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. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Me vs. Them: A Comparative Ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I guess the upcoming release of Spider-Man: Homecoming sparked the ever-present ember of comic nerd-dom within me. I just went back and watched most of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The MCU is an absolute beast that has grown into a bit of a "love it or hate it" kind of juggernaut for many moviegoers. Despite its ongoing financial domination of box offices, the number of highly respected critics who are growing increasingly upset with the idea of movie "universes" and "franchises" is growing. Erudite NPR critic David Edelstein has had few kind words for the last handful of MCU movies, despite their highly positive reception among many critics and audiences. I completely understand his and others' points about such franchises overwhelming the film industry, elbowing out smaller, independent, and more creative movies. At the same time, the MCU is my go-to film series for enjoyable popcorn entertainment.

I've done more than a few posts dedicated to the films in the MCU. The massive film franchise has now churned out 15 movies and grossed enough money to take over several small countries. As such, many a comic book and/or movie nerd such as myself has ranked the movies from best to worst, often modifying the rankings with each new film's release. While there's a general consensus about some of the film's general position within the MCU, I have found that some films receive more or less praise or criticism than I offer them. It's these kinds of differences of opinion that can be fascinating, and so I did a closer look at them.

General Rankings (A Small but Representative Sample)

After surfing around on the Interwebs a little, I noted down the most recent rankings from five different websites, done shortly after the release of the most recent MCU movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The sites included: c|net, Collider, slashfilm.com, USA Today, and comicbook.com, all of which seemed to have fairly credible comic book and movie fans ranking the films, and all seem to represent the general trand of how critics rank the MCU movies. I noted down their rankings of the films and took the average of all five, not unlike aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. From that, here are their average rankings of the full series:
  1. Guardians of the Galaxy 
  2. The Avengers
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. Captain America: Civil War
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  6. Iron Man
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger
  8. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  9. Iron Man 3
  10. Doctor Strange
  11. Ant-Man
  12. Thor
  13. Thor: The Dark World
  14. The Incredible Hulk
  15. Iron Man 2
This list partially reflects my own agreements and disagreements with critical feelings on these films. To really get into it, however, requires a closer look at the above list as well as my own rankings.

My Rankings

I typically don't go more than about a year or two without rewatching any one MCU film at some point, so they are always fairly fresh in my mind. Currently, here is how I have them ranked:
  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. The Avengers
  3. Captain America: Civil War
  4. Iron Man
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man 3
  7. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  10. Ant-Man
  11. Doctor Strange
  12. Thor
  13. Thor: The Dark World
  14. Iron Man 2
  15. The Incredible Hulk
Sympatico?

As you can see, there are plenty of areas where I feel the same as most others. My bottom six are the same as the group average, with my specific rankings never being more than one off of the group's. The consensus of fans of these movies feels that these films, from Ant-Man through The Incredible Hulk, are the weakest so far in the MCU. (Interesting to note that the bottom four are among the earliest in the franchise, illustrating how the quality has generally improved over time). I'll also point out here that I don't think that even the "worst" of the MCU films, like Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, are particularly bad movies. Their flaws are not crippling, and they both have some merits. It's just that they are merely mediocre fare, whereas much of the MCU has been markedly better than average for the realm of fantasy/action/adventure films.

There are also four other films with which I am more or less on the same page as most other fans. The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are all in exactly or within one of the same positions between the two lists. Some of these movies have wild variance between the individual rankings (like one writer having The First Avenger  as #1, while another has is at #13), but the average sense matches my own.

The curiosities start with the differences, which I'll look at below, going from the smallest to the largest differences:

Iron Man

Their rankings: #6 (highest: 3; lowest: 11); My ranking: #4

I literally just rewatched this three days ago, and it still holds up extremely well. If I were being thoroughly objective about it, I suppose I would knock it down to a position similar to where the other lists have it, but I can't bring myself to do it. The jokes still hit, thanks to a timelessly smug and hilarious Downey Jr.; nearly all of the action sequences are still a blast; and the theme of personal redemption is still timely.

I suppose that others have this film ranked lower due to one primary reason: the third act. In what has become a persistent weak point in the MCU, the final showdown between Iron Man and Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger is nothing more than a CGI slugfest between giant Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots. With the benefit of hindsight and the 14 MCU movies that have followed, the general lack of imagination in this final confrontation is a bit more glaring. All the same, I don't find that it overly diminishes what is otherwise still one of the five best movies in the franchise. And it is the Godfather of them all. If Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and the rest of the crew had dropped the ball on this one, the MCU would have died a very early death.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Their rankings: #3 (highest: 1; lowest: 6); My ranking: #1

So this discrepancy also isn't tremendous, and there's little to break down here, except that only one of the five rankings that I pulled from had this film at #1, like I do. I still find Winter Soldier to be the single best film in the MCU. In nearly every respect, it stands above the others, from the sophistication of plot, to the deeper messages about privacy and security, to the action sequences, to its ability to stay mostly self-contained. It speaks to this film's excellence that none of the five lists, with their many wild disagreements, had it lower than #6 (which still feels almost insultingly low, in my eyes).

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Their rankings: #5 (highest: 1; lowest: 7); My ranking: #7

As you'll see more explicitly in a moment, the two Guardians movies are where I most differ from much of MCU-loving fandom. This most recent MCU film had many audiences (and clearly some cirtics) going pretty gaga. One friend of mine went to see it in the theater at least four times (that I know of) in its first week of release. Generally, though, the lists I used here had it slightly higher than I did. I did find some of the action scenes well done, and there are certainly many solid gags, right in keeping with some of the best humor in the MCU. Still, some of the joke-every-ten seconds dialogue felt forced or even sometimes out of character. There were even some plot points that were glossed over a little too breezily for my liking, and even though director Gunn didn't overuse it, the "cute" factor of baby Groot had the slightest stench of "Ewok" on it.

It's still in the top half for me, but I'm not as enamored of this one as many fans.

Iron Man 3

Their rankings: #9 (highest: 3; lowest: 13); My ranking: #6

"The Mandarin" - arguably the single most
argued-over villain thus far in the MCU.
Along with Captain America: The First Avenger, the third Iron Man movie is one of the most divisive films in the MCU, as you can see from the range of rankings. For those who aren't familiar with the comic books, the vast difference might seem a mystery. The movie has plenty of excellent qualities. Directed and co-written by the brilliant Shane Black, it has the sharp wit, clever plot, and solid action sequences and effects of many of the best fantasy/action movies. No, this isn't what fans disagree over. The sticking point for most comes down to one thing: The Mandarin. Many viewers who know the Iron Man character from the comics knows that The Mandarin has always been one of Tony Stark's most powerful and feared nemeses. So when the movie had the character portrayed as a complete fraud, being played by a hedonistic, degenerate British actor, such dedicated fans were enraged enough to burn their Predator posters and go berserk on message boards. The vitriol still lingers today, four years later, with Iron Man 3 often being ranked near the very bottom of some MCU rankings.

For my part, I loved the Mandarin plot twist. Maybe it's because I never read or followed the Iron Man comics (one of the few Marvel staple comics I didn't follow at any point), but I thought it was genius to turn the expected villain on its ear. To this day, it is arguably the boldest and cleverest slight-of-hand plot move in an MCU film. The reason I don't have this movie higher than #6 is primarily because the third act does, like all three Iron Man movies, become little more than a CGI monster truck rally with metal suits flying around, blowing stuff up. It was already tired a few films before this one, so seeing it yet again did this otherwise strong film no great favors.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Their rankings: #1 (highest: 1; lowest: 5); My ranking: #5

My greatest difference with the general and critical public is with the two Guardians movies, especially the original. I have it as currently the fifth best MCU film, just breaking into the top third of the series. Not bad at all. However, I have come across one list after another that has it as #1, 2, or 3. The love for this movie is almost off the charts, even in these most recent rankings, which were all done just a month or two ago, a full three years after the movie was released. This is still clearly not just a hot take on something that is brand new.

I always liked the movie, to be sure, but I never found it to be better than fourth best in the franchise (Civil War bumped it, once it came out). I did understand much of the enthusiasm, to be sure. Guardians was a really fun return to the epic space fantasy, action/adventure films of the 1980s and even early 1990s. Despite being the 10th film released in the ever-more-connected MCU, it was almost completely self-contained, making it more accessible to viewers. The characters were quirky and weird, and Peter Gunn's comic writing was on full display. All the same, I have never been able to overlook two pretty glaring weaknesses with this movie. One is that the villain, Ronan the Accuser, it about as dull as they come. He was basically just a rage monster who wanted to destroy stuff. Sure a reason is given, but it is never explored in any compelling ways. Second is that the third act, like so many in the MCU, is mostly a mind-numbing, CGI shoot-'em-up showdown with a dizzying number of ships zipping around. There are a few other little gripes I have, but these two primary weaknesses are why I've never put it among the absolute elite of MCU films.

So why is it so obviously more beloved by others? My guess is the combinations of its strengths really strike a chord with people. Heck, even my 69-year old mother, who is in no way a fan of comic book action movies, really liked the two Guardians movies. There's something about a giant living tree, a wise-cracking squirrel, and the rest of the oddball crew that has captured people's imaginations and attention. Another possible reason I have it ranked lower may come from a broader look at my own perspective on comics and films in general:


Where I'm Coming From

Comic books and movies were two of my earliest loves. From around age 11 or 12, I began to really get into certain comic books, eventually growing into a full-blown reader and collector of dozens of different comic series, mostly in the Marvel comics realms, but eventually in some of the darker, more mature settings from the Vertigo imprint and others of its ilk. I even worked in comic book stores for a few years between high school and college. By my mid-twenties, however, my passion had dimmed enough that I sold off nearly my entire collection and was only buying the occasional comic from one of a very few writers whom I followed. Such has remained the case to this day.

Movies, on the other hand, have seen no such twilight in my eyes. Not long after my interest in comic books had been sparked, I was starting to develop the beginnings of an actual "taste" in movies that went beyond just watching things that made me laugh or had stuff exploding in it. My freshly-pubescent self was surprisingly dazzled by movies like Milos Foreman's Amadeus and the gritty and stylish classic spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. Ever since, my tastes and awareness of the richness of cinema as an art form has continued to expand to this very day.

It's not a movie most of us will watch over and over with the
feverish joy inspired by popcorn movies like those offered
by the MCU, but
Ikiru has more depth, soul, and sublime
artistry than even the best in that massive film universe.
As of now, in 2017, there have been hardly any film adaptations of comic book stories that have been objectively high-quality movies. I don't mean this as an insult. It is simply that the entire premise of comic book superheroes is inherently limited. The notion that a person has supernatural powers and uses them to right the wrongs of the world is, ultimately, a juvenile fantasy. The reason that costumed superheroes appeal to anyone is that it is purely escapist fantasy. The most creative comic stories have had to do with the deconstruction and analysis of such fantasies, typified by Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen, which was itself adapted with moderate success several years ago. However, even these tales cannot penetrate into the deeper realities and dramas of real people. Because of such limitations of scope, I feel that even comic superhero films of the highest quality will not approach the level of great humanist or satirical films. Love it as much as I do, I will never suggest that The Winter Soldier is of the same overall quality of Pather Panchali, Ikiru, or Network.

And this is where I think the difference between my rankings and the general rankings lies. People who are stronger fans of the genre of comic book movies rather than films in general are more likely to rank movies like Guardians of the Galaxy higher than slightly more objective film-watchers. Likewise, they are more likely to be displeased with Iron Man 3 than someone not as invested in the Iron Man character's mythology. While I am not and never will be completely oblivious to the origins of the comic book heroes of Marvel's vast universe, I can more easily set aside my fandom than others and see many of these movies more as movies and not just high-quality film adaptations of characters whom I love.

This will always be an engaging exercise for me. As each new MCU film is released (and there are at least nine more confirmed to be released in the next four years, with plenty more being planned), the merits and weaknesses of each will be hashed out endlessly. And as with many things, it is when I differ from the general public or the majority of critics that my curiosity is piqued. Trying to get into other people's heads regarding why they do or do not enjoy movies is an enjoyable exercise, and one that I will likely get to experience more as the MCU marches on.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural, season 12 (2016-2017); One-Punch Man, season 1 (2015)

The boys get their mammy back in this season. Mary
Winchester's return met some mixed response from fans of
the show, but I thought she was fine, if not exactly the
strongest secondary character we've ever seen on the show.
Supernatural, season 12 (2016-2017)

In its dozenth (I just made that a word) season, Supernatural maintains a steady pace, if not exactly reaching the heights of its peak years in seasons 2 through 5.

At the end of season 11, Sam and Dean had once again thwarted Earth's destruction, this time by reuniting God with his long-lost sister, The Darkness. This sent the sibling deities off into the sunset, also leaving behind Sam and Dean's mother, whom God had resurrected as thanks.

Season 12 sets things up fairly quickly. Lucifer has managed to get out of his cage once again. However, being rather weak, he is hopping from one human vessel to the next, wreaking any havoc that he can in a rage against not having his father, God, around to torment any more. As Sam and Dean try to track down Satan, they also meet members of the British Men of Letters, who combat monsters using much more calculating and unforgiving methods. As the Winchesters first deal with the Men of Letters, Lucifer manages to impregnate a woman with what is known as a "Nephilim" - a half-angel/half-human abomination which has the potential to destroy everything on Earth. These two primary plot points converge when the British Men of Letters decide to exterminate all American hunters just as Lucifer escapes his bonds and attempts to oversee the birth of his unholy son.

This season was a decent one that is among the stronger batch of the post-season 5 bunch. That said, my enthusiasm for the show has waned enough that I'm not completely sure that I'll go out of my way for next season. Perhaps only now, after a full seven seasons which have failed to fully return to the excitement that I had during the show's outstanding first five, I think I'm ready to turn the page and leave it behind. Part of this is because this season was actually solid, by its own standards, but still wasn't enough to stoke complete enthusiasm in me.

Having Lucifer as one of the primary villains this season was
not the most inspired choice. It also didn't help that he was
written a bit more for comedy than the power and menace
that made him such a strong force back in earlier seasons
of the show. 
This season saw the return, utilization, and even unfortunate deaths of some strong side characters. There were a few hunters whom we've seen before, including the banshee-hunter Eileen and the witches Alicia and Max Banes. Seeing such capable and fun characters show up is reminiscent of early seasons when we had great characters like Rufus and Gordon. This season also featured a handful of gutsy, unexpected turns in the plot, in which characters were killed or perhaps simply didn't play the roles which one might have expected. And as always, there was a decent amount of humor sprinkled throughout.

And still, some quintessential elements continue to be lacking. Using Lucifer as a primary nemesis again simply feels like treading water and going over old ground. And not doing it particularly well. The original incarnation of Lucifer was such a fantastic, slow-burn over the course of nearly three seasons, and it had no small amount of menace and tragedy surrounding it. And when the Morning Star was finally able to appear in his full glory, there was a terrifying power to it. Now, however, Lucifer is often not much more than a sarcastic counter-point to Crowley. Sam Pellegrino can certainly play snarky and sarcastic very well, but I've never felt that it was the best fit for the original vision that this show had of Lucifer - one of the most calculating, powerful, and awesome figures in the entire mythology. This season simply uses him mostly as another comedy piece, for the most part.

This is one of a few signals to me that the show-runners are spinning their wheels a bit. Yes, they are doing it well in ways that are usually true to the main characters and that are often satisfying to long-time fans. But the show doesn't seem to be willing to push any more boundaries or really shake anything up anymore. Because Misha Collins and Mark A. Shepperd are attractive presences, they are simply never going to be killed off (even when their characters have deserved it time and time again). These and some other aspects of the show have become, in my view, just stale enough that I may just leave it alone from this point.


He's not exactly the most intimidating hero, but Saitama's
domination has bored him into an apathy usually reserved
for teenagers and French philosophers.
One-Punch Man, season 1 (2015)

I haven't watched a Japanese anime series in ages. Back in my high school and college days, I absolutely loved the classic movies like AkiraFist of the North StarVampire Hunter D, and several others. And when I lived and worked in Japan for a couple of years, I used the popular kids' show One Piece to improve my Japanese language skills to an extent. That was nearly 15 years ago now, and I haven't watched an anime TV series since. So imagine my surprise when the ol' Netlflix algorithm kept suggesting this unknown mini-series from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Less than two minutes into the first episode, my attention was firmly grasped. By the end of the 23-minute pilot, I was chomping at the bit to convince my wife, who enjoys the odd anime show here and there, to watch it with me the next day. She did, and we were both fairly well hooked.

The show follows Saitama, a virtually unstoppable force of heroism. Thanks to rigorous training, Saitama has acquired strength and speed that allow him to fell the mightiest of evil foes with literally no more than a single blow. Sounds great, right? Well, Saitama's problem is that his domination over the forces of evil has done nothing to assuage the deep depression and apathy which he feels. For him, defeating a 500-foot tall, city-destroying monster is no more satisfying than eating a bowl of tepid ramen for breakfast. Herein lies more than a little of the show's humor. As he effortlessly crushes immensely powerful enemies, Saitama is often mentally checked out and lost in existential musings about the purpose of it all. He sometimes even spends these short, one-sided battles lamenting the fact that he has missed a sale at his local grocery store, or pondering some other mundane daily task.

This aspect of the humor runs through other elements of the show, as well. One-Punch Man relishes the opportunity to parody and mock the many silly tropes of fantasy superhero (and especially anime) stories. Whether it's the exhausting expositional monologues, the tired origin stories, or characters calling out the names of their signature "super moves" while in the middle of combat, the barely-engaged Saitama has no time for any of it. His effortless and apathetic domination of foes who are putting in maximum effort to both fight and posture only frustrates his enemies all the more, providing yet more solid humor.  Series creator and writer, known only as "One," uses the show to perfectly balance his love of anime tropes with wonderfully lampooning the silly names, costumes, and braggadocio almost always found in the genre.

Saitama, with just a few of the oddball and even sometimes
cool heroes he baffles with his inexplicable strength and
utter lack of posturing.
Much to my delight, there is actually a really entertaining, rollicking arc to the show. It's not completely tight or serialized, but there is continuity from one episode to the next, and it culminates in a three-episode multi-parter that builds towards some really fun fights between heroes and monsters of various freakish abilities. It actually gave me flashbacks to when I would watch those aforementioned classic anime movies from the '80s and '90s and really enjoy the epic battle scenes between fantastically powered beings.

This was a great find, and one I'd recommend to anyone who's ever enjoyed anime. I'm not completely sure of how the second season (already announced) could live up to this first one, but I'm more than willing to tune in and find out.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Retro Duo: Excalibur (1981); The Fountain (2006)

Excalibur (1981)

Director: John Boorman

This was probably the third or fourth time I've seen this movie over the last 20-odd years. The over-the-top nature of it just gets more and more obvious, though it is still arguably the best film version of the Arthurian legend out there.

Drawing mostly from Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century novel Le Morte d'Arthur, the film is an abbreviated and lavish telling of how Arthur Pendragon came into being, obtained the mythical sword Excalibur to become King of England, and oversaw the unification and defense of the country in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The movie goes all-in with the melodrama, with nary a character speaking in anything less than florid epigrams or acting in any way less than the grandest of gestures. When one takes half a step back from it all, it can come off as rather silly, pompous, and pretentious. If, however, one gets wrapped up in the movie, it can, much of the time, actually be as grand as it attempts. This is in no small part due to the fact that we are dealing with one of the oldest, best-known myths of Western civilization.

The story is the foundation of so much high fantasy. A savior figure is born of blood and sorcery, eventually obtains a magic sword, and forges and era whose name will ring through the centuries. To tell such a story in film, a director needs to swing for the fences, and John Boorman did just that. He brought in a ton of great British and Irish acting talent, including then up-an-coming young actors like Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Niesen, and Helen Mirren, to name just a few. The actors were well-schooled in larger-than-life performances, which fit a film such as Excalibur to a tee. Again, some of it is campy, both intentionally and accidentally, but it's still quite fun. The stand out is Nicol Williamson, whose bombastic, vibrato delivery of his lines as the legendary sorcerer Merlin shows the correct level of ridiculous joy in the role.

One's take on the visuals will depend on how well they can suspend disbelief and look past the limitations of the effects. Certainly, compared to what had been and would eventually be done with advanced makeup, computer effects, and much larger budgets, this 1981 movie will seem cut-rate. But Excalibur has a look that is very much a cohesive representation of what Boorman wanted to do, and it can be very effective much of the time. Through vivid lighting, highly burnished armor, and some trippy visual distortions, many sections of the movie feel just as dreamlike and hallucinatory as a 1,500-year-old myth should feel.

The movie does, admittedly, take some patience and a certain mental state to enjoy. Some scenes can drag, and it does rely on a certain familiarity with the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. If one has those things, though, then this 35-year-old flick will hold up nicely for you. From what I've read of Guy Ritchie's most recent crack at the Arthurian legend, you may be in the mood for a more successful cinematic take on the entire affair.


The Fountain (2006)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

One of my absolute favorite movies, despite being its noted director's least-known film.

Darren Aronofsky, known best for his award-winning movies The Wrestler and Black Swan, as well as his controversial adaptation in Noah, was an immediate critical darling with his first two films, the dark, intelligent, and edgy Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Following that second film, he took several years to create The Fountain, easily his most ambitious movie to that point. He was initially given a sizable budget to bring his impressive vision to life, and mega-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were lined up to star in the picture. However, after several unexpected changes, Aronofsky was left to make alterations that led to using Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the main roles, and the film having to be made on half of its original budget. The film met very mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office.

I did not see the movie until a couple of years after its lackluster performance in theaters. When I did, though, I was completely blown away. Knowing nothing about the movie, I took in this visually stunning narrative puzzle that did not offer clear, direct answers. The images were mesmerizing, and the acting was so affecting that the movie stayed on my mind for days afterward, as my brain tried to put all of the pieces into place. While I couldn't completely penetrate all of the components of the movie and how they fit together, I was incredibly moved by the themes which I could pick up on, and their conveyance through the impressive and iconic images.

Because I feel that part of one's enjoyment of this movie is in seeing it and allowing it to reveal itself to the viewer, I won't give a complete synopsis but rather a basic description, even though the movie is now over a decade old. It tells three stories in three different time periods: one is of a Spanish conquistador on a desperate mission from his queen, another is of a modern neuroscientist seeking to find a cure for brain tumors, and the final is of a mysterious traveler, moving through space in a glass bubble housing himself and a tree. Explaining much more than that would rob any new viewers of the potential joy of working out the film's connections for themselves.

This recent viewing was my fourth, and each viewing increases my enthusiasm for the film. Across his six feature films, Darren Aronofksy has shown himself to be an exceptionally thoughtful filmmaker who pays extremely close attention to detail. He clearly takes pride in creating tight, carefully-crafted pictures in which little to nothing is out of place, either narratively or visually. This can be seen in his other movies, from his debut Pi to his most recent, Noah. But perhaps in no other film was his dedication to symmetry and cohesion brought to fruition the way that it was in The Fountain. This is why I have enjoyed it so many times. Even after I had worked out the non-linear and less-than-obvious narrative, I was able to drink in the stunning visual imagery running through the entire movie. Between the lighting, sets, costumes, and overall cinematography, many of the scenes and sequences are, by themselves, works of visual art which could be studied in isolation. Movies such as this, which continue to offer engagement viewing after viewing, are rare for me.

Stunning images like this one will likely amaze and baffle
upon one's first viewing. Once it is put into the greater context,
though, its meaning takes on even greater value.
I'm also a sucker for a soundtrack with mournful string instruments, especially when it sets the mood for a romance. And this story is a romance of considerable quality. Amazingly, I am no particular fan of romances, but The Fountain balances what could have been overly sentimental elements with an intelligent, creative narrative device that I find immensely engaging.

It's no great mystery to me why this movie never quite caught on with a wider audience. It hardly follows any standard Hollywood movie tropes: it asks more than a little from its viewers, it is a deeply emotional tale, and it's grand theme is not one that is likely to put a great pep in anyone's step, so to speak. This is, of course, why I love it so much. So much, in fact, that I have a difficult time imagining any point in my life when I won't be able to take several rewards from each future viewing. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New(ish) Releases: Captain Fantastic (2016); Elle (2016)

Ben, leading his kids into a misguided adventure. As admirable
as much of Ben's philosophies and teachings are, the flaws
become more apparent as the movie progresses.
Captain Fantastic (2016)

Director: Matt Ross

Highly interesting and rather unique tale which allows the extremely versatile Viggo Mortensen to shine brightly.

Mortensen plays Ben, an ideologue of such extreme dedication that he has been raising his five children completely off the grid for nearly two decades. In the woods of the American Northwest, he leads his children go through regular training in order to sharpen their physical, mental, and spiritual health. They exercise vigorously, read classical and modern literature, engage in thoughtful and highly intellectual debates, and they exhibit the kind of empathy and concern that Ben sees ignored far too often by commercial America. At a glance, the family seems in many ways like a miniature example of the perfect commune. Much of this is thrown in disarray, however, when they learn that Ben's wife, the mother of the five children, has died. The circumstances around the death are not immediately clear, but it forces Ben and the kids to leave the forest and make a road trip back into the "real" world of modern conveniences and excess. As they re-enter this world, we start to see certain cracks in what at first seemed like a perfect little universe of Ben's and his wife's creation. This becomes especially apparent when Ben and the kids come into contact with Ben's in-laws, who have always found Ben to be a deranged and even abusive influence on their daughter and grandchildren.

Ben leads his kids during their rigorous, daily physical
training. In addition to working their bodies, he also works
their minds by having them read tons of high-end literature
and play instruments of their choosing.
This movie was surprisingly thoughtful and balanced, which is impressive given that it deals with a subject that can very easily get romanticized and be presented in extremely biased ways. The idea of raising one's children free of the avaricious nature of consumerism and any perceived problems of organized religion is noble, and one that more than a few people have attempted or fantasized over for decades. Could someone actually do such a thing, with the right attitude, work ethic, and genuine care for the children they are raising? Captain Fantastic initially paints an attractive portrait of someone's success in this arena. Simply seeing how it might be done is fairly compelling on its own, and the skills Ben's children exhibit are impressive, often because they raise very relevant questions about the current education system in the U.S. and people's attitudes towards what constitutes life's necessary lessons. How does one raise not just a knowledgeable person, but one who can think critically about how to be a "good" person?

While the educative themes explored in the movie are certainly thought-provoking, the dramatic element is also what provides us with the complexity that enhances the film. Once Ben and his children have to interact with mainstream society, we eventually see that his utopian vision for his children is in some ways unrealistic and in other ways downright negligent. Fortunately, by the end of the movie, we are not left with easy answers as to whether Ben's ways are completely correct or incorrect. Rather, we are left with a portrait of an extremely unique man and his children - one which can inspire in many ways but is clearly not meant as a manifesto for those tempted to run off and raise their kids away from the rest of humanity.

It's also worth mentioning just how excellent the acting is. There are many familiar faces in the film, but the primary actors - Viggo Mortensen and the five younger actors who play the children - are exceptional. Mortensen even got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which was completely deserved. He and the other performers did a great job in bringing this provocative, funny, and touching story to life. I highly recommend it.


Michele arms herself against future attacks. While she is clearly
a victim in several ways in this story, hers is a very complex
and often disturbing psychology. This despite her often calm
veneer as a successful, professional woman.
Elle (2016)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Think of this as one of Pedro Almodovar's uncomfortable, controversial movies, but without the vibrant colors. Or much of the dark humor.

The story begins with a most awful act - a brutal rape of Michele LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) in the victim's home. Her assailant briskly leaves after this heinous violation, leaving Michele to pick up the pieces. Strangely, she does not call the police, but rather simply cleans up the broken glasses in the house, takes a shower, and goes to bed. She then continues the morning, going through her typical routine. Over the succeeding days, Michele's initial veneer of indifference shows signs of wearing down: she starts doing some simple detective work in order to try and learn the identity of her assailant. Along the way, we learn that Michele's father was a mass murderer who killed over 20 people when Michele was only 10 years old. He is also due for a parole hearing soon. All the while, lines between sex and violence become more and more blurred, especially once Michele discovers the true identity of her rapist.

Elle is a very well-done, calculating, and bold film very unlike any other movies I'd seen from director Paul Verhoeven, which include Robocop and Starship Troopers (he also directed Showgirls and few other glossy, campy good times). This film, though, is more akin to something I would expect from the aforementioned Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps even Lars Von Trier. Michele is, quite simply, not a terribly likable protagonist. For reasons that are not completely her fault, it is often painful to see her interact with her son, employees, mother, and even her lovers and closest friends. She is obviously smart and sophisticated, but she is also often distant, aloof, and calculating. While she is clearly the victim of the rape, her reaction to it is at first baffling. As the story progresses and we learn more about the horrors in Michele's background, her responses become a bit more understandable, but no less upsetting and disturbing. In short, she is complicated, which makes for an engaging tale.

The acting is incredible. Isabelle Huppert was rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, as she displays the nuance that the character demands. She is clearly the show, and worth the price of admission. All of the other technical aspects of the movie are spot-on, with intense, almost crime-procedural segments broken up by slower, more thoughtful and sometimes more sinister scenes during which a viewer can find themselves getting pulled into the dark labyrinth of the mind of Elle and some of those around her.

As well-made as the film is, it is hardly one that I need to watch again. While it clearly tells the story it sets out to tell with excellence, it is a very disturbing one that I am not altogether comfortable subjecting myself to more than once. People who prefer more straightforward, black-and-white stories, where it is clear who the heroes and villains are will most likely not appreciate Elle. However, people who enjoy narrative and emotional complexity, and are not put off by highly uncomfortable situations, would do well to give this movie a shot.