My Favorite Films of 2017

This year I started keeping a list of films I watched so that I’d be able to do a proper review at the end of the year. As of today, I watched 116 films – which includes older films on video and a few things that I’ve watched more than once.

How things have changed. In the early 80s when I worked in a video rental store, I must have watched 2 or 3 movies a day, and probably 500 or more per year. Of course a lot of my “watching” time is now devoted to TV series. This is a true golden age of television and I’m finding a lot of the things there that are missing from films in recent years.

That being said, here are the films I loved, liked and hated from 2017.

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Random Stuff on a Saturday Night

I went to SM Mega Mall on a Saturday night, which is an indication of how much of a masochist I must be. 30 minutes to drive there, 30 minutes waiting to get into the parking lot. But I figured I could find almost everything I was looking for in one place and I had nothing else to do, ergo ….

First order of business – buy a surge protector.  I made the dumb mistake of checking The Wirecutter for recommendations first. Dumb because of course I already knew in advance that whatever they’d be recommending wouldn’t be available here – here being the relatively large Cyber Mall on the 4th floor of Mega Mall. And I was right! Their number one choice – Tripp Lite – no one ever heard of it. Their number two choice, a specific model from Belkin that sells for all of US$31 (gasp!) on Amazon apparently is too expensive for this market.

One shop I went into had a cheaper Belkin, just one model, two pieces on the rack. Another shop had several different Belkins and a couple of models from a company called Silvertec.

My experience can be summed up by this exchange:

Him: Good evening. Can I help you?

Me: Yes, I’m looking for a surge protector.

Him: What?

Me: A surge protector.

Him: For what?

Me: (?????) For my computer.

Him: Oh. How many inches?

Me: That’s a rather personal question, isn’t it?

Him: ????

Me: Thank you!

Dinner at Mighty Quinn’s. Brisket, dirty rice, cole slaw and three kinds of pickles including pickled jalapenos. No complaints.

Then I figured I’d hit a movie (Logan) and had two hours to kill before the next showing. Walked around. Looked in a bunch of shops. Almost bought a new pair of prescription glasses but decided to hold off a couple of weeks.

Went outside for a smoke. Walked past Gerry’s Grill. There’s a family of 10 dining outside there. And here’s what “outside” looks like when you’re eating outside of this branch of Gerry’s Grill (red arrow):

Yeah, you’re sitting in a tunnel, with about 10 FX vans and 20 taxis parked there, all revving their engines to keep their air cons going, not to mention standstill traffic in both directions. People are sitting there eating? Inhaling a solid wall of CO2 along with their food? And then this family is finished, they get up to leave, the kid who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 stands up and deliberately spits on the ground – hocks up a huge loogie on the ground right where he was sitting and right next to another table where people are sitting. He couldn’t even be bothered to walk the 2 feet over to the curb to spit into the street. No one says a word. No one. Not one word.

Anyway, eventually it was movie time. Logan. It’s the third weekend it’s playing here, it has plenty of competition (Beauty and the Beast, King Kong Skull Island, Power Rangers something or other), it’s still playing in one of the bigger rooms in the multiplex – an 800 or 1,000 seater. No Imax, no 3D, no reserved seating, so tickets just US$5. Cannot complain about that.

And even though it’s currently rated an 8.5 at IMDb and gets a 92% at Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it was good (and definitely different enough from the rest of the X-Men films, which have grown quite tiresome in many ways, not the least of which the way in which they waste talented actors) but not great by any means. I guess I got more of a kick out of seeing Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais’s possibly more talented and definitely taller frequent collaborator) buried under tons of make-up, not to mention Richard E. Grant and Eriq LaSalle. And it was good to see Hugh Jackman without the stupid hair do and facial hair.

And now I’m home and, well, that’s about it!

(Actually Friday night was better. I was introduced to a group of local tattoo artists, spoke to them about maybe shooting in their shops at some point, started thinking about my next tattoo and flashed on this melting clock from Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory:

Or maybe Dali’s The Melting Watch, if I wanna get really ambitious about it:

Perhaps draped over my right shoulder (and yeah, I know, doing it there will hurt like a motherfucker, but it seems like a logical place for it) so pass the tequila and let’s get it on … maybe.)


PLDT – Why Do You Make Me Hate You So Much?

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks and I’ve been meaning to write an update but I’ve just been that busy. I was in Hong Kong for 8 days and meant to write something about that but the time has eluded me. Also the company I work for has been bought and it’s not immediately clear what that means for my future.

Anyway, last month, I was a little bit late in paying bills – sheer laziness, no other reason. I paid my monthly PLDT bill a couple of days after the due date. But here’s the thing – it was due on a Thursday, I paid it on Saturday, the payment registered on their system on Monday, and then they still cut my service on Tuesday because essentially their systems are so fucking shitmongous that they couldn’t cross-process the information on time.

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A Few Good Days

I need distractions. I’m so horrified by the events in the U.S. during the past ten days but I don’t know what to say about them, what to add to the discussion. I need distractions.

Friends from Hong Kong (American husband, Filipino wife) have a house in Angeles. We drove up there for the weekend. The drive itself is quite okay – well it’s roughly 60 miles but takes almost 2-1/2 hours if you drive straight through. The NLEX highway has plenty of American-style rest stops – the larger ones not only have gas stations but also have 15 or 20 fast food chains. The ones on the drive south also feature outlet stores from Nike, Adidas and others, crafts shops, even a shop selling ATV’s.

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Oscar Nominations for 2017

As always, the Oscars are a big deal to me. As political as they are, it was always my dream to one day win one and then go on the Tonight Show and tell a few jokes to Johnny Carson and walk away with Raquel Welch. I’m sure that eventually I will realize that’s not going to happen but it still hasn’t quite sunk in.

Anyway, here’s the full list, grabbed from Vulture. I haven’t seen too many yet, as nominated pictures tend to come towards the end of the year and may be slow to screen internationally. So far the biggest surprise I’m seeing is that Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence was only nominated for cinematography, and that I’m extremely less than thrilled to see Hollywood re-embrace Mel Gibson with nominations for best picture and director and 4 more nominations for Hacksaw Ridge. Not so surprised that there were zero nominations for Birth of a Nation, which at one point was seen as a sure thing.

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An Open Letter to the CEO of Warner Bros.

This letter from former Warner Bros. employee Gracie Law has been making the rounds on the internet. Given that I’m a former Warner Bros. employee myself, I wanted to share it.

When I left my screening of Suicide Squad last week, I was angry. I was annoyed and let down and frustrated as well, but mostly I was just angry.

Look, I’m a big dork. So of course I thought this trainwreck of a movie did a major disservice to the characters, concept, cast, and crew, but that wasn’t why I was mad. Yes, it is unfathomable to me that Warner Bros could mess up a movie starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and The Joker so completely. But that just had me flummoxed.

I was angry because I couldn’t stop thinking about you, Kevin Tsujihara.

A lot of fans might be angry (and rightfully so) because you keep completely whiffing at properties that they are desperate to love and enjoy, but this is a little more personal for me. See, I am a former Warner Bros employee. I have so much respect for your studio. I love every square inch of that magical backlot, from Stars Hollow to the fitness center I always meant to use. The people I worked with during my time with your company are now close friends. On my last day, I hugged them and I told them I loved them.

I was also there in 2014, when you made the decision to lay off 10 percent of your workforce. It was a terrible year. Let me catch you up: Every morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach, because I assumed that would be the day I lost my job. Every day I saw someone packing up their desk, or carrying a box to their car. I can not describe to you the relief I felt when my department was told we were safe, or the guilt I felt afterwards walking through the halls of my office with that relief.

But out of all that, the thing that really sticks with me is the memo you sent to all of us. Let me refresh you on my favorite part:

I wanted you to hear directly from me about our plans for the studio. In recent days, we have started to hear rumors here at the company and to read misinformation in the press, so I’d like to set the record straight. I know that the hard work and dedication of every employee around the world is the key to Warner Bros.’ success, and I am sorry for the distraction this situation brings to the workplace.

At Warner Bros., we work with the world’s most extraordinary storytellers, and our focus has always been to provide the creative environment and financial resources they need to realize their vision. Our commitment to that won’t change. In fact, we’re investing more than ever in our film and television productions.

This is how you opened a memo about layoffs. “Hey guys, we work hard for the people telling stories here and we want to make sure those visions are realized.” The balls on you.

That year we pursued the storytelling vision of Adam Sandler’s Blended and Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Failures. We pursued a potentially great summer movie like Edge of Tomorrow and completely botched its release. Same with Man From UNCLE. We dug in our heels and hoped The Hobbit Trilogy would somehow stop being a mediocre case of diminishing returns. Talented, loyal people packed their boxes and went home while your story tellers dropped the ball.

One could argue that this was not your fault. That you inherited former CEO Barry Meyer’s agenda and were merely trying to correct the course of an ocean liner heading for an iceberg.

I would not make this argument. And here’s why: I wrote this letter last year. I actually started forming it in my head after Man of Steel was a box office failure instead of the modern classic tentpole you were expecting.

I kept holding off on doing anything with it because of one title: Suicide Squad. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of Justice was a fiasco, but here comes this plucky little dark adventure about antiheroes. I love David Ayer. I love Harley Quinn. I love Will Smith. Put the letter in a drawer. The ship isn’t sinking anymore. Everything is fine. There’s no way this movie is bad.

And here we are. I got back from my screening and dusted this sucker off. You, your executive team, and the vision of your ‘extraordinary storytellers’ that resulted in the loss of around one thousand jobs seem intent on crashing the ship into as much shit as you can find in the ocean by making inane decisions over and over again.

Zack Snyder is not delivering. Is he being punished? Assistants who were doing fantastic work certainly were. People in finance and in marketing and in IT. They had no say in a movie called Batman V Superman only having 8 minutes of Batman fighting Superman in it, that ends because their moms have the same name. Snyder is a producer on every DC movie. He is still directing Justice League. He is being rewarded with more opportunity to get more people laid off. I’m assuming you yourself haven’t been financially affected in any real way. You and your studio are the biggest lesson about life one can learn: The top screws up and the bottom suffers. Peter Jackson phones it in and a marketing supervisor has to figure out a plan B for house payments.

Your uneven Hall H presentation at Comic Con this year was a ridiculous mess that ranged from rushed to boring. When Marvel announced their full slate of films with a fun fan event several years ago, you announced yours on a shareholder conference call.

You just don’t get it. And it’s not just DC movies, it’s your whole slate. Jupiter Ascending. Get Hard. Hot Pursuit. Max. Vacation. Pan. Point Break. Fucking PAN, you jerk. People lost their jobs and you decided Pan was a good idea. You think another Jungle Book is a good idea.

What are you even doing? I wish to God you were forced to live out of a car until you made a #1 movie of the year. Maybe Wonder Woman wouldn’t be such a mess. Don’t try to hide behind the great trailer. People inside are already confirming it’s another mess. It is almost impressive how you keep rewarding the same producers and executives for making the same mistakes, over and over.

If I worked at a donut stand, and I kept fucking up donuts, I’d be fired. Even if I made a tiny decent one every now and then, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna get fired.

I love that studio, and you’re allowing it to sink. It’s not about making movies for ‘the fans’ and not ‘the critics.’ It’s not even about ‘ruining childhoods.’ It’s about protecting livelihoods.

It’s time to wake up and make the fucking donuts, Kevin.

The thing is, Warner is in serious decline from just a decade ago, when it ruled the box office every year. Back then there was Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and some prestige projects that always did decently at the box office.

All of that has evaporated in the last few years. Disney rules, not least due to smart acquisitions (Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm).

Warner has lost all of the people who really loved movies. The person in charge now is a bean counter with little appreciation for the studio’s more-than-80-year legacy. One thing that former co-CEO’s Barry Meyer and Alan Horn were great at was nurturing relationships with the creative community.

I remember reading an interview with Kevin Tsujihara in Fortune when he was head of the Warner Home Entertainment Group, the division I worked for. His background?

He grew up in Petaluma, Calif., where his father was an egg distributor – and through his sophomore year at the University of Southern California, he spent his summers delivering eggs to merchants for his dad. Far from being one of those “all I want to do is direct” teenagers, he worked as an accountant, graduated from Stanford business school, and co-founded an online tax-filing company before landing at Warner Bros. in 1994.

And this bit of false humility – “I don’t go into any room thinking I’m the smartest guy in the room. There are thousands of people who could do what I do.” – has probably served him well as he built his personal empire.

There was another interview back then, I can’t find it now, where I seem to recollect him saying he knew nothing about the product and had to ask his kids what was hot.

I met him once. It was at a party in Tokyo, soon after he was promoted to be head of WBHEG. At the party, Koji Hase grabbed me by the neck, dragged me over to Tsujihara and said, “This guy knows more about our movies than anyone else in the company!” My big break, no? No. Tsujihara shook my hand, he might have muttered something along the lines of “Oh, okay,” and then turned his back on me.

Well, whatever. Except I still have a lot of friends working at Warner and when the numbers are bad, they’re the ones who will take the hit, not Tsujihara. But three years into his new role as CEO, hopefully people above him are taking note of his performance and will do something about it.

In my opinion Warner Bros. was the greatest Hollywood studio. When I was a kid, I realized that most of the movies I watched on TV that I loved had that WB shield at the beginning. Bogart, Cagney, Busby Berkeley, Stanley Kubrick, The Wild Bunch, Dirty Harry, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Purple Rain, Bugs Bunny ….  I hope someone else can come along and restore it to its former glory.

Bulkland – Review & Interview With the Director

Bulkland is a fascinating documentary video about a major city in China that I had never heard of. Odds are that you’ve never heard of Yiwu either, but you’ve bought stuff that was made there. This is the home of cheap crap – no name stuff that’s made to be sold in 99 cent stores around the world. What’s the deal with this city? Who are the people working in the makeshift factories there? Who are the people selling it? And what about the foreigners who have moved there from all over the world to try to make their fortunes? Bulkland answers these questions.

The official synopsis:

In Yiwu, the world’s largest market fills the shelves of discount chains around the world with electric Santa dolls, copies of Kate Middleton’s engagement ring and ear-wrecking vuvuzelas. Meanwhile, day labourers gather by the thousands in a human market and families have their children help make the zippers that might end up on your fake Chinese purse. But the recipe for success isn’t working anymore. China is getting more expensive to live in, and its army of migrant workers require higher wages to make ends meet.

And here’s the trailer:

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Hong Kong Strong

This video on Vimeo is a staff pick there and has been shared a lot on social media in the past couple of weeks. It’s called “Hong Kong Strong” and was directed by Brandon Li.

Li has also done a “director’s commentary” video, posted on Youtube.

Have you watched both?

My thoughts after watching these. First thought as I was watching this was “I wish I had a drone” though I probably couldn’t do anything anywhere near as artistic with it.

But after watching all the way through and thinking about it … I’m not a huge fan but I like it.

Yes, it’s stunningly shot. The editing is too frenetic for my taste (perhaps as a result of the director once working as a producer for MTV). As it builds towards its climax, there doesn’t seem to be any message. As a huge admirer of films like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, I want more than just great images in a film, I want it to add up to something.

For me the giveaway is what Li says in the commentary – “I am a nomad. I don’t have a fixed address. I travel all over the world and I make short films about places that I’ve been. [Getting staff pick on Vimeo] it’s helped me getting other film making work, doing commercials or other gigs that let me travel and shoot for tourism boards.”

So even though he mentions his “Cantonese heritage,” he is an outsider. The target audience for this may be tourists or perhaps locals and expats who will get to see a favorite spot included in the film. Our cable channels are filled with television shows that are guides to exotic destinations that are hosted by people who do not live in those places and may never have been there before. This is no better and no worse than most of the other stuff out there.

The disappointment for me starts with the title. I was expecting a film titled “Hong Kong Strong” to make a political statement and this one doesn’t. Hong Kong is in a state of ever-increasing turmoil.  Recent protests and calls for independence; the disappearing booksellers; the Chinese government stepping up their domination and forgetting all about what “one country, two systems” is supposed to mean.

I thought “Hong Kong Strong” might be a statement about all of that; a declaration of identity in the face of what will almost certainly be insurmountable odds. It’s not.

All of that aside, it is really brilliantly shot and Li’s contacts and connections have gotten him access to a wide variety of scenes and locations that do give some idea of the stunning choices available in such a relatively small territory. There’s a nice emphasis on culture here – much more locally oriented and steering clear from the ex-pat view and I think he deserves high marks for that. As I said, give me the same equipment and I wouldn’t be able to come up with something even 10% as good as this. It’s great for what it is, I just wish it was more.



Not Even Saving the CEO’s Life Gives Job Security

I’m no longer in the film business (I wrote about my early film career in a three part series that started here and I’ve touched on my 9 years at Warner Bros from time to time) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still really love reading about film and about the business itself. (I fill up my Evernote with clippings of this kind of stuff, pretty dorky I guess.)

For those who follow such things, you might have already heard that the #2 guy at Disney, Thomas O. Staggs, the guy who was being “groomed” to be the next CEO, was fired recently. The NY Times has a great piece on it. And this part just stood out to me for obvious reasons:

Thomas O. Staggs, then the chief financial officer of the Walt Disney Company, was having lunch with Robert A. Iger and other high-ranking Disney executives in 2003 in the company’s boardroom when food lodged in Mr. Iger’s windpipe.

With Mr. Iger struggling to breathe and turning red, another executive started pounding his back, to no effect. Mr. Staggs leapt up, and applied the Heimlich maneuver so forcefully that he broke one of Mr. Iger’s ribs. Out popped a piece of chicken.

Stanley P. Gold, then a Disney director, sent Mr. Staggs a note: “You’re a hero.”

In the byzantine world of Hollywood media conglomerates, not even saving the future chief executive’s life confers any job security. In a throwback to the tumultuous era of Disney’s former chief executive, Michael D. Eisner, who anointed — and then discarded — a series of potential successors, Mr. Staggs was purged this week.

To be fair, this isn’t only Hollywood. It goes on in almost every business, big or small, regardless of industry. But there is Something About Hollywood, and I’ll never forget how Warner treated Warren Lieberfarb