GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO: This version of the classic makes Disney’s nose grow.

Wood the real Pinocchio please stand up?

In case of any confusion, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is not the Pinocchio movie with Tom Hanks. Which should be obvious, as the idea of those two working together would result in a movie where Hellboy does dishes for two hours.

Del Toro’s Pinocchio also differentiates itself from the other one in that it is intentionally weird, and as in the director’s most memorable films, draws something deeply moving from his fascinating visual gestures.

For a story about a puppet boy, stop-motion animation makes perfect sense, and del Toro leans into the concept of ‘wood brought to life’ by making nearly everything along with Pinocchio feel as if it were carved of wood and then given softness and fluidity. The effect is signature del Toro in that it is beautifully rendered with a creepy edge. For as expressive and buoyant as his Pinocchio is, you never lose the sense that those sharp, flailing limbs are going to take someone’s eye out eventually.

Like many, I know the Pinocchio fairy tale from Disney. It was a very fraught parable for the timid mousehouse to take on, so del Toro goes where Disney couldn’t. He seems to have dug up (or added) some Pinocchio story details to satisfy his more advanced taste for the strange and wonderful, which is why we go to his films. Here’s hoping he’ll do the original, dark version of Cinderella next, where one of the step-sisters cuts off her toes to fit into the glass slipper.

But back to what he’s done with Pinocchio. For instance, did you know: Sebastian (Jiminy) Cricket wrote books inside a tiny office in Pinocchio’s hollow ‘trunk’; Pinocchio could eat and drink without it spilling out through his cracks; Mussolini went to see Pinocchio perform; the Blue Fairy was related to the guy with eyeballs in his hands from Pan’s Labyrinth; the whale was the love child of an angler fish and an elephant; Cate Blanchett can make monkey noises; and – most of all – that Pinocchio actually dies several times during the story? And is brought back to life by Where-there-is-weird-there-is-Tilda Swinton?

Maybe Del Toro felt the need to pay some homage to Disney’s presentation of the story by making his version a musical too, but no one’s wishing upon a star here. The numbers are mostly dark (Ciao Papa, The Lost Lamented, Fatherland March) and are mercifully brief.

The most notable – and wonderful – departure this Pinocchio makes from the story most of us know is that Pinocchio, while he still seeks the approval of his father, does not spend the movie wishing he were a real boy. He revels in his oddness, and gets Geppetto and others to accept and embrace it. He lets his freak flag fly. Here, becoming ‘real’ like other boys means Pinocchio must break the rules of his very nature, and he does so only in desperation to save his father from death. Del Toro depicts this with a surprising and compassionate twist: he keeps his Pinocchio in wooden form even after he is made real. The reward Pinocchio gets for learning what it means to be human is not on the surface. It’s on the inside.

Disney would claim this was the message in their Pinocchio, but it rings hollow when their happy ending calls for Pinocchio to look like everyone else. Del Toro has always made otherness something to embrace, not change or overcome, and his Pinocchio is a classic like you’ve never felt it before.

Predicted Oscar nominations: 3

Animated Feature, Adapted Screenplay, Song

BABYLON : Missing those early YouTube videos of Japanese girls eating their own poop?

Margot Robbie proves that blow dryers and Forever 21 existed in 1926.

When a movie opens with an elephant spewing diarrhea on the head of the main character, you have to wonder if the whole endeavor that follows isn’t purposely meant to be a massive load of crap.

Set in silent-era Hollywood at the dawn of talking pictures, Damian Chazelle’s new film, Babylon, keeps referencing Singing in the Rain, a 1952 musical with the same setting. Yet it has none of that film’s breezy charm. Instead, it follows the strategy of taking a Baz Luhrman movie, dropping it in a vat of acid, and having it emerge as the Joker.

Think of any shocking and disgusting thing a movie can show – deviant sex, drug abuse, wanton violence, scatology, body dysmorphia, torture of both humans and animals – and this one shows it all, in the most gratuitous way possible. Not a one of these incidents is used to advance the plot, they are only there to relentlessly underline the simplistic and ‘who cares?’ point that early Hollywood was debauched.

Being a gay, I normally love over-the-top stuff. I read Hollywood Babylon and had a VHS of Mondo Cane that I watched like 100 times. These are the two sources that inspire this film way more that Singing in the Rain. But that book was a quick snack of salacious gossip, like an episode of Watch What Happens Live!, and Mondo Cane had a documentary’s innocent wonder at weirdness. Babylon is a 3-hour narrative film that is – no matter its celebration of chaos – calculated and callous.

Diego Calva plays the main character, Manuel, a dumbfounded innocent ping-ponging through the madness. He’s given an impossible-to-embrace motivation – falling in cocaine-fueled love with a self-obsessed actress who has no interest in him – and thus we care nothing about whatever ridiculous stuff happens to him. That actress is Nellie LeRoy, played by Margot Robbie as an amalgam of the ‘immoral’ women that silent films loved to base plots on. Any opportunity to comment on Hollywood’s inability to view female actors – on screen or casting couch – as anything but opportunistic sluts or vengeful vamps is buried under the elephant dung.

Brad Pitt is here to try to compensate for the onslaught of such unlikeable characters, but the charms of his John Gilbert-ish silent film star wear out quickly, and he’s left a hollowed-out victim of the public’s fickle taste and ‘high’ art’s critical savagery.  

As for the rest of the stunt-cast, who’d have thought the brilliant Jean Smart couldn’t handle a British accent? And who in their right mind would ever think Toby McGuire could believably play an opium-addicted mob boss? I guess the same guy who thought Ryan Gosling could dance like Fred Astaire.

Early on, Jean Smart’s gossip writer describes Nellie as a “maelstrom of bad taste and sheer magic”. Clearly, this is the take-away Chazelle wants from Babylon, the overarching comment he’s making about Hollywood movies. Dazzled as he’s always been by the details and the mechanics of movie-making – the sets and costumes here are extraordinary and the camerawork sometimes breath-taking – he can forget that the magic isn’t just what comes at us from the screen, but what happens inside us as we watch. That magic can’t happen if all we get are ugly people and abusive behavior for the sake of laughs and shock.

On that last note, Chazelle and the rest of you unchecked filmmakers, please consider the growing callousness toward animal abuse in movies. You assure us that “no actual animals were harmed in the making of this film”, but isn’t depicting casual animal abuse as a joke the same thing, because it reinforces perceptions that animals aren’t valuable beings? And when is a depiction of animal abuse actually necessary other than narratives meant to bring awareness to the problem? Creating a truly frightening villain, for instance, doesn’t require the spectacle of killing a puppy. It requires imagination, which is the real magic of movies.

Predicted Oscar nominations: 3

Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design

THE WHITE LOTUS FINALE : Mike White, your (1/2) gay card is revoked.

R.I….no, I am not accepting this!

Bisexuals. Why are they part of LGBTQ+?

We other letters have to fend off accusations of perversion, grooming, disease spreading, attempted murder of politician’s husbands, etc etc, while the Bs skate through by leaving the door wide open to the accepting arms of heteronormaville.

So listen bisexuals, and in this case I’m talking to you, Mike White. I don’t know why you want to stay in our circle of wagons, but since you do, you cannot blithely ignore everything we hold dear just because you want to do something ‘derpy’. Your choices hurt the tribe, and you should know better considering your obsession with Survivor.

Maybe you thought serving us heaping helpings of footlongs and buns in Season 2 would buy our silence. How shallow do you think we are? Don’t answer that. Nothing you gave us, including Aubrey Plaza, makes up for what you did to Tanya.

You’re a brilliant writer, no one argues that. We, along with the entire straight internet world, were completely riveted this season. Your ability to tease us, spin us all like plates without dropping any of us, is impressive in this age of bloated series that stretch themselves out with useless filler episodes. But when you killed Tanya, you dropped all the plates, and really made a mess.

That’s how you bisexuals roll, though, so we shouldn’t be surprised. You sucker us into a relationship, then announce you’re going back to the hetero side (lesbians, back me up here).

Piled onto this is that Tanya McQuoid is not just a character you scribbled out and then erased. It’s a character given an outsized presence in our lives by Jennifer Coolidge. Yes, she’s a comic genius, but her Tanya was much more than that. HBO doesn’t give us this kind of data, but I guarantee that it was Episode 5 – when our greatest fears that Tanya’s life was in danger were put firmly on the table – that the growing interest in the show became obsession. We freaked out for her, we desperately wanted her to be safe, we needed her to overcome.

And…you had her tumble over the side of a boat, 3 Stooges style, complete with cowbell sound effect. Let me tell you something – no one was laughing but you. “I’ll leave them Jennifer’s beautiful face floating in the sea to opera music,” you thought. No, Mike. That’s your straight half talking, and Tanya was not created by him.

And don’t give us the excuse that viewers would get tired of Tanya in Season 3. No one gets tired of Jennifer Coolidge. The woman got 10 million views of a clip saying “Hi.”

So, due to the aforementioned, and on behalf of us other letters, I regretfully inform you that your membership has been revoked.

We hate losing a brilliant ally, so we hope you’ll reapply next year. Here are some suggestions that will help the board see that you have learned from this tragedy:

  1. Season 3 opens with Greg’s dismembered body lying in his decrepit trailer home. His severed penis is prominent in this shot. We will not stand for one frame of Season 3 to show Greg living high off Tanya’s money. We don’t need to know whodunit. Kill someone else for that plot.
  • Tanya has a twin. We hear you groaning, Mike. But you are an exceptionally clever writer. If anyone can finally make this hacky trope work, it’s you.  
  • Tanya herself is back. Set it in The White Lotus Katmandu, and we’ll assume it’s something mystical. No further explanation needed.
  • Laura Dern.

Thank you,

L,G,T,Q and +

TOP GUN: MAVERICK: A Cruise missile fired at bloated action movies.

Nothing excites Tom Cruise more than freaking out a studio’s insurance company.

I thought Top Gun was bad even at the time it was made, but everyone’s been raving so much about this sequel I finally succumbed and pulled it up on streaming.

And I get it now. In the current movie environment where action directors are allowed 3 hours to stuff their films with convoluted plotlines, too many characters, real-world political analogies that you have to Google to understand, and multiple mysteries dangled until the end, Top Gun: Maverick comes in like a stealth bomber. The film is as lean and muscular as all the bodies on display, and as purpose-built as the machines those bodies strap themselves into.

What’s especially refreshing is the lack of patriotic cheerleading for a movie like this. The focus is on the technical execution of a singular, dangerous mission into enemy territory. That enemy is never given a human face, and only represented by their weaponry, which is tagged with marks too ambiguous to suggest any known nation. This refusal on the filmmakers’ part to give the audience a foreign enemy to hate is laudable, especially now.

There wouldn’t be much room for that enemy, anyway, as the real mission behind Top Gun: Maverick is to remind us all that there is but one big, old-fashioned, box-office-whomping Movie Star left in our pantheon: Tom Cruise. No couch-jumping or cult leading or gay rumors have ever or will ever take away the joy of watching Cruise almost kill himself to entertain us on screen.

Our Cruise missile enters the plot in stealth mode, as well. Compared to the cocky loudmouth from the first film, this older Maverick is quieter, calmer. The movie reminds us – a lot – that he’s still the fastest flyer in the history of the universe, and the only threat to his dominance is the artificial intelligence that will soon be flying all the planes in all the wars. “Your kind is going extinct” says crusty general Ed Harris – clearly meant to imply Cruise as well as his character – to which Cruise replies “not today”. Mission Impossible VIII: Creatine and Self-Discipline comes out in 2023, so not tomorrow or next year either, Ed.

It seems Mav’s rule-breaking ways – like joy-flying $14 billion planes he wasn’t authorized to – have gotten him in hot water a lot over the years since Top Gun, but he keeps getting saved by his ole frenemy, Iceman (Val Kilmer), who runs the Navy now, and is dying from throat cancer. Can I tell you what’s ballsier than Cruise doing his own stunts flying real jet planes? Val Kilmer, who actually has throat cancer, taking a role in which his character dies of throat cancer.  

Mav can’t say no to Ice when he insists Mav be the one to train the young pilots who’ll be flying the mission, even though it will put him in charge of his late wingman Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller). Maverick’s guilt over Goose’s death is the emotional journey that these movies have to include, but it’s a simple plotline and handled with admirable restraint by Cruise.

As for all the infamous homoerotic stuff bubbling under the first Top Gun, it ain’t here this time, boo! Instead of human cold shower Kelly McGillis sending Tom into the hotter embrace of his naked shower buddies, Cruise gets a smokin’ Jennifer Connelly this time. And the hate-sex vibes young Maverick and Iceman gave off are not matched by that of Rooster and his rival Hangman, even though Hangman writes his call sign as H_ngm_n, clearly inviting us to put a ‘U’ in the puzzle instead of an ‘A’. So those of you looking to get hot and bothered will have to make do with terms like ‘earth bulge’ and ‘stick jockey’, and a beach football scene shot more like a Subaru commercial than a porn film.

Still, there’s plenty to be excited by in Top Gun: Maverick, most of all that Tom Cruise is still just as passionate about delivering great entertainment as he was when he was a boy in his undies.

Predicted Oscar nominations: 6

Picture, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound, Song

THE FABELMANS: Spielberg jumps his shark.

“Listen, boychik, don’t wait for Godot when only Guffman’s gonna show up.”

Here’s a fable, man:

An old man, beloved in his village of Hollywoodland, climbed upon his rooftop. As the excited townsfolk gathered below, the old man said, “Hey, everybody, watch me fly!” He flapped his arms, jumped off the roof, and landed face down on his concrete driveway. As blood drained from his cracked skull, the old man reached out, and someone from the crowd handed him an Oscar.

This fable is of course about Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest living directors. Now in the sunset of his career, he decided to tell us how he came to fall in love with moviemaking as a young man. Promising a peek inside the mind of a wunderkind, abject reverence for Old Hollywood, colorful Jewish characters and a role for which Michelle Williams could finally nab her overdue Oscar, Hollywood threw all their wreaths around The Fabelmans before they’d even see it.

Then they saw it, and are now too embarrassed to take their wreaths back.

Maybe Spielberg is spoofing his own work, some thought, as the movie takes all of his tropes and dials them up to 11 for 2 ½ hours.

Or maybe it’s more meta than that: Spielberg has purposely made this movie feel as contrived, bombastic and hammy as the movies his teenage surrogate makes in this movie.

Then there’s this theory, backed up by the fact that Spielberg called in Tony Kushner to co-write the script: when you get old, you lose the ability to edit yourself, and your worst tendencies have a free-for-all. I’m going to go with this last one.

I’ve always been a big fan of Spielberg, and never jumped on when people called his work too manipulative or corny. Movies are supposed to manipulate us, it’s part of the thrill of going to the theater. No one knows better than Spielberg that heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

But wow, The Fabelmans isn’t just a corny scene here and there. It’s chock-a-block with eye-rolling moments. Every single line and shot is delivered as if it’s profound wisdom or an indelible comic gem, and almost nothing lands with the weight it’s intended to have.

Sure, some nice observations about artistic obsession and children navigating divorce get through, but they’re laboriously dug out of a bag of clichés, most of which Spielberg has exploited during his career: the gang of kids on bikes, the critical Jewish mother-in-law, the devout Christian girl who’s secretly promiscuous, the high school bully, the snarky little sister, the famous old director chomping on a cigar.

So much of this is just plain unnecessary. Judd Hirsch is trotted in for no reason other than to go for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s there for two minutes and when I tell you he disassembles, chews up, swallows and digests the scenery it’s not meant as a compliment.

Then there’s Michelle Williams, whom we all know is a terrific actress. Watching her so stridently trying to give logic to a character Spielberg doesn’t understand is tough. The movie labels her a ‘free spirit’, which translates to having her erratically bounce from vaudeville hijinks to method depression. Even if the character was supposed to be bi-polar (which is never said) the mood swings feel like they belong in a different film. Most of Williams’ character’s screen time, though, is spent watching her son’s 8-millimeter films with the ‘Laura Dern seeing a brontosaurus for the first time’ face. And take a moment to close your eyes and listen to Williams’ halting, tremulous line deliveries and tell me she isn’t doing Judy Garland. We reeeealy want to give you that Oscar, Michelle, but you’re not going to buy off the gays that easily.

Everyone was excited at the idea of Spielberg turning his early life into a Spielberg movie, and exploring the break-up of a family that isn’t just a side plot to a supernatural event. But talented as he is, he just isn’t the kind of director who can deliver a profound film from this far inside himself. He’s the consummate showman, but this subject matter requires a lens that isn’t so deeply etched with the kind of contrived banter and impeccably-designed money shots he’s used to delivering.

Mr Spielberg, we love you as a craftsman and a master storyteller. But, please, no more oversharing.

Predicted Oscar nominations: 7

Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Score