What We Learned This Week: May 12-18

LESSON #1: SCARY BUSINESS DEALS ARE ALSO SMART ONES— Just as there are two sides to every story, there are two sides to every business deal.  On the surface, Walt Disney, which acquired controlling stake in Hulu as part of the Fox deal, looks like the corporate greed monster or the Borg from Star Trek lore many fear in buying the rest of the Hulu pie from Comcast.  Honestly, though, this was inevitable and necessary. Split between two opposing controllers, Hulu was going to die a slow death of futility and stagnation.  Comcast squeezed Disney for $5.8 billion (far more than it paid years ago for LucasFilm or Marvel) for something the Mouse House was likely going to dissolve anyway with their Disney+ service.  That’s like the movie business equivalent of an NBA trade for an expiring contract that will never play a game in his new uniform. Comcast laughs all the way to the bank and the marketplace loses something that would have become clutter.

LESSON #2: EVEN “NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING” MIGHT NEED LIMITS— Now that Avengers: Endgame has cleared the Marvel end of self-imposed radio silence, have you seen the release date reservations of Disney’s calendar for the next five years?  Look below:

That, my friends, is insane.  Welcome to “market saturation.” I get that they are too big to fail and I get that they still make successful and positive products, but, good golly, space a few things out.  I’ll tip my hat that no new Star Wars films are coming for three years after The Rise of Skywalker.  That’s a nice pause.  That’s only one slow pause on a much bigger machine of cycles.  Other studios see this calendar and avoid these dates in order to not get squashed as the feeble competition.  Still, with a calendar that thick, where can the others hope to go at some point? Yowzers!

LESSON #3: START YOUR RESURRECTION CLOCKS NOW— Gazing into that future of release dates, one could wonder two things.  First, when will inevitable character turnover occur and, second, how long will the dead really stay dead.  I say that second one because anyone who knows the parent medium of comic book films (the graphic novels themselves) knows that no one ever really stays dead.  Even Christopher Nolan couldn’t really “kill” Batman. At this big level, when you put profit-minded and impatient studio execs in charge, I have to think the turnover or resurrection window narrows.  Contributor Jonah Koslofsky over on The Spool did a nice editorial piece this week on this underlying angle.  Sure, Hugh Jackman is supposed to be done with Wolverine after Logan, but what happens if the MCU fame comes calling (especially after/if Dark Phoenix bombs)?  Do we really think Robert Downey Jr. wouldn’t at least be tempted to consider another monster paycheck to return?  If their integrity holds (and I hope it does so as to not cheapen their phenomenal on-screen sacrifices and exits), wonderful, but when do the reboots and recastings start to come (Henry Cavill?! No, dude), especially with Logan’s new MCU home under the Disney roof?  Rub that chin and begin to wonder.

LESSON #4: THERE IS AT LEAST ONE PLACE WHERE DISNEY IS STRIVING AGAINST CREATIVE BANKRUPTCY— Speaking of that lengthy release calendar and recurring characters, the repetitive trends are a little maddening.  Call it whatever kind of adjective-assisted fatigue you want, this steady-yet-successful pattern of franchises, sequels, re-imaginings, and reboots from Disney (and other studios too, let’s be fair) have led many observers to bring out the “creatively bankrupt” label.  A sliver of less of that came to light this week when Pixar producer Mark Nielsen confirmed that Pixar has no other sequels on their planning board after this summer’s Toy Story 4.  Expect, fresh ideas, new faces, and big ideas which are, namely, all the reasons Pixar became successful in the first place.  This counts as promising news!

LESSON #5: THE ARTHOUSE HAS AN INTERNATIONAL LIFELINE— We in the United States are living in big screen blockbuster era.  It’s rare to see little films blow up anymore. If they do, they still have a genre bend to them for cross-demographic appeal matching today’s moviegoers.  The decline of the arthouse scene of independent film has been very apparent for a long time. We’re seeing a market transition where streaming and VOD platforms become their best profit options with multiplexes full of the big cheese.  So, it’s really encouraging to see one more place where arthouse films are gaining audiences: OVERSEAS. Eric Kohn of IndieWire wrote a nice analysis piece that shows a movie like Capernaum opening #2 and early $12 million behind Avengers: Endgame in China.  Here in the states last year, the same movie earned a little over $1.6 million in its entire run.  Opportunity like this for Capernaum and Shoplifters is great news for this class of filmmaking and for the global industry in general.  Slowly but surely, good films will find an audience and tastes can evolve along the way.

LESSON #6: FEAST YOUR EYES ON PRODUCTION DESIGN— In the final lesson suggestion spot, allow me to re-share a YouTube essay from the fine folks at CineFix ranking (with several ties) the ten best production designs of all-time.  This stellar list covers all genres and periods with fairness and there’s not a dud in the bunch. If you don’t notice and appreciate production design when you watch a film, let a little study like this be a primer and have a discerning eye into that craft ingredient when you watch movies going forward.  Production design is absolutely vital, both visible and invisible.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication.  As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a new member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.  (#102)

You Should Be Watching: May 17-23

Welcome to You Should Be Watching, my weekly opportunity to introduce you to a variety of great films, gems of the past and present, available for you to stream from Netflix, Amazon Prime, FilmStruck, and anywhere else streams are found. I highlight films that come with my personal recommendation as well as provide a list of notable titles that are coming and going so you’re sure not to miss out on the good stuff.

 


STREAMING PICKS OF THE WEEK


Oculus

Year: 2013

Director: Mike Flanagan

Genre: Horror

Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Kate Siegel, Garrett Ryan, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval, Annalise Basso

 

I’ll be honest with you. I have relatively limited experience with horror. But I still believe that Oculus, a nightmarish puzzle box of a film directed, co-written, and edited by Mike Flanagan, is one of the most wickedly intelligent films in the genre. The genius is evident in the setup. By having Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), brother to Kaylie (Karen Gillan) be a just-released patient of a mental institution because of a violent act he carried out as a child, sanity is already in question. Kaylie is convinced the whole affair began because of a haunted mirror and is committed to destroying it before it destroys them. But what’s easier to believe, that someone is crazy or that they’re under the influence of the supernatural?

Through Flanagan’s careful editing of the past and the present, and through keeping it unclear whether what the camera is presenting is real or imagined, the audience is continually kept off balance along with the siblings. Flanagan makes wonderful use of darkness and light throughout to maintain the ideal, haunting atmosphere, and the character motivations and actions are right on target, not easily second guessed. The terror is subtle yet just brutal enough to convey the true horror of the situation, and I can’t say enough good things about Karen Gillan. Her performance here reminded me why I loved her so much in Doctor Who.


 

Harakiri

  

Year: 1962

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Genre: History, Action, Drama

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentarô Mikuni, Shima Iwashita, Akira Ishihama, Yoshio Inaba, Masao Mishima, Kei Satō, Ichirô Nakatani, Hisashi Igawa, Tôru Takeuchi, Tatsuo Matsumura, Akiji Kobayashi, Kôichi Hayashi, Ryûtarô Gomi, Nakajirô Tomita, Kenzô Tanaka, Shôtarô Hayashi, Tetsurō Tamba

 

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is a true masterpiece of Japanese samurai storytelling, deserving every bit as much praise as more popular fare such as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Everything from the artistry to the intricately woven plot to the carefully developed emotion to the presentation of a time and a people long past is pure excellence. To begin the film, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) is introduced, stoic and seeming in full control at all times, which makes his stated intentions all the more confusing and shocking. He is an older samurai who comes to the house of a feudal lord with the claim that he is willing to commit the ritual suicide known as hara-kiri. But first he must be allowed to tell a story.

The bulk of this film is the presentation of that story and its aftermath, and let me tell you, it’s possibly the most exquisitely crafted story I’ve ever experienced through film, and it will keep you hanging on every frame. Through non-linear flashbacks, Kobayashi introduces the audience to each relevant character, their experiences, and the implications of those experiences at the precise moments needed to maximize intellectual engagement and emotional impact, leading to a progressive series of light-bulb moments as the full truth of the situation is gradually revealed.


 

The Flowers of War

    

Year: 2011

Director: Zhang Yimou

Genre: Drama, History, War

Cast: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Tong Dawei, Zhang Xinyi, Shigeo Kobayashi, Atsuro Watabe, Shawn Dou, Paul Schneider

 

Many people recognize Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero to be a classic of Chinese cinema, with its eye-popping visuals nothing less than poetry in film form. Cut to 2011, and we have The Flowers of War, Yimou’s highly underrated, culturally diverse war film starring Christian Bale and set during Japan’s rape of Nanking in 1937 that seems to have fallen through the cracks of cultural awareness.    Through a contrast of visuals and characters, Yimou demonstrates the horrors of war and the beauty of sacrifice, especially when learned by the disreputable and self-centered.

Bale shines as the American John Miller, a self-indulgent mortician, who cares for nothing but his own comfort and pleasure as he seeks a quick payday on his way out of Nanking before it’s completely overrun by brutal Japanese soldiers. His unlikely counterpart is Yu Mo (Ni Ni), the leader of a group of prostitutes who are also trying to escape the city. Together with a group of schoolgirls, they all end up together, seeking sanctuary and survival at the girls’ convent. Zhang Yimou and his DP Zhao Xiaoding created a beautiful film about a horrifying event. The plotting is creative, and a wholly human face, with all of its cracks and blemishes is put on our unlikely hero, the innocent schoolgirls, and the prostitutes, many of whom were forced unwillingly into that life at a frighteningly early age.

 


COMING AND GOING


LAST CHANCE (last date to watch)

NETFLIX

May 21
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

May 27
Middle of Nowhere (2012)

May 29
The Jungle Book (2016)

 

AMAZON PRIME

May 18
Creed (2015)

May 30
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
1984 (1984)
Breakdown (1997)
Regarding Henry (1991)

 

FILMSTRUCK

May 18
Luchino Visconti:

La Terra Trema (1948)
The Leopard (1963)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

May 25
Carol Reed:

The Fallen Idol (1948)
The Third Man (1949)

May 31
High Noon (1952)

June 1
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
A Night At The Opera (1935)

June 8
Christopher Guest:

Best in Show (2000)
Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Elia Kazan:

On the Waterfront (1954)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)


 

JUST ARRIVED

NETFLIX

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Phantom of the Opera (2004)

 

AMAZON PRIME

Winter’s Bone (2010)

 

FILMSTRUCK

Billy Wilder:

Ace in the Hole (1951)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Stalag 17 (1953)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Dark Passage (1947)
Key Largo (1948)
The Killing Fields (1984)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Stella Dallas (1937)
To Have and Have Not (1944)

 

HULU

In the Fade (2017)
Still Mine (2010)


 

COMING THIS WEEK

NETFLIX

May 18
Cargo — NETFLIX FILM (2017)
Catching Feelings — NETFLIX FILM (2017)

May 19
Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
Small Town Crime (2017)

May 24
The Survivor’s Guide to Prison (2018)

 

AMAZON PRIME

May 19
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

 

HULU

May 19
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

 


Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.