed to revel in the sheer stupidity of it all, taking our anti-hero into its heart no matter how ridiculous everything was. As the year has ended and I look back in some anger, I feel a softening towards Venom.

I feel almost able to embrace the absolutely terrible script, bad acting even from Michelle Williams, the cliched story, lousy special effects and just total awfulness of it all. It's almost as if I too can enjoy Venom so long as I let it wash over me, as if I can gain pleasure watching Venom if I watched it more for camp enjoyment than as an actual film.

Perhaps here you could ask why I couldn't do that with A Star Is Born 4.0. The answer is simple: my fellow critics don't behave as if Venom is greater than The Dark Knight versus their idea that A Star Is Born 4.0 is greater than Citizen Kane.

Image result for taraji p henson acrimony dance
While I've softened on Venom, I have not shifted on my view of Acrimony. Yes, it's a bad film, but I found it a 'so-bad-it's-good' film, so delightfully and wildly bonkers that one can't help but marvel at its insanity.

Taraji P. Henson has never received the respect and work her talent merits. Even in her greatest film role, Hidden Figures, she was shamefully overlooked for Best Actress over the 'cutesy' Emma Stone in La La Land. I don't want to say she is 'reduced' to "Angry Black Woman" roles, but there's something about Acrimony that leaves me unapologetically in love with Henson's totally committed performance for this totally whacked-out character.

I'm convinced that Henson's Cray-Cray Dance in Acrimony will be studied by film students for centuries to come as a sign of an actress giving her all to such awful material. It's just so wildly wrong it's almost right. One both marvels and laughs at just how Tyler Perry can keep being simultaneously trashy and moralistic.

Acrimony is not a good film by any stretch, but I found it highly enjoyable, a delightful romp if ever there was one.

I also would rather watch Acrimony than A Star Is Born 4.0. I'd sooner take the former's lunacy over the latter's pomposity.

Now as we enter The Year of Our Lord 2019, I continue to hope for good films and for the bad ones (and the A Star Is Born-overrated types) to be at a minimum.

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