‘The Crown’ Season 2 Review: Despite Focusing on Relationships, Netflix’s Drama Turns Too Dreary and Cold

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There are far worse ways to study history than watching “The Crown” — high school history class comes to mind, especially at schools with misplaced teachers like Mr. Kraz. But there are better ways, as well, even in television’s incomplete, sensationalized fashion. Pertinent period details frame series like “The Americans” and “Mad Men,” or there are meaningful tales told of specific historical figures like “John Adams,” the “Band of Brothers,” and “The Young Pope.” (Hey, the future will one day be historical, too, and Lenny will be pope.)

What separates these programs from Netflix’s new crown jewel is an opinion; a stance, one way or another, on what all this means; a personality of its own making rather than a suffocating allegiance to facts. And in a darker second season about the most personal problems of Queen Elizabeth’s life, this voiceless neutrality breeds an even colder, more distant, and altogether less engaging set of historical accounts.

Those who enjoyed Season 1 won’t likely be overly upset, as these shifts are subtle and easily overshadowed by an onslaught of prestige. Scripts are well-crafted. Images are opulent in texture and scenery. Acting remains a top attribute, especially Matt Smith and Claire Foy who are even more front-and-center this year than last. Favorite figures like Jared Harris and John Lithgow are missed, as are their heartfelt characters (Harris’ kingly father figure) and episodes (most notably, “Assassins”), and Peter Morgan’s second season fittingly opens on a bleak, rainy day in February, 1957.

Queen Elizabeth (Foy) and the newly crowned Prince Philip (Smith) are at a crossroads. Sitting in the shadows, reluctant to face each other, the married couple’s allegiance to one another is being questioned in the public, and the two must decide how to move forward. Before an answer is given, the series shifts back in time five months to examine how the royal pair ended up in such a state.

The Crown Season 2 Episode 2 Matt Smith Netflix

Mercifully, this isn’t a framing device for the entire season — Morgan catches up to this scene in the third episode — but it does draw attention to the predominant themes of marriage, equality, and progress. Episodes focus on Philip’s frustrations with his position, his tragic childhood, and his perceived dalliances with women other than Elizabeth. The series doesn’t go so far as to show Philip with another woman, but it strongly implies casual couplings during his time away from the city and depicts a budding vanity that often distracts from his duties.

Smith builds a character who’s easy to dislike without being totally alien: It’s both a challenging and enviable development to take on, and Smith progresses Philip quite well. The kind of presumptive sexism displayed will make him an even more hated figure given current cultural context, but he’s not a monster or a predator; he’s merely a powerful man doing what powerful men did at the time.

The latter point is more of the show’s stance than an absolute interpretation. Morgan makes some bold choices in what he’s willing to include, but bold choices do not equate to bold positions. “The Crown” only goes so far, after all, even with its principal subject. Though Elizabeth is often made into a pitiable object, she’s more reactive than declarative in Season 2.

The Crown Season 2 Claire Foy Matt Smith Netflix

Characters often bring up the queen’s obligation to the crown, and they almost always frame her allegiance to tradition in contrast to personal desires. Last season saw Elizabeth deny her sister the love of her life because their marriage would embarrass the family. Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is still smarting from that decision — she’s quite the drunkard in Season 2 — but Elizabeth has moved on; she’s accepted her duty and is entirely possessed by it.

The show seems to have followed suit, and the fifth episode illustrates the underlying problem of hiding behind history. Based around Lord Altrincham, an unknown newspaperman and failed politician, “Marionettes” focuses on how the writer’s scathing opinion of a speech made by the queen gains traction. At first, her advisers tell Elizabeth not to worry about it. They think it will be dismissed outright because of the subjects’ undying loyalty to her office.

But when Altrincham appears on television to defend his articles, the tide turns. He’s not a crackpot or an attention-seeker. He genuinely loves the monarchy and wants to help it transition into the 20th century. He’s speaking for the people, and the people are behind him. The episode ends with a footnote, saying the royal family eventually adopts every one of Altrincham’s suggestions, and this final word successfully shifts the episode from its original position — the condemnation of a crackpot vs. the queen — to its ultimate message: that one man speaking truth to power can sway the course of history.

The Crown Season 2 Dogs, corgis, running Netflix

It’s a strong episode on its own, but “The Crown” lacks the same courage overall. Morgan’s drama only feels comfortable taking a stance when its got historical precedent behind it: The condemnation of the royal family’s stuffy policies is included because someone actually condemned it and they listened, whereas when the family’s outdated and inhumane beliefs are brought up — like their disgusted intolerance of homosexuality — “The Crown” seems to shrug and say, “Well, that’s how it was back then.”

Whereas “Mad Men” and “The Americans” provide context to indicate how the audience should react (think about the opposing marketing firm throwing piss balloons on black protesters, or Philip’s struggle to follow through on certain missions), “The Crown” is content to just depict what happened. When the queen is forced to think about homosexuality, she collapses and her hand is shown grasping the window, like Kate’s in “Titanic” — except Elizabeth isn’t in the midst of passionate backseat sex, she’s just passionately unhinged at the idea of a man kissing another man. Such a simple point could’ve been made without the grandiose bombasticity that lends the series a coldness that’s hard to come back from.

It doesn’t condemn these ideas just as it doesn’t condemn Philip’s actions. Of course, it doesn’t support them either. While very good at instructing the audience how Philip and Elizabeth are feeling, rarely does it evoke the same level of feeling from viewers. The series is so diligent to the history books — “There was a meeting and, as best we can tell, this was discussed, so they probably reacted like this…” — there are more frustrations than surprises and more acceptance than understanding.

Some viewers may look for exactly this in their television: a beautiful recreation of historical events, connected by safe assumptions about the people who lived through them. But television is capable of so much more, and whether you like “The Crown” or not, its medium evokes stronger, richer feelings elsewhere.

Grade: B-

“The Crown” Season 2 premieres December 8 exclusively on Netflix.


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‘A Ghost Story’: The Craft of a Low-Budget Indie Shouldn’t Be Forgotten During Awards Season

http://www.indiewire.com/2017/11/ghost-story-cinematography-david-lowery-andrew-droz-palermo-low-budget-1201900131/

During awards season, craft discussions often focus on films in which large teams of technicians create whole worlds of images, effects, and sounds. However, as we saw last year with “Moonlight,” it’s a mistake to dismiss the craft of a low-budget film.

After making Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon,” director David Lowery wanted to shoot “A Ghost Story” with a small crew of friends, in a small home, and in a limited time period. And yet from composer Daniel Hart’s evocative score that works in perfect harmony with Johnny Marshall’s sound design, to costume designer Annell Brodeur’s remarkable feat of turning a bedsheet into a practical and beautiful ghost costume, the level of below-the-line talent was just as impressive as the small cities of people who made “Dunkirk” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

Possibly the biggest challenges on “A Ghost Story” belonged to Lowery and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palmermo, in creating the film’s evocative visuals. What follows is the director and DP talking about working with limited space, crew, and a narrower 4×3 aspect ratio to create the film’s distinct look.

Purposeful Limitations

David Lowery and crew on the set of "A Ghost Story"

David Lowery and crew on the set of “A Ghost Story”

Andrew Droz Palmermo

Lowery: I just called them both [stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara], “I’m making this weird thing in Texas. You want to come hang out?” The one ultimatum I made going into this was I wanted to keep it as small as can be and only work with friends.

Palmermo: For the scene where Casey is singing, he suggested we shoot on Saturday, which was our day off. It was just Casey, David, and myself. All those shots made the movie and that plays to the movies’ strengths, which is a very intimate, emotional movie. Sure, the light could have looked a little better, but the material of being that intimate and raw gets you such great material. I certainly don’t care if we have a lack of perfection occasionally for something that’s so raw and real.

Lowery: The big movies are big for a reason. They need that army, but it does get overwhelming at times and it can slow you down. By doing something so stripped down and making it intimately with such a small, tightly knit group of friends, we were able to do more and try more things and go exploring.

Palmermo: On a film this size, we had to schedule around where the sun would be. I would then remove light by blocking out windows that I didn’t want to be active. That’s purely budgetary. We would have loved to overpower the sun, but that wasn’t in our fixtures budget.

When the sun was overhead, it would be bouncing off this green grass and green leaves and it was sending a ton of green into the house. With Rooney, who has very fair skin, when she walked up to a window she would take a lot of green in her face. I laid out big pieces of muslin so it’d bounce warmer white light — that’s all I could really do, besides blacking out windows.

An Evolving Visual Look

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Andrew Droz Palmero

Palmermo: One of the things that was challenging was creating a different look – the way the camera moves, the lighting, the look of the house — for each of the different phases of the film. The house and movie is different with Rooney and Casey, than when the Latino family moves in, or the squatters at the party.

Lowery: Visually, the film was initially conceived to be just a series of tableaus, before it expanded and we had the next family move in. I was just conceiving of it as a series of very quiet, haunting scenes in this space between two people and that remained for the beginning of the movie. I knew the shots would last for a sustained length of time and I talked to Andrew a lot about how to create frames that carried emotional weight and where we should put the camera to engage and hold the audiences’ attention.

Palmermo: The house is super small, so we thought it would be great to have a smaller-body camera [Arri Alexa Mini] so we could get it where we needed it to be. As we moved into the future, we had to find a way to make it look different but still feel part of the same cinematic universe. It was at this point in the film that I first introduced fluorescent lighting and seeing modern LED lighting versus the standard house bulbs or practicals we used in the beginning. More than lighting, the camera is doing different things than it was doing before.

A Ghost Story, David Lowery and Andrew Droz Palermo

David Lowery and Andrew Droz Palermo

Andrew Droz Palermo

Lowery: When the family moves in after Rooney has left the house… we decided just be more fluid and let the camera just sort of float around the space versus being so rigidly formalist in our approach. And that was very conducive to the way time starts to flow in that sequence.

Palmermo: We started going handheld and using a gimbal, so the Alexa Mini’s light weight became key. For this part of the film, I switched to modern lenses. I was using ’60s lenses up to that point and I brought out these ‘90s Panavision lenses, which are sharper and contrast-y in a way that renders things more faithfully. That combination of a new technology and this free-floating camerawork really marks the change in the film. We then did nearly the exact opposite for the pioneer scenes, where we used zoom lenses and long-lens shots that give it the feeling that you are looking in on the past. As the ghost becomes more isolated, I started making things cooler and we’d play with that throughout the film, adding or taking away a little color in the light as the film evolves.

4×3 Aspect Ratio

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Andrew Droz Palermo

Lowery: I love the square aspect ratio as a moviegoer, especially because our screens are so wide now. Looking through frames like that makes my eyeballs happy. Thematically, it’s relevant [on “A Ghost Story”] because it’s about a character stuck in box. Also, it’s a movie starring someone wearing a bedsheet, and I wanted audiences to know from the beginning this is not a typical ghost movie, just in case someone comes wandering in thinking, “All right, ‘The Conjuring.’” So if I put the 4×3 up there at the beginning of the movie, everybody will know this is slightly left of center. Also, I wanted the creative challenge.

Palermo: We both think in widescreen. We love anamorphic frames and love utilizing the wide space, so there definitely was a learning curve. When you watch classic films shot 4×3, they don’t feel claustrophobic. They manage to use the 4×3 frame that doesn’t feel suffocating or like everybody is in a closeup. But the way contemporary films are shot, it would feel claustrophobic if you shot it the same way.

Lowery: I thought it would come naturally. “Oh, it’s a square, we’ll just reframe things.” But our minds are so trained to think in rectangles at this point. To adjust to that frame, at least to me, was an incredible challenge and it was uncomfortable. The first couple days of production we shot things wrong.

Palermo: We shot the scene where the ghost comes back home two or three times. It was just a learning curve. “Oh, when he walks too much he looks really goofy, or if he gets too close to the lens he looks really goofy.”

Lowery: It’s about where the actor is in the frame and how you can’t shoot a closeup the same way. It’s remarkable how much goes into that. You don’t anticipate how every little detail plays differently when you are using that aspect ratio and how you have to think about space in a different capacity. We were learning as we shot, but we were in a situation where we had time to experiment and make sure we liked what we were seeing.

Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with ARRI, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Founded by two filmmakers 100 years ago, ARRI and its engineers have been recognized by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for contributions to the industry with 19 Scientific and Technical Awards. Click here for more about ARRI.


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‘Coco’ Will Beat ‘Justice League’ Over Thanksgiving, but That’s Not Great Box-Office News

http://www.indiewire.com/2017/11/coco-justice-league-wonder-thanksgiving-box-office-1201899956/

Good news: Pre-opening estimates suggest Pixar’s “Coco,” opening Wednesday, will best “Justice League” for the five-day Thanksgiving weekend.

Bad News: “Coco” will likely gross around $60 million-$65 million, which would rank as one of least-impressive Thanksgiving box office returns in years. To be a blockbuster, “Coco” would need a very strong multiple and an international performance better than most Pixar films.

At $65 million for five days, it would be the lowest (in adjusted numbers) top grosser for the holiday weekend since the barely remembered “Four Christmases” in 2008. It also would fall short of the top 25 for the date; top animated titles on that list include Disney’s non-Pixar “Frozen,” (over $100 million), “Moana” ($83 million), and the original “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life,” both of which opened to over $80 million.

However, other than “The Good Dinosaur” two years ago ($58 million for five days), Pixar has avoided the date this century, with partner Disney frequently taking it for its top animated releases. (They did choose earlier in November for two titles, “The Incredibles” and “Monsters, Inc.”).

COCO (Pictured) - DON’T FORGET THE SHOES – In Disney•Pixar’s “Coco,” Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) and Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) ensure that their home is adorned for Día de Muertos, including an elaborate ofrenda that holds several framed family pictures, flowers, candles, favorite foods and—because they are in the shoemaking business—shoes. “Coco” opens in n U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Coco”

Pixar

Calculations of potential profit are tricky with the privately held Pixar never releasing production costs (though estimates for their top entries, like “Coco,” are around $200 million). There’s also early signs that this might have more international appeal. Disney released this in Mexico, its setting, in late October to dovetail with the Day of the Dead holiday central to its plot. So far, it has grossed $50 million (in unadjusted figures a record total), and that could portend a stronger response in other territories.

 

“Finding Dory”

Disney Pixar

Pixar is coming off of last year’s “Finding Dory.” Like “Finding Nemo,” it took in over $500 million. But its other two most recent releases, “Cars 3” and “The Good Dinosaur,” rank dead last among their films in domestic ticket sales.

They also have lagged somewhat behind other top animation studios in international performance. Like most franchise films, animated hits from Disney, Dreamworks, and Universal do 66 percent-75 percent of their business overseas. For Pixar, it’s usually 60 percent or less. “Finding Dory,” the top animated domestic hit of the past four years, made 53 percent of its gross on international box office. (By comparison, “Despicable Me 3” did $768 million foreign.) No other studio is so reliant on domestic totals to make a profit.

For strong animated hits that play through Christmas, the range of multiples is between three times (“Moana”) and four (“Frozen”). So at $65 million, the anticipated total would be between $195 million and $260 million. That would mean, with high-end international results, a worldwide total of about $650 million. With production and marketing costs in excess of $300 million, that puts Pixar at breakeven before ancillary revenues.


“Wonder”

That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error or shortfalls. On the domestic side, one potential worry is the surprise success of Lionsgate’s family-friendly “Wonder,” which likely thrives this weekend and beyond while competing for much of the same audience. Apart from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (also Disney), Fox Animation has “Ferdinand” and Sony’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” looming among other late-year releases.

However, what made “Coco” so big in Mexico also might elevate it here, as well as enhance interest elsewhere in the world. That remains to be seen, but in the meantime it has already banked $50 million in a country that usuallyaccounts for three percent of worldwide totals.

Pixar and Disney might be lowballing their expectations. But even if it grosses $80 million or more for five days, “Coco” would still only be in a normal, not extraordinary, range.


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Producers Guild of America Documentary Nominations Don’t Foreshadow the Oscars

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With a wide field of potential contenders, the Producers Guild of America made some surprise picks and snubs for its seven nominees for Best Feature Documentary on Monday. The films nominated for the Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Pictures are listed below in alphabetical order:

“Jane”

“Chasing Coral” (Jeff Orlowski, Netflix)

“City of Ghosts” (Mattew Heineman, Amazon)

“Cries from Syria” (Evgeny Afineevsky, HBO)

“Earth: One Amazing Day” (Peter Webber, Lixin Fan, Richard Dale, BBC Earth)

“Jane” (Brett Morgen, NatGeo)

“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” (Joe Piscatella, Netflix)

“The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” (John Maggio, HBO)

Among the lauded documentaries left off the 2017 PGA nominations were Cannes documentary winner “Faces Places,” directed by Agnes Varda and JR, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s portrait of Brooklyn Hassidim, “One of Us,” and popular Turkish cat documentary “Kedi.”

While the PGA’s feature nominees often align with Oscar contenders, that’s not so true for the documentaries. In 2014, the PGA nominated one eventual Oscar nominee and failed to nominate eventual Oscar winner “Citizenfour.” In 2015 the PGA selected eventual Oscar nominees “Amy” (which won the Oscar) and “The Look of Silence” as well as shortlisted Oscar docs “The Hunting Ground” and “Meru.” In 2016, the committee of some 30 or more PGA documentary producers nominated two of the final Oscar five, Roger Ross Williams’ “Life, Animated” and Ezra Edelman’s eventual Oscar-winner “O.J.: Made in America.”

The winners will be revealed at the 29th annual Producers Guild Awards, which will take place on January 20, 2018 at the Beverly Hilton.

During the awards show, the Producers Guild will also present special honors to Chairman of Universal Pictures Donna Langley for its Milestone Award and to film producer Charles Roven for its David O. Selznick Award. The 2018 Producers Guild Awards Event Chairs are Donald De Line and Amy Pascal.

The remaining nominations for Theatrical Motion Pictures, Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures, Television Series/Specials, Long Form Programs, and Sports, Children’s and Short Form Programs will be announced January 5, 2018. The PGA and The Players club will host their second Annual East Coast Nominees Celebration on January 16, 2018 in New York.

The Academy will announce 15 selections for the Oscar documentary feature short list on December 4th.

Read More:  2018 Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Feature


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