Saturday, July 22, 2017

New, Spoiler-Free Release! Baby Driver (2017)

Director: Edgar Wright

Fun and very well-made in many ways, but a bit disappointing, given Wright's track record and the degree of hype around the movie.

I am a dedicated fan of Edgar Wright. I've loved all of his four previous feature movies, especially World's End and Hot Fuzz. This, coupled with the fact that Baby Driver received a highly impressive average score of 8.1/10 from over 200 critics, according to the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, and I was ready for a truly mind-blowing experience. It wasn't quite that.

The movie follows the titular "Baby," a tall, lanky young man who is a preternaturally skilled driver. He uses his ability as a wheel man, helping robbers get away from the scenes of their crimes. We learn that this is hardly by his own desire; rather, it is to pay off a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), the intimidating mastermind who plans the various heists. For each job, Doc assembles a slightly different four-person crew, with Baby being the only permanent fixture due to his reliability as a wheel man. The other crew members are often volatile and even homicidal, though Baby manages to keep his distance by remaining as quiet and detached as possible. When Baby manages to completely pay off his debt to Doc, the timing could hardly be better, as he has just met a beautiful young woman, Deborah (Lily James), and hopes to have a future with her. Unfortunately, Doc quickly calls on Baby again, informing him that he has no real intention of allowing Baby any kind of real freedom. Baby must then figure some way out of the criminal life for good. This is made considerably more difficult when a weapons deal goes horribly wrong, leaving multiple dead cops in the wake of Baby and his criminal associates.

The movie has all of the brisk pacing and well-choreographed action that a fan of such movies could ask for. The movie begins with a frantic car chase and continues to offer similar fare at several points throughout the film, including the crash-bang finale. The movie is also stocked with wild, dangerous characters, played by high-quality actors like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Berenthal, and several others. Plenty of bullets fly, blood is spilled, and hard stares given, all to a moving, energetic soundtrack. It certainly does make for more than a little fun.

Baby (left) looks with well-founded skepticism on his criminal
cohorts: Bats, Darling, and Buddy. Though the performances
are strong, the script doesn't always pack the intended punch.
All the same, there is a surprising shallowness to many of the proceedings. Perhaps this shouldn't come as a great surprise to me, given that Wright's feature films and even TV shows have often been goofy, though very clever, parodies of his beloved genres of science-fiction, fantasy, and action films. With Baby Driver, he did seem to making an honest attempt at characters and relationships that were more touching and sincere than anything he has done before. Though he almost hits the mark a few times, the attempts at evoking any genuine sympathy or empathy for even Baby and his lady love Deborah never completely sparked for me. Baby is curious and likeable, to be sure, but other aspects of the film drown out what could have been more feeling for him.

One of those aspects is the amount of collateral damage during the latter half of the movie. Without giving anything away, I'll simply state that bodies start dropping. Quickly. By the end of the movie, you'll almost certainly have lost count. This is fine, and often even standard, for such high-speed action flicks. In Baby Driver, however, it ends up in discord with what I believe was the intended tone for the resolution of the movie. I got the sense that Wright wanted us to feel one way about it, but that feeling was either highly diluted or completely washed away by what had transpired during the preceding 30 minutes.

One could also pick a few bones upon close inspection of certain details pertaining to the characters. Maybe I'm just an overly sensitive, PC type, but I was a little perturbed by the fact that the craziest, most bloodthirsty character happened to be the African-American, Bats (Jamie Foxx). While every other robber teamed with Baby shows a certain level of professionalism and respect for human life, Bats very quickly falls into nearly every negative stereotype of African-American men. He's brash, profane, arrogant, and kills indiscriminately. It's not that I think a character like this can't be black; it's just that I think when he's the clearly the most heinous in a large cast, it needs to be handled with care. Care which I don't think Wright took enough of.

Going into the theater, I was truly expecting to be dazzled by a movie that I would be dying to watch over and over, as I have been with Wright's other movies. It was certainly fun, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I don't know when, or even if, I'll feel a desire to see it again. And for what is supposed to be a fun, clever action movie, that's not a litmus test one wants to fail. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Before I Die #602: October (1927)

This is the 602nd movie I've now watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm steadily working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Oktyabr

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Yet another silent film that still shows why it is considered a seminal work in film history, though not exactly one that is the most accessible or completely satisfying for a viewer these 90 years later.

Russian directing legend Sergei Eisenstein was one of the very few propaganda filmmakers whose cinematic talent was so astounding that his contributions to the art form trump virtually any critique one could have about how politically biased or unabashedly nationalistic many of his films are. October is a prime example. To mark the 10th anniversary of the 1917 "October Revolution" in Russia, Eisenstein created this dramatized version of the successful socialist revolt against the Russian aristocracy. Being more panoramic in scope, it spends as much or more time with larger groups of unnamed individuals in the various classes which were struggling - the proletariat and bourgeoisie being the primary ones, the aristocracy and the bureaucrats are depicted as well. We do also get scenes including icons of the revolution, including Lenin, Trotsky, and others. It tells the story of the overthrow in a fairly rousing fashion, with hordes of fighters storming various government buildings, being repulsed, only to rebound and eventually win. There are dramatic speeches and arguments, and plenty of iconography included throughout.

Honestly, the political minutia was somewhat confusing at times. While I'm no scholar of the Russian revolution, I know enough to understand the ideologies behind the movement, as well as several of the key figures involved. All the same, I got lost more than once when it came to which factions were supporting which, especially when the infighting begins. This is just one piece of evidence that strongly suggests that this was a movie made mostly (if not completely) for the Russian people. It assumes that the viewers will know many of the details, so clear explanations are often absent. That's great for Russians back in the early 20th century, or even modern scholars of the era, but more casual viewers in the 21st century may find it confounding.

As with his other nationalistic movies, Eisenstein showed his
keen eye for iconic imagery with tons of fantastic shots.
Despite the potentially befuddling nature of the missing details, it is fairly clear why this movie is still held up as a seminal entry into the catalog of cinema. As with Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Strike three and two years prior, October displays a mastery of many film techniques which only a handful of directors had mastered at the time. Using crisp editing, creative camera angles, overlap dissolves, and sophisticated film grammar, Eisenstein was using the medium to tell a visual tale that went far beyond a mere recounting of facts. Juxtaposed images and choices of framing clearly suggest where the moral high ground lay in many of the scenes. There is a dynamism imbued in many of the grander sequences, with dozens and sometimes even hundreds of cast members rushing around in a frenzy of either revolutionary zeal or defensive panic. It certainly creates a lot of visual excitement, though some of its power is lost on someone like me, given that I have no emotional stake in the political consequences.

From what I've seen of silent-era films, this one seems to be one of last great, historical epics before sound burst onto the cinematic scene. It is right in keeping with the larger films of D.W. Griffiths and Abel Gance. While the techniques on display have either become standard to the point of ubiquity or simply been completely surpassed by later developments, one can appreciate them within the context of their time. Like so many silent movies, one probably needs to have more of an intellectual curiosity about film history to really "enjoy" this one, as that it where its merits now lie. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Better Call Saul, season 3 (2017); Fargo, season 3 (2017)

Better Call Saul, season 3 (2017)

Slippin' Jimmy just keeps on slippin'. And it's a pretty captivating journey.

In the third season of the prequel series to Breaking Bad, Jimmy McGill (later Saul Goodman) is in full defense mode against his older brother, Chuck. In the previous season, the two brothers were engaged in warfare in the form of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) sabotaging one of Chuck's big cases so that his girlfriend, Kim, could score the case for herself. This act of underhandedness escalated into Chuck suffering a nasty concussion and Jimmy getting arrested for breaking and entering Chuck's home. As Jimmy fights for his legal career, his acquaintance Mike Ehrmentraut gets a bit deeper into a local turf war between powerful drug distributors from south of the border but who have staked claims in this part of Albuquerque.

This show continues to impress and amaze me on many levels. Primarily, it is that, like Breaking Bad, the protagonist is simply not a good person. However, unlike the show which spawned in, Better Call Saul's primary character does have some redeemable qualities. Jimmy is quite loyal, extremely hard-working, and has goals that are admirable in their modesty. He basically just wants to make a decent living, have a nice girlfriend, and get along with his brother. His problem is that he is a natural-born con-man who can't seem to help but look for angles and shortcuts. For as many tough spots as his cleverness and charisma get him out of, his disrespect for hard-and-fast rules just send him right back down towards the turf. In this particular season, his relationship with his brother Chuck deteriorates even further, as the incidents that ended the second season continue to fester and spawn deeper, darker problems.

Mike and Gus Fring - two of the strongest characters from
Breaking Bad, who also have more screen time in this season.
It's a double-edged sword, offering plenty to fans of the
earlier series but taking a bit of
Saul's autonomy away.
This might have been the best season yet. Admittedly, it starts to lean even more on one's knowledge and presumed appreciation for Breaking Bad, more of whose characters appear and start to have gradually more prominent roles, regardless of Saul's direct involvement. This is the first season in which is really and truly has evolved into a prequel series for that hit show, rather than be a series almost exclusively about the back stories of two of the more fascinating supporting characters. Part of me feels that it does devalue the title character a bit, but fortunately the diminishment is minimal. It also helps to know that it is ultimately building a stronger bridge to span the distance between this series and the original.

I was late to the Breaking Bad party, only watching it once the final season had come out back in 2013. I figured that I'd rewatch the series again at some point, but it hadn't arrived yet. This latest season of Better Call Saul, though, now has me ready to go back and binge watch the entire 60-odd episode series. That's how good show creator and runner Zack Gilligan is at doing something original and engaging in modern television drama.

Nikki and Ray. These two seem to be the primary villains in
this season, but eventually become much more endearing.
Far from innocent, to be sure, but endearing.
Fargo, season 3 (2017)

Make it three-for-three for Noah Hawley. This third season was another brilliant one for this show about which I was quite skeptical back when its existence was announced. Though I would rank it the third best of the first seasons, it still features many of the strengths that make this underdog series a singular success.

This season takes place mostly in 2011, five years after most of the events of the first season and roughly 33 years after the flashback second season. It concerns a string of murders surrounding a pair of brothers - Emmett and Ray Stussy - who have a long-standing if often unspoken fued over older brother Emmett's immense success as a parking lot mogul in the greater Minnesota area. Things grow infinitely more complicated when a shady and manipulative character, V. M. Varga, turns up as a sinister source of dark funds for one of Emmett's capitalist ventures. The skulduggery commences, with a humble but capable and dedicated local police chief, Gloria Burgle, trying to suss out who's to blame for the carnage.

The broad strokes and general tone of the series are very much in keeping with the first two seasons. There is a darkness looming over or lurking underneath much of the story, despite the sometimes pleasant settings or ostensibly polite and goofy characters. The three primary archetypes laid out by the movie and maintained through the first couple of seasons still holds true: an overly ambitious loser, a thoroughly vicious villain, and a steadfast cop. In this season, all three versions are strong incarnations of these types, and each is a curious variant of what has come before. Ray Stussy's relationship with his ex-con girlfriend Nikki has a welcome touch of genuine sweetness to it. Yes, Ray is a helpless loser, but unlike Jerry Lundergaard, Lester Nygaard, or Peggy Blumquist, he is not completely self-absorbed, as evidenced by his dedication to Nikki. The villain, Varga, is clearly the "dedicated psycho," as one friend put it, though one that is a fascinating commentary on modern greed and intellect. And Gloria Burgle at first seems similar to Fracis Mcdormond's legendary Marge Gunderson, but we soon see how her character represents something more than just a skilled female smashing her head against a glass ceiling. These similar types, tones, and themes have become the welcome connection between the three seasons, aside from the fact that they do take place in the same fictionalized version of the Dakota regions.

V.M. Varga. Don't let the unassuming appearance fool you.
This guy is as dangerous and twisted as any of the other
maniacs and murderers who have populated the
Fargo series.
Beyond the familiar elements, though, is a gripping crime and thriller tale. As with the previous two seasons, things get a bit bloody early in the proceedings and only get more gruesome and tense as the season unfolds. There are plenty of great sequences and moments. One that comes to mind is episode 8, with Nikki and an old familiar face fleeing into the frozen woods from a trio of ruthless assassins. It takes up the first 15 to 20 minutes of that episode, and it is as brilliant and brutal as anything that the series has given us. This and plenty of other moments, both familiar and utterly odd, create yet another distinctive tale revolving around human vices put into overdrive and situations gone horribly wrong.

Now that I've fully caught up on the entire series (which I did over the course of around two months), it won't be long before I go back for a complete re-watch. The prospect of plunging back into the dark, twisted, and often amusing world of these characters is still exciting, despite the roughly 25 hours of running time for the entire series. And that's about as high a praise as I can offer any show. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

New Release! The Big Sick (2017) [Spoiler-Free]

Director: Michael Showalter

A great movie, regardless of genre. Yes, technically it's a rom-com, but it is one with vastly slyer humor and more depth than much of that genre's fare.

Based much on the real-life experience of Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the movie and co-wrote it with his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick charts Kumail's initial meeting, relationship, and massive tribulations with the woman who would eventually become his wife. Kumail, whose family emigrated from Pakistan, is an aspiring standup comic in Chicago. When a young American woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan) good-naturedly heckles him during a performance, a romantic relationship begins between the two. What initially seems to be a low-committal relationship of convenience grows over several months into a genuine love. The problem, however, is that Kumail's conservative parents plan for him to marry a Pakistani woman, in keeping with their traditions. Things are much further complicated when Emily falls horribly ill and is put into a medically-induced coma. This forces Kuwail to reckon with his feelings for Emily while he also deals with Emily's parents.

The movie hits every mark that one would expect from a rom-com. The meet-cute. The adorably budding romance. The massive bumps in the road to mutual happiness. The development of understanding of others through shared difficulties. The reconciliation and happy ending. Nothing about the broad plot strokes is particularly surprising or original. Rather, it is in the details and execution that this movie stands out. While my wife is something of a rom-com connoisseur, I count only a handful of them as enjoyable enough to watch more than once. In recent years, Man Up is one that comes to mind. The Big Sick, however, may be the best one that I've ever seen. The comic writing is as good as any I've seen in such romantic movies, which is no surprise when you remember that Nanjiani and Gordon are a seasoned standup comic and comedy writer, respectively. The gags, which are often hilariously profane, almost always hit. This is true even during uncomfortable moments such as in the hospital while Emily is in her coma. Wringing humor out of such grave situations is no easy task, but Nanjiani and Gordon do it time and time again.

But there are certainly other rom-coms that have featured solid comic writing. What sets The Big Sick apart are the larger and very real themes at play. The primary one is the clash of cultures between Kumail, Emily, and their sets of parents. Without oversimplifying or coming off as judgmental, we get to see the very real anguish that is caused when children rebel against their parents' wishes. It is mostly through Kumail's parents that we see this, as they repeatedly try to set him up with one potential bride after another, only to have Kumail deflect and delay the inevitable decision - coming clean to his parents about his real desires or submitting to their vision of his future. It would have been far too easy to cast these parents as oppressing villains, but the movie does no such thing. Though Kumail's parents are the butt of more than a few jokes, it eventually becomes clear that their sacrifices and hopes for their son arise from genuine concern for not only him but also their value of their own culture. Romantic comedies rarely take on larger themes such as these or have the courage to completely humanize the forces obstructing romantic love, but The Big Sick does it expertly.

Kumail at the dinner table with his family, almost certainly
a mere couple of minutes before yet another "surprise"
Pakistani bachelorette drops by for a little visit.
Rounding out this excellent movie is the supporting cast, which is perfect. All of the actors who portray Kumail and Emily's family members are spot-on. The most recognizable to American viewers will be Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who play Emily's parents, and are brilliant. Just as good, though, are Indian acting legend Anupam Kher and Zenobia Schroff as Kumail's immigrant parents. Each of these four bring the comic and human aspects of their characters very much to life.

I highly recommend this movie to nearly everyone. As long as a fair amount of blue language and some frank and honest exploration of sexuality doesn't bother you, you are bound to enjoy a lot of what The Big Sick has to offer. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Idiot Boxing, HBO edition: Veep, season 6 (2017); Silicon Valley, season 4 (2017)

Selena and her hapless hangers-on attempt to feed her ever-
growing ego more and more.
Veep, season 6 (2017)

Selina Meyer is coming off her close loss to win a proper presidential election, despite her every underhanded effort to maintain control of the office during the previous season. This season begins seeming as if Meyer will make moves aimed at running again for the next presidential election, it soon becomes clear that she has less support than her worst nightmares. Even her own massive ego and self-involvement are not enough to delude her into running again. Thus, season 6 of Veep becomes one focused on a sub-standard, formerly high-level politician attempting to forge her own post-career legacy.

The regular cast of staffers, advisors, and hangers-on returns in this season, clearly due to the fact that they are too inept or too socially awkward to find work anywhere else in the realm of Washington politics. And really, this show has really become about two things, one of them being the characters and their hilariously massive inadequacies and the other being the power-mad ego circus swirling around the federal government as depicted in the show. The latter was once a source of some half-decent commentary on certain dysfunctional elements of our national government. In recent seasons, however, the portrayal of the government of Veep has more or less become all but a spoof. It is a funny spoof, to be sure, but one will need to look elsewhere to find any truly thoughtful, biting, and useful criticism of our highest institutions.

This leaves us with the characters. Blessedly, there are still plenty of them who can carry the torch of hilarity. The master stroke of this season for me was having knucklehead uber bro Jonah Ryan actually be a member of Congress. Watching him stomp through the House of Representatives without an ounce of intelligence or sense of decorum was endlessly entertaining, made even more amusing by the fact that the world-weary Ben and ultra-dry number-cruncher Kent have hitched their wagons to Jonah's runaway, crazed and misguided warpath. Nearly all of the other usual players have their turns and share of memorably great lines, including leading lady Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Poster-Bro doorknob Jonah Ryan at his desk, "working" as
a new member of Congress. His moronic bull in a china shop
routine is arguably the funniest element of this season.
The only aspect that has bothered me a bit in these last two seasons is just how vicious and thoroughly heartless Selena Meyer has become. While she was always a self-interested narcissist, I don't recall her being as downright cruel in the earliest seasons of the show. Even though this show is clearly never meant to be taken seriously in any way, this season features more than a few gags and lines from Selena that, for my taste, were simply too brutal to be funny. They never overwhelmed the show or brought it completely down, but they were more noticeable than I recall from the first several seasons.

There was also a rather frantic pace to the final episode that was nothing less than completely dizzying. After an entire season spent on Selena working towards a plan for her presidential library, after realizing that another presidential run was laughably unrealistic, she decides to run again. This is presumably where the next season or two will be headed, which I truthfully find less exciting than what could have been. There was actually a moment in the third-to-last episode where it seemed as if the entire series may have been heading towards a potentially hilarious trainwreck ending, which I would have accepted wholeheartedly. Instead, we are left with a somewhat predictable return of the gang back into the ring of Washington politics. Yes, this is where the show made its bones, but it is also mostly familiar territory. I have no doubt that the insults and barbs will be as sharp and funny as ever next season, but my expectations for any novelty from this show are well-tempered.

The guys are back, including Big Head. And the balance is
once again restored by lessening Erlich's screen time and
bombast a few ticks.
Silcon Valley, season 4 (2017)

The small band of programmers at Pied Piper turn in arguably their best season yet.

Season 3 ended with another flameout of Pied Piper, just as they seemed on the cusp of exploding into the massive, world-changing force that Richard had always dreamed of. Instead, they are left a splintered group with an admired, though admittedly far smaller-scale, video chat application. After some juggling of ownership and one particularly nasty legal issue, the video app takes a major backseat to Richard's newest stroke of genius - creating a new Internet. This monumental endeavor forces Richard and the guys to go back and court several of the big local tech companies and industry titans, including their arch-nemesis Gavin Belson, among others.

Once again, the show brings us plenty of hilarity through the social awkwardness of the various people involved. Matt Ross makes a great return as deposed CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson, whose grandiose narcissism takes a pretty serious hit. Seeing Belson brought relatively low has comic value all its own, and Ross just gets better and better as the self-important tech titan. The entire Pied Piper crew is still as spot on as ever, with Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Zach Woods, and Kumail Nanjiani all in full command of their characters and playing them to comic perfection. The writing is perhaps as tight and consistent as any season thus far. I was especially pleased to see that they dialed back Erlich Bachman's screen time and bombast, which I felt had gotten a bit overwhelming in the last couple of seasons. This season, the exceptionally obnoxious Bachman was used in just the right amount.

Richard having one of several uncomfortable moments with
the annoyingly fortunate Keenan Feldspar. Feldspar becomes
a unique and sometimes uniting force for the Pied Piper crew.
There were also a couple of worthy additions of characters, as well as a slight increase in use of more tertiary ones. The most obvious addition is that of Keenan Feldspar, the annoyingly upbeat "Golden Child" of the week who has developed a cutting edge virtual reality system. Feldspar represents a type different from what we've seen on the show thus far - he's an almost obliviously lucky, effortlessly charismatic counterpoint to the grinders at Pied Piper, who can't seem to get out of their own way most of the time. The dynamic between infinitely chipper Feldspar and a neurotic like Richard or a dry Satanist like Gilfoyle is so much of what's made this show excellent.

This show has, now four season in, yet to let me down. This latest season was as good as any they've done, and it's not difficult to imagine the entire crew keeping it up for another season or two, at least. It really has become the show that I most anticipated from week to week, and the wait for next season is going to feel long, indeed. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

New Release! Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) [Spoiler-Free!!}

Along with being one of the most iconic of Marvel's many
famous superheroes, Spidey was always one of its funniest.
This newest movie never forgets that, or what has made him
so appealing for over 50 years.
Director: Jon Watts

Very solid and entertaining re-re-boot of the Spider-Man film story.

It certainly seemed highly unnecessary to do yet another version of the Spider-Man story, given that we've had two of of them within the last 15 years: the Sam Raimi-directed trilogy starring Tobey McGuire between between 2002 and 2007, and then the Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield pair of Amazing Spider-Man films in 2012 and 2014. But with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) only gaining more and more strength, it seemed inevitable that it would try to bring one of its most iconic characters officially into its fold. And so they did. Quite well, fortunately.

For one, the story does a nice job keeping things smaller in scope and scale, unlike the world-destroying menaces posed in the grander Avengers flicks featuring heavy-hitters like Captain America or Thor. As opposed to those over-powered titans, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is literally a high school kid who's just trying to do the right thing and help people out. In this tale, that usually means handling relatively mundane tasks around his neighborhood in Queens, New York. But since Peter feels that he's capable of bigger and better things, he starts to bite off a little more than he can chew. And let's face it - this is hardly atypical of a precocious, talented teenager. In Peter's case, this means trying to track down and confront someone who's quietly been manufacturing and selling weapons based on technology scavenged from alien crafts left over from the Citauri attack on Manhattan. While there are a few larger-scale battles and set-pieces, the majority of the tale keeps things limited to Parker's wrestling with his own identity and approach to being a hero, and the movie is far better for it.

As important as what it includes well is what the movie avoids. One of the most obvious is that it does not bother retelling the origin story of Spider-Man, which virtually every fan (and even most non-fans) of superhero mythology knows at this point. It also avoids using an overload of known villains, instead opting for a lesser-known but classic arch-villain of Spider-Man, played exceptionally by Michael Keaton. There's one other C-grade Spidey villain thrown in, but it is presented organically and he is given the requisite amount of limited screen time. No, the movie can't avoid the virtually inevitable leaning on the MCU structure, with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) being a noticeable part of the proceedings. However, he is also handled fairly well, never drowning out or upstaging Parker's story or Holland's performance.

Keaton plays a great Vulture, who has now become one of the
best-developed villains in the MCU - an area that the
franchise has missed the boat on many times.
The other positive features of the better MCU films are present - plenty of solid gags, both visual and in dialogue, and some decent action. It helps that there are some well-chosen cameos by seasoned comedic actors who can be funny without overdoing it, like Hannibal Burress. The action scenes and displays of Peter's abilities are handled well and are entertaining, even if they are unlikely to dazzle you the way that the very best MCU films have (the latter two Captain America films, in my book).

I don't know that this movie would win over viewers who have problems with the MCU as a concept or its recent movies, although it might. It does feature a more personal, accessible, and careful character study than several recent films, such as Doctor Strange or Civil War. Still, it bears many of the hallmarks of superhero movies, especially the MCU. At the same time, fans of the MCU will almost certainly enjoy, if not love, this latest entry. It offers something a bit different, with a villain that does show a bit more depth and personality than many that we've seen offered in the MCU's 16 feature films thus far. I certainly plan to see it at least once more in the theaters, which is my highest form of praise for a fun popcorn flick. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

New-ish Releases: Julieta (2016); The Red Turtle (2016)

Julieta (2016)

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Another excellent movie by Almodovar, if not one that bears all the familiar tones of the living directing legend's many other brilliant films.

Based on a trio of short stories by Alice Munroe, Julieta follows the titular protagonist over the course of a couple of decades, during which she experiences euphoria, depression, and many of the emotions in between. The tale is told in flashback, beginning with a middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) unexpectedly running into an old friend of her estranged daughter's. This sends her mind reeling into the past, when she was a young woman (Adriana Ugarte) just getting into teaching. She randomly meets and has an affair with Xoan - a charming, attractive fisherman from a small coastal town. Despite some markedly peculiar circumstances, she ends up living with him and having his baby, whom they name Antia. Julieta's relationship with Xoan and Antia become troubling due to an affiar and an unexpected death, both of which send Julieta into a deep depression that takes many years to completely manifest and recover from.

Julieta is, as you might imagine from my description, far from a joyous affair. While there are some moments of levity and amusement, one of this movie's grand themes is the grievous impact that personal relationship failings can have. It deals with passion, lust, platonic love, dedication, betrayal, and a host of other emotions that are unlikely to leave one slapping their knees in amusement. All the same, it is a rather compelling movie. As with the many other Almodovar films I've seen, the man is incredibly deft at telling emotional stories that can have considerable impact without the proceedings becoming quagmires of darkness and depression. However, this movie does have a somewhat different feel than the other more recent Almodovar movies I've seen. Perhaps it is because it is an adaptation of another's writing - in this case, the much-lauded Alice Walker - but the playful vibrancy found in even Almodovar's most challenging and controversial movies is often absent. This isn't really a problem, but it is an observation one cannot help but make after seeing many of the director's other distinctive movies.

It's an excellent drama, to be sure. While I am not one who goes out of his way to watch deeply emotional movies about mothers attempting to reckon with damaged relationships with daughters, it was easy to see the mastery of this movie. Like nearly all Almodovar movies, it does not offer pat resolutions or "messages," but rather tells a story of troubled relationships and how people attempt to deal with them. It may not be one that I ever need to watch again, but discriminating movie-goers are likely to appreciate how well-crafted and well-acted this movie is.

The Red Turtle (2016)

Director: Michael Dudok de Wit

A moving, melancholy animated tale that can serve as a metaphor for life, or can just be enjoyed as a stirring mythological story. A well-deserved nominee for the Academy Awards' Best Animated Feature from 2016, and one that wrung more than a few tears from me and my wife.

Much of the movie's power comes from not knowing what will happen; with that in mind, I'll limit this synopsis to the beginning portions. It begins with a man lost at sea in a small boat, crashing into a tropical island. He spends time figuring out what resources he has to survive, and attempting to built a rudimentary sea craft to escape. However, even when he does put together seaworthy, if simple, vessels, they get inexplicably destroyed by some underwater force ramming into them. This turns out to be the titular red turtle, and the turtle's nature becomes the focal point of the rest of the story.

The Red Turtle is very much a mythical tale. The time period is all but indeterminable, the characters have no names, and the island on which the entire story unfolds is never given a specific location or name. What's more, there is virtually no dialogue beyond the man yelling a barely articulate "Hey!" a handful of times. When topped off with the fact that the main characters' physical features could make them natives of any part of about half of the earth, then you get a story that is nearly as universal as such a story could be. This is no mean feat for even a short cinematic story, let alone a 90-minute feature film.

Much more than the universal nature of the characters and setting, though, are the actual story and deeper themes. Without giving anything away, this silent, sublime, and sometimes sad tale is all but guaranteed to wring a few tears out of you. This is not due to base sentimentality but rather the realities of simple but mature depictions of life, regret, love, sacrifice, and death. Though the story unfolds with very few characters, on a tiny island, and with only a handful of conflicts, each one achieves maximum impact thanks to the expert level of visual storytelling.

An adjective that comes to mind with this film is "confident." Film is, by nature, a medium that allows visual wizardry and dynamic action to mask a multitude of other narrative sins. It takes a very bold filmmaker to create a movie like The Red Turtle - quiet, subdued, and relatively simple. This makes it all the more impressive for the impact it ultimately has. It probably won't have you running back for repeat viewings over and over, but this is one of the most touching and memorable animated movies I've ever seen.