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Yamada So Fat…

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Around the final two films of Takahata Isao’s time with Studio Ghibli and his career overall* – with a Kubrick-ian 14 years in turnover time between them – the animation director finally opted to do entirely away with the refined manga-inspired cel animation style that was Studio Ghibli’s default mode. In his decision to adapt Ishii Hisaichi’s long-running comic strip series ののちゃん (Nono-chan) under its original title となりのやまだ君 – literally translated to My Neighbors the Yamadas – Takahata had decided to undertake a new more hand-drawn look to the pictures that would resemble the comic strip much further than if it were solid blocks and perfect color fills and full backgrounds. The result was a movie full of personality within its rough handiwork, something that implied a direct tangibility to the image that gave a beating involved heart to the film.

But also because Takahata was not crazy, this was the first entirely-computer animated film in Ghibli’s output. Which does a lot for flattening the image so that we buy the characters and whatever background they have being on the same dimensional plane without losing the sketched texture of the lines.

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Despite that strong dedication to depth, My Neighbor the Yamadas is indisputably the most cartoonish of Takahata’s films since his early television specials of Panda! Go, Panda! and that gives it a lot more of a pleasant aesthetic for viewers of any age. Particularly given that it seeks to make its viewers relate to its subject, the Yamada family – child daughter Nonoko (Uno Naomi) who is the namesake of the comic, teenage son Noboru (Isobata Hayato), matriarch housewife Matsuko (Asaoka Yukiii), patriarch breadwinner Takashi (Masuoka Touru), and Matsuko’s elderly mother Shige (Araki Masako). All of them as wacky and broad as the round designs on them which affords an endearment to the film as well as the easy faded colors that inhabit the line drawings of each shot. Not to mention the steps My Neighbors the Yamadas takes to ease us into its cartoon styles by having Nonoko casually explain away the shape of Shige’s by drawing a pair of cosmic objects and then filling it out with her beloved grandma’s features, helping us to quickly associate the simplicity of Yamadas‘s design with shapes.

Which works out wonders for the sort of broad comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas is attempting to do.

May as well not beat the bush any further about the loose structure Takahata’s screenplay has: there’s no plot to My Neighbor the Yamadas. It’s all vignettes of various length and the film does nothing to truly suggest a true logic to the arrangement of the segments, although it is easy to sense the beginning and the end as a viewer. It’s remarkably easy viewing in general for something lacking a story, none of the segues to the next vignette feel abrupt and a lot of it feels like vague association with something that came up in the last vignette. Like maybe dinner might be a large part of one vignette and that drives us to the next vignette or two sequences in a row where one of the male members of the family forgets something while rushing to work or school. Takahata has somehow just cracked a flow out of segments and I’m sure there was a logic to his choices but it’s not apparent to the viewer and I don’t think it should matter.

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Though, if one actually sat down and noted the reasoning behind it, it could be remarked upon that the two major bookends involve a speech given by a character as affirmation and encouragement for a marriage, one of which hilariously remains fixed on the speaker as he fumbles and grasps for his forgotten words and his family watches in horror, the other giving way to a fantastical epic portraying the creation of a family as a Homeric adventure where the family is constructed through plants and fruits narrated warmly by an old woman (who I sadly cannot identify in the cast). That latter is the artistic peak of the film as it abandons the empty white spaces and fills the frame with depth and detail with pastel seas and stalks and fruits, but it’s not the only moment where Takahata decides to be ambitiously versatile: late in the film, a non-threatening but still tense moment of confrontation with a few juvenile bikers involves more lines and a darker palette with less (but impressively deliberate) lighting to knock the “fun” out of the moment without losing the cartoon aesthetic, followed by a kinetic “fantasy” action sequence akin to superhero movies.

But it must of course be constantly acknowledged that this is just as well aided by the fact that My Neighbors the Yamadas is gutbustingly funny in a very endearing and relentless sense with those above moments cushioning a familiarity with the family we have accomplished just by innocent and silly but wholly relatable incidents before tying it with a bow by a very celebratory musical number of “Que Sera, Sera” just to bring all its admiration of the Yamadas and how well they represent us right home as they laugh along into the sunset. It is near impossible to pick a “sweetest” moment in a film like this, but Takahata definitely selected quite a note to say goodbye to this family with.

Earlier this year, I’ve been privileged enough to rewatch the entire feature canon of Studio Ghibli (including the precursor Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and frustratingly excluding the Belgian co-production The Red Turtle) on the big-screen in the presence of an audience, most of whom (including my friend) were getting to experience this for the first time. My Neighbors the Yamadas was decidedly not the most packed house but it was possibly the most responsive I’ve seen the audience throughout the whole run. It is not as widely-seen (at least in the United States, I cannot speak to its popularity in Japan but I expect being based on beloved comics indicates commercial success), but I absolutely think this film deserves to be regarded as much of a crowd-pleaser as anything by Miyazaki. My Neighbors the Yamadas is certainly a gem of a picture that is infectiously affable and assuredly humorous in all its color and shape.

NB: I was finishing this essay on a flight to New York (after having a draft sitting here for months – sorry, readers) and I had playing in the background The Death of Stalin, where I recall a similar joke occurs as My Neighbor the Yamadas involving wearing pajamas underneath your suit.

NNB: LOL, that fucking NB was from an earlier attempt to complete this draft. If y’all ever want to hold me accountable for deadlines…

*Barring a single short segment made for the anthology film Winter Days, inspired by that favorite poet of Takahata’s to reference in his movies (including and especially this review’s subject), Bashō.

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Isle of Good Boys

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Isle of Dogs is the sort of movie that should have a first-class ticket into my heart (and indeed was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year). It’s not just the new Wes Anderson film, it’s the new Wes Anderson film returning to his lovely animation style from Fantastic Mr. Fox focusing on bunch of dogs set in Japan, with whatever fears of problematic elements (confirmed, I have to admit and will elaborate on, to be worse than I expected) at least promising to deliver an affinity for the styles of Japanese cinema. All of which it delivers on, even if the callbacks to Japanese cinema do not go further than Kurosawa Akira or Ozu Yasujiro.

Far be it from me to claim that Isle of Dogs ended up a disappointment. Indeed, I walked away from it with a smile on my face but one that wanes with every passing season with the thought that it perhaps felt like I – the ideal viewer for this kind of movie – needed to meet it halfway more than I should have had to.

Not a good necessity to have when you are writing a parable about the sweet selflessness of friendship, much as Anderson did based on a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. That story is about a dystopian future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where a threatening strain canine flu is the catalyst for Mayor Kobayashi Kenji (voiced by Nomura) to enact an order that all dogs be expelled to the nearby accurately-named Trash Island. He makes an example of this by having his son Atari’s (Rankin Koyu) guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) be the first deportee.

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Within six months, the inhabiting dogs of the island have now orbited into their own packs and one particular pack made of the previously-pampered Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray; my favorite just because he looks the most adorable in his little league Dragons jersey), and led by grizzled stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) witness a little plane crash-landing with young Atari (distressingly injured from the crash for the rest of the film including an alarming bit protruding out of his head), who subsequently attempts to discipline them using the Seven Samurai theme and recruits them in search of his beloved dog. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, radical high school exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) investigates into the roots and endgoals of Mayor Kobayashi and his right-hand Major Domo (Takayama Akira)’s plan with the isle of dogs.

Did I say “parable”? Sorry, it gets more complex than that, but the center of the film is the growing bond between Akira and distrusting Chief (having suffered much as a stray in the metropolis) as they seek to reunite Akira with his best friend. Anyway, we may as well acknowledge the problematic elements out of the gate: the imposition of a white savior in Walker (who is a pretty annoying character), the stereotype of Asian mistreatment towards dogs (and caricatured design of Major Domo as some pale yellow fever grotesquerie), the overwhelming presence of non-Asian voices over Asian voice actors (and even though the Asian characters are voiced by Asian actors, much of their dialogue is talked over Frances “inclusion clause” McDormand – a frustrating matter when Anderson gives this movie’s title cards a lateral aesthetic that compliments its design), and especially a development in the third act that – I’m avoiding spoilers – recalls a horrifying atrocity the US commit against the Japanese in a manner that places the Japanese in the perpetrator role and brought me the closest to saying “fuck this”.

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Anyway, if you can push past that (And it’s a lot. My privilege as a non-Asian viewer is showing, but Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have a great episode of their podcast The Reel that cuts deeper into these issues), you get a very busily designed movie that mostly pays off in an aesthetic sense. When we’re opened to an diorama look of Megasaki, it is certainly reminiscent of the wide shot introducing the titular Grand Budapest Hotel to us, with moving parts and lights, centralized by the bright red Town Hall and a looming volcano in the distance. And that’s just the start of the sort of an abidance by Japanese cinema and Noh theater that production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get to play with. Trash Island, made up mostly of blocks of garbage, gets to base its design on stacks or remnants of an old by-gone youthful world with its slides and theme park rides. And despite my complaint about Domo’s design, the rest of the humans are mostly made to look so unpersonable so that the dogs can be as scruffed up as they would be left to their own devices and still be entirely appealing in their bigs eyes (helped by a cast that mostly doesn’t have much to do as characters but still does it hella well; Tilda Swinton’s Oracle is hilarious in its facial expressions and Jeff Goldblum’s delivery of “I love gossip” is so Goldblum-y). More human than human, I’d claim the intention is.

The movement of all these pieces in a manner that mirrors the multiple pieces of narrative we have to work here with and the presentation with it via Anderson’ favorite horizontal camera movements (this time mirroring the sort of cinema he is trying to homage and thereby at the appropriate usage that this trademark has ever had in his filmography) and presents the most controlled aesthetic that Anderson has ever given us (indeed, animation does demand that control is held over by the filmmaker in every aspect). Something, people might argue, feels too controlled in a way that maybe a sincere tale about friendship should be left to organically. It’s maybe the first film where I actually understood people’s issues with Anderson’s characters being a bit distanced from you based on how aware you are of the film’s artifice.

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I still think unfiltered feeling is still there in pockets: from the voice performance of Cranston beginning with a gruff guard slowly transforming into determined warmth, a sense of wounding given to Chief as the film moves on, flashback scenarios establishing Atari’s relationship with Spots, all of which cycle into a payoff by the third act. And of course, every single dog is as adorable looking as can be, whether patchy or pudgy, no matter how many vicious injuries they suffer (indeed Isle of Dogs really reminded me of how unexpectedly violent Anderson’s films can be, though the cartoon-esque scuffling in a ball of dust was amusing no less). But the more I look back on the times I’ve had within the Isle of Dogs, the more I’m left with memories of the first Anderson movie I liked but did not love despite all ingredients being my jam.

I don’t know, maybe Wes is more of a cat person. I mean, look what he made happen to poor Buckley.

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Mai Waife

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I’m gonna be mean.

The Wife is literally the type of movie that acts as a parody of arthouse cinema. It is literally the kind of drab and pretentious movie I imagine my friends and family conjure in their heads when they think of the “cultured” tastes of mine (those are scare quotes, lest one forgets one of my favorite movies of the year was the extended black metal music video with a chainsaw fight) when I halt for a moment before agreeing to see that Melissa McCarthy vehicles with them. I would much rather rewatch the last four Melissa McCarthy movies I saw* than suffer The Wife another time, even if it boasts a desperately powerhouse last gasp from Glenn Close for that Best Actress Oscar. At least, those films’ narrative histrionics are done for the sake of comedy. I’m not even sure Jane Anderson’s screenplay (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer, I do not know how close an adaptation it is, but I admit that the premise interests me more as literature than cinema) recognizes its wild motions through “shocker” revelations as melodramatic, let alone does director Björn Runge want to squeeze a self-awareness of melodrama out of it.

That introduction to Close’s performance sounded too mean, let’s start over. Indeed, Close’s performance here transparently leaps for her elusive career-long lack of awarding from the Academy and it has been the one major constant source of accolade for The Wife since it premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But she earns it: she is the sole human presence in the film that seems grounded other than Christian Slater (a distant second in the cast who does not rise above merely fine) and she has a firm hand on all the complexities of resentment and resignation bubbling within her character of Joan Castleman, who for the duration of the film has to sit through and witness the process of her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) being awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is just as much an annoyance for their eldest child David (Max Irons) – their pregnant daughter Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan) not accompanying them to Stockholm for obvious reasons – as it is for Joan, but in David’s case, it’s because Joe treats David’s aspiring writing career as condescendingly as one could.

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In Joan’s case, Joe does a terrible job at hiding and denying his constant pursuit of affairs (indeed, their very relationship was born as an extramarital affair), but it’s not just that. Apparently, dogged biographer Nathaniel Bone (Slater) has done a great deal of research in the hopes of getting Joe’s authorization for a biography and that research has led to a trail that heavily implies that Joe’s writing has mostly been done by Joan herself (albeit inspired by Joe’s life), partly in an attempt to circumvent the misogynist dismissal she would have received during her own early pursuit of a writing career back in the 1950s (portrayed in flashback by Streep’s daughter Annie Starke) but partly as a result of Joe’s fragile and bullying inability to take criticism or work around his own flaws as a writer (portrayed in flashback by Harry Lloyd).

That we don’t exactly see or learn much about the differing writing styles of Joan, Joe, or David is a pretty frustrating element of this film that is ostensibly about writers. But in any case, the directions in which Joan’s development takes over these long few days where she witnesses her husband gets what she wants (and, the film argues convincingly, deserves) while she has to use platitude that sell the image of a happy, supportive couple and convince her clueless spouse are navigated through deftly by Close that regardless of the quality of the movie around her, I would certainly be less objecting to her winning of the Best Actress Oscar than the other major contender this season, Lady Gaga.

But the quality of the movie around her… oof.

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The complete funereal look to it afforded by Runge’s direction and cinematographer Ulf Brantås, with a lack of distinction in the fatigue of the 1993 sequence and the 1950s flashback that makes me wonder why bother making this a film and why not just make it a stageplay, to suggest tips its hand so far into artificial chilliness that it goes into sleepiness instead. But the real Achilles heel is Pryce’s performance, maybe the first performance he’s ever given that I find no redeeming qualities to and the biggest culprit at playing to the histrionics of the scenario in a manner that undercuts any attempt Lloyd makes at crafting the character as a subtle gaslighting manipulator.

For all that Anderson wants to portray a toxic masculine issue that is present (even if the observations never go much more than repetitions of “Joe complains about something and Joan breaks in half to make it stop”, topped off by an ending that feels like a deliberate cop-out), Pryce refuses to make Joe a flesh-and-blood human source of this issue so much as a stereotypical monster that The Wife can’t manage to contain with any sobriety it treats the rest of its aesthetic or narrative with. And that just ends up making all the misery this film puts forward feel like it’s for nothing.

*Life of the Party, The BossGhostbustersand Spy for the record, in order of recency. All of which are some level of enjoyable, to be frank, so I should maybe acknowledge that I don’t dodge her for her performances but for the directors attached (either Paul Feig or Ben Falcone). But this is no profile of Melissa McCarthy, much as I’d also rather do that than write about this film.
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The Shallows

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The full disclosure first: it is no-big-secret that Bradley Cooper’s 2018 directorial debut A Star Is Born happens to be the fourth version of that very same storyline told by that name, arguably the fifth version of that storyline told overall depending on how closely you think the 1932 George Cukor film What Price Hollywood?, which predates them all, hews closely to them*. I happened to see Cooper’s film after a back-to-back-to-back-to-back refresh of all four previous films and it may very well be the case that I might have been burnt out from that story by the time I reached Cooper’s telling. I highly doubt that and don’t see myself being in the mood to rewatch it and test that theory anytime soon: it might just as well be the case that I was simply unimpressed with a fairly average piece of artist’s struggle Oscarbait. Plus, when it comes to watching it shortly after enduring the godawful 1976 Barbra Streisand vanity piece, Cooper’s film has all the juxtapositional advantages it could possibly have and ends up looking rosy.

In fact, the subject matter of Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters‘ screenplay apparently tries to make right the new direction Frank Pierson‘s film tried to take: as opposed to the first three films’ focus on movie stars, the ’76 and ’18 versions of A Star Is Born focus on musicians now and both of them seem to choose country as the genre of choice. The beats are otherwise uniform all throughout and Cooper’s character, burnt-out substance abuser Jackson Maine, has regained the surname of all the previous iterations outside of the ’76 version. Maine randomly discovers the remarkable musical talent of Ally (Lady Gaga) and coaxes her into becoming a viral phenomenon after he arranges an impromptu duet performance of a song she wrote during one of his concerts. The two become very quickly enamored with each other while Ally’s star begins rising, Jackson is being shut out as a liability and it’s causing him to relapse into his vices in a manner poisonous towards himself and potentially Ally’s career.

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There’s another toxic side to Cooper‘s story that I feel might not be as intended but the film slips towards regardless: Ally’s rising fame lands her with a more pop-oriented image that Jackson transparently disapproves of, an attitude the movie doesn’t have as much objection to so much as the cruel fashion that he expresses it, particularly when he is at his drunkest. That this is absent from the previous films (in which the male lead is unconditionally supportive of what direction the female lead wishes to go) is, I think, no accident.

But enough of comparing Cooper’s film to its predecessors, for “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die”, as one of Maine’s songs (written by Jason Isbell, the soundtrack has a general revolving door of writers with Gaga being the major constant and the results being mostly mixed with “Maybe It’s Time” and the much-marketed “Shallow” being the best) go. What about A Star Is Re-re-reBorn as a film unto itself?

Well, for one thing, it looks almost exactly like the sort of film I imagine Clint Eastwood would have made (Cooper having worked with him on American Sniper and The Mule) with its classically worn look to itself whether against the blinding lights of the concert stage, the busy domesticity of Ally’s home (inhabited by characters that Woody Allen would have repeated his “standing out here with the cast of The Godfather” line towards headed by a sleepily against-type Andrew Dice Clay), the sterile white of a grocery store in the middle of the night. There’s one major exception to Cooper’s Eastwood influence: an early scene in a gay bar during a drag show, where the color red completely washes over the film but refusing to have sharply defined lines so as not to lose its faux-verite sense and one of the better scenes of the film for this fact. In general, there is very little about Cooper and his work with cinematographer Matthew Libatique that implies they don’t know their way towards giving a setting a lived-in feel but an overreliance towards the crutch of close-ups as the one major way to communicate our characters’ thoughts, though there is one moment where a close-up, on top of the one great cut by otherwise sluggish Jay Cassidy, is juxtaposed to another with a usage of focus that amplifies the spaced-out distance Maine is feeling towards Ally’s career trajectory. It sucks that such a moment is utilized in that objectionable manner, but it’s great to see the close-up used at least once in the movie to tell us something that one shot of an actor’s face couldn’t.

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And to be sure, the lead actors do a mighty fine job among them as well in conjuring a chemistry between themselves that sells a sincerity to their co-dependent relationship, even despite all the knowingly toxic and antagonistic elements. I wouldn’t call either performance great acting as individual elements (Gaga herself doesn’t have much of a path when she takes scenes emotionally from 0 to 100 and Cooper’s attempts at wounded masculine emotion is wildly overshadowed by Sam Elliot’s best work as Jackson’s older brother Bobby, making an otherwise fine performance look like cheap mimicry and having “Then why did you steal my voice?” as a line does not help). Perhaps another thing that Cooper took as a director from his previous collaborators was David O. Russell’s trust in actors to create their own rhythm and let the film be crafted around them, but it pays off enough to make A Star Is Born extremely interesting in the moments up until a boisterous early climax as Ally performs “Shallows” to a crowd with Jackson for the first time and at least maintain watchability up until the end.

Beyond that, the truth is the movie just wasn’t interesting to me. It doesn’t help that I happen to think Ally is a more interesting presence that Jackson and the movie seems to totally disagree with that (as it would when Cooper is star AND director). It maybe helps less that I’ve seen it all before done better and anything that this film tries to try anew just doesn’t compel me as melodrama. It certainly helps the least that the last half of the film is filled with bet-hedging towards its judgments with Ally’s musical style (including songs that I’d swear were deliberately written to sound bad if one of the writers didn’t deny this) and the amount of random strands that are picked up and dropped often (like Dave Chappelle’s character or Maine’s hearing issues). If it weren’t for the certainty of this movie’s presence in the awards race, I’d have no trouble forgetting about it. But it’s hard to deny that it shows promise for Cooper and Gaga in their respective newfound roles as filmmaker and movie star. This just ain’t it yet.

*It is this writer’s opinion that is very close.

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It Practically Gallops

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There is obviously a line between contempt for your characters and apathy for your characters and I think writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature horror film Hereditary has found the thinnest element of that line. It is a movie that is aware of the ugly aspect of what its central family is doing to each other and wants us to be aware too. It is a movie that validates the devastating feelings within these people that is making them react and hurt each other this way, knowing that they are entitled to feel the way they feel and refusing to judge them for it. Only judging them for the toxic manner in which they inflict those feelings on each other. And despite this, it is a movie that does not care what happens to them and knows that the results are of their own devices for the most part.

Hereditary’s happens to be quite a movie that it is easy to spoil by discussing its premise, so I hope it suffices simply to acknowledge that it all begins with a death in the Graham family: Ellen Leigh’s (a character we see in photos that, last I checked, were uncredited) obituary is the first thing that greets us in a chillingly neutral tone. She is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), Annie’s husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and child daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their responses to her death is complex, to say the least. Annie had a toxically antagonistic relationship with her mother amplified by mental illness issues between Annie’s father and brother while by all accounts Ellen took a special interest towards Charlie.

In any case, having to deal with a death in the family is a tough experience and very soon Hereditary proves that to only be the beginning of their troubles, with an incident that irreparably tears a conflict between a slowly deteriorating Annie and an increasingly vulnerable Peter. And between the two of those are the heightened poles of Hereditary’s miseries: Collette embodies an inability to compartmentalize between her hate, her grief, and her trauma, spitefully lashing out at everyone’s who is even slightly at fault for her losing herself. While Wolff goes through a downward spiral of muting out any of his emotions and letting himself get eaten more and more. Indeed, his big showcase is a moment where he stares at an unseen thing in the backseat of a car and stares out trying to comprehend what just occurred, refusing to frown or scream or anything except let a solitary tear run down his cheek. Meanwhile, Byrne makes a useless character feel even more like a clueless slump (which I wholly mean as a compliment) and Shapiro gives Charlie a melancholy loneliness at losing the family member she most interacted with that plays very well with the other weird ambiance she gives to her presence.

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And they have a lot of time to do it. Hereditary knows full well what happens when you have the worst feelings a person could possibly be experiencing embodied in four different people and left to simmer in four walls for weeks at a time (2 hours in runtime paced incredibly well by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston), mixed around by Charlie Dahan’s deep doomy vibrations of a score. Hereditary IS a horror movie of the supernatural sort (I do not think this is a spoiler though of course explaining how would be), but the real horrifying aspect comes for what this family is putting each other through simply for the fact that they don’t know how to process this or because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to.

The near-invisible delicacy with which Aster condemns the Graham family with only slivers of sympathy despite a loyalty to wide shots of funereal domesticity that give its central drama an empty dollhouse look to it (something Aster wants us to recognize by way of Annie‘s career as a diorama artist and indeed the very first shot after that obituary is a long close-up from an open dollhouse into a 2nd floor bedroom that happens to be Peter’s) and close-ups that accent exactly how ugly it looks for a human being to emotionally collapse. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski uses the wide shots as an opportunity to give the rooms and their inhabitants a subtle wooden brown implying how artificial anything that was holding this home together was while using the close-ups to give shadows (and aided by sweaty makeup) that make the characters look gaunt and their heads facing downwards. Collette is the best aide to this: it feels insulting to call what she’s doing mugging, because there’s so much deeper internalizing than that but she puts on a consistent exhausted frown, escalated in a dinner scene gone wrong where she can’t help ripping Peter apart verbally. She looks like if Shelly Duvall got fucking sick of Jack Nicholson’s shit and decided she didn’t an axe to murder him, just a glare.

It is so effective as chamber-esque thriller and as exercise in ruining the viewer’s day that when Hereditary takes a very-very-late turn to glibness, it is jarring in an unfortunate way (it is not the only time – there is one cutaway shot against a character’s haunting screams that feels a little beyond the pale in cruelty). It also happens to be a moment that utilizes “explain-the-plot” in the worst kind of way, at a point where we are very clear on what has went on unless we weren’t paying attention. That it is the final note in Hereditary does not particularly stain my memory of it, because when you do it right moodiness is going to linger long enough to really mess up any good feelings you could possible grasp.

NB: Good ol’ Dancin’ Daniel Bayer has suggested that you see this movie with an audience and I sure wish I could agree with that if some 305 dickhead didn’t shout “DE PINGA!” at the screen during one of the most silent-inducing moments after an hour of clicking his tongue. Still, I can’t imagine this isn’t a movie where a crowd would be synchronized emotionally so I’d say it see it… with people you know and trust.

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The Shape of Slash to Come

Film Title: Halloween

One of the easiest possible associations to make with Halloween, the 2018 horror film that is now the third movie in the franchise frustratingly by that name, is one with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For indeed, Halloween ’18 (as I shall refer to it from here on in this review as this movie skips over all the other movies between it and the 1978 original but calling it Halloween II doesn’t work because there’s ALSO two other movies by that title) does more than a bit to imply a new future direction in the story of emotionless masked Shape of murderous evil Michael Myers’ (OG Nick Castle for special moments and James Jude Courtney for most of the screentime) and his semi-random focus on tormenting Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), one with final beats that imply that if Myers is to continue, he shall be focusing on someone new. And like The Force Awakens, Halloween ’18 sets this up by blatantly repeating the beats and greatest hits of not only John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece (who returns with his son Cody to score this iteration – I honestly think the difference is not all that remarkable but it was a perfect score to begin with), but at least giving the first three sequels knowing winks as well (as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).

And like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Halloween ’18 opts to forego a steady core story with unnecessary tangents that are mostly dead ends and one of which seems like a contrivance to facilitate a result that already felt inevitable. I am particularly dismayed that Halloween ’18 opted to be a two-hour slasher film when a 90-minute version of itself would have sufficed just as well. This does not bode very well for Halloween ’18 in my heart because those Star Wars movies are ones that I mutedly enjoyed on first watch and slowly decayed the more I thought about it. But to give Halloween ’18, the benefit of the doubt I ask significantly less of my slasher movies than I do of my space operas and I DID end up satisfied nonetheless.

For one thing, the fan service that is littered throughout the movie is of a gleeful sort that argues the soul of Halloween is how Myers’ actions are just as much consistent as they are relentless. For another thing, this film is in the very capable directorial hands of David Gordon Green who I am more fond of than J.J. Abrams (I cannot say I prefer Green to Johnson but I did think about it a lot), who should be returning to form any day now.

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This is not that return but the two of these elements – the fan service and Green’s presence – mix very well in my eye. The familiar patterns within the kills (at least the ones where we don’t see the act, only the grisly results) and the shot styles as his rampage aligns us with the characters as they recognize what’s going on this Illinois Halloween night. Even if Green does not utilize the widescreen spacing as well as Carpenter, though he does have a knack for creating pools of shadow and distressing that with the harsh blues and reds of police lights when shit goes wrong. Green and Carpenter also share the ability to transform a far from Midwestern town (this film was shot in Charleston, South Carolina) into feeling breezily autumnal in a Midwest way. Green’s direction is particularly much better at selling the subversion of Strode’s previous role as victim than Green or Danny McBride’s half-baked and overgluttoned screenplay did, such as a set of shots that is so exciting in how it reversed the roles between Myers and Strode that it made me cheer in the theater.

Perhaps the best surprise out of the entirety of the film is Green’s happy intentions to make the carnage and any aftermath we are lucky to walk in on really count for something. I can’t honestly decide which is the bigger standout: a hovering duo of long-shots (there’s a cut between them but one so intelligently placed that it doesn’t kill the momentum at all) where Myers stalks into homes, stealing weapons and murdering the matriarchs without any pause, promising to us that he has no intentions to hunt Strode and simply kills because he kills. Or a messy explosion of blood as we witness Myers’ boot slam into the skull of a character, a gauche and cartoonish end to the film’s most harebrained character.

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It is perhaps most unfortunate that the best elements of these things take a while to get there because Halloween ’18 thinks it has a complex plot to set up. One that thinks it needs to set up the high school life of a teenage girl or the disinteresting investigation work of annoying podcasters, the elimination of both of these solving most of my problems with the movie (particularly that the character most easy to hate is never even in danger of being murdered). McBride and Green particularly. want to explore the concept of Laurie’s PTSD but don’t really do much of the work to cut into it – they turn her into Sarah Connor without giving much of a clear psychological path between the girl crying against a wall at the end of the 1978 film and the stonefaced woman living in her personal fortress of guns, traps, and panic rooms 40 years later waiting for him to try again*.

Most of the heavy-lifting is put upon a game Curtis, who turns in a determination with cracking resoluteness and a deflecting refusal to acknowledge how her paranoia has broken her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer). In fact, practically any sense of character the movie gets comes from the actors present in the second half as Judy Greer plays Karen as somehow trying very hard to pretend her comfortable suburbia life can stifle memories of repressed childhood that her mother continues to bring and Andi Matichak as Karen’s daughter Andi, totally naïve about the threat out there and trying to retain a relationship with Laurie despite the strain between generations and Laurie’s emotional instability. If there is any reason I prefer Green’s Halloween to Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, despite finding both films thematically clumsy about trauma, it is because of these three women. Toby Huss and Will Patton aren’t nearly up to those three women but they maintain a rustic personability as men trying to take control of situations they should be responsible but aren’t equipped for. The only real loose end is sadly Haluk Bilgener as Myers’ psychologist Dr. Sartain (“the new Loomis”, Laurie sarcastically calls him), but he’s also saddled with a character that has no sense or logic to him on paper. The clear standout isn’t even a main actor, Jibrail Nantambu’s babysat child of Julian who feels like a mixed transient in his effortless naturalism and charm from George Washington and Eastbound and Down (my two favorite things Green and McBride have done).

Anyway, whole lot of fat is in Halloween ’18. Ignoring that part of the beauty of the original is its elegant simplicity. Simplicity that could have been recreated wholly from elements that are in Halloween ’18. So, it’s understandable why it’s been a disappointment to some. Hell, it’s already fading for me. I don’t see it holding up on rewatch where the deadwood will be prevalent and I have a remote that can fast-forward. But for right now, on first watch, I can’t lie and say that I got all I really wanted out of Halloween ’18: a functioning slasher film that delivered on the puerile violence I go to these movies for anyway. Even if I had to squint to get it.

*There is the attitude that this is a failed premise to begin with because Halloween H20: 20 Years Later… already had that fated reunion and just erasing the sequels doesn’t salvage the impact. It would be much easier for me to agree if I gave a fuck about H20.

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Ride the Tiger, You Can See His Stripes But You Know He’s Clean/You Can Feel His Heart But You Know He’s Mean

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There is a reticence in talking about Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ fuck crazy 2nd feature film following the 2009 cult horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, by way of its narrative elements by both detractors and fans. The detractors simply posit that the film doesn’t have anything to say while the fans (of which I am a very devoted one) may or may not agree with that but think “who cares?”, a sentiment I would agree with 9 out of 10 times as a hardcore formalist. But when it comes to Mandy, I have to admit the emotional charge of the movie is so irreversibly tied to all of its aesthetical pleasures that it feels like claiming Blade Runner or Mad Max: Fury Road are shallow just because they happen to be simple screenplays with filmmakers who decide to expand their themes within their designs. Every visual and audial decision within those two films does more to inform how you feel, bring up concepts and themes for you to ponder about, and guide you into some semblance of an emotional beginning, middle, and end than their skeletal screenplay.

Mandy’s, written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, is one that begins by taking the good part of an hour establishing the serenity of 1983 California’s Shadow Mountains where grizzled lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his spacey titular artist/convenience store clerk girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in calming isolation within the wooden terrain, apparently serving as each other’s comforts from some upsetting past (an unacknowledged scar runs down the left of Mandy’s huge pool-like eyes and there’s the slightest hint from Red’s refusal of a beer that he has survived alcoholism). It’s working as Red quietly lounges in their transparent glass house (with a bedroom that’s all windows seeing the trees before them and the stars above) and Mandy indulges in reading dark fantasy novels that inspire her artwork and discussing astronomy with Red. But this does not last as Mandy crosses paths with the sinister Children of the New Dawn cult based in some curdled spawn of hippie philosophy and Christian fanaticism. She particularly catches the lustful eye of their deranged leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and he uses his power to invade Red and Mandy’s home.

The subsequent violence that occurs invokes a rage that brings about the forging of a battle axe that resembles Celtic Frost’s logo, the hunting down of their Black Skulls bikers (who look like grisly Clive Barker-imagined Judas Priest fans, in inky black leather speaking in gargled guttural sounds resembling blood stuck in their throat and surrounded by a doomy fog), an inadvertent trip through cocaine and blood-mixed LSD, and the hunting down of the Children themselves including an eventual chainsaw battle that leaves Motel Hell’s brilliant fight in the dust*. It’s a film that feels like a music video despite the only needle drop being the very calm and lulling King Crimson track “Starless”. But it opens with a quote about being buried listening to music and Mandy’s whole wardrobe is band shirts and we are shown late in the film that they met at a local metal concert, so there’s no escaping the musical nature of the film.

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Overall, Mandy is a film that feels of the same spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow: Panos Cosmatos knows the kind of movies he loves watching and he wants to make more of them (that his tastes align with mine make me all the more eager that he make more of them while being horrified at the 9-year gap between his first and second movie). He knows what he loves to look at: big swatches of primary colors from cinematographer Benjamin Loeb bathing the images, heavy metal inspired designs with prog rock pacing, unhinged and practically comical bloodletting in large form, and apparently he’s a huge fan of Too Many Cooks (Casper Kelly guest directs a fake commercial that serves as sudden comic relief to the most emotionally devastating moment AND – on second watch I realized this – begins a series of visual breadcrumbs to our protagonist’s crazed journey). More importantly, he knows the sort of music he loves to hear: hellish, droning, sludgy black metal that uses shuddering impact for rhythm and wants to go as deep as it possibly can so as to make your bones vibrate for when the violence and echoing simple guitar tones for the early moments of domestic bliss, supplied impeccably by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson as the last of his career-long trials to transform music into mood-informing sound design**. If I have to tell you that’s my musical jam, you don’t know me and I must admit Jóhannsson’s range here between sedate relaxation and harsh tonal noise focused on guitar and synthesizers feels the closest we will come to a Buckethead score which is something I’ve always wanted.

Anyway, Mandy does indeed share the spirit of Beyond the Black Rainbow and practically nothing else. For one thing, as opposed to Black Rainbow’s interiors***, Mandy is so very much in love with the texture of the outdoor Shadow Mountains and just as the first hour serves to ingrain the sincerity of Red and Mandy’s relationship, it also serves to make us very intimately familiar with the lush terrain in which they found their peace. The first scene of Red finishing his work day has a dusky shadowy blue to it that softens the image while distinguishing the dark brown from the leafy green (the whole movie seems to go for a fuzzy grained filmic look but the sharpness of the image tells us this is digital). A shot of Mandy reading her favorite book on her bed halos her in a glow radiating from the window of trees behind her. It is the sort of movie that makes me wish to live in its environment, if not for the fact that we’re also witnessing this beautiful paradise transform into something more demonic starting with the devil reds that make up the entirety of the Children’s introductory scene driving in. As the film progresses, it slowly dries out into caverns and hills and we have man-made objects impose themselves into this place, like churches and hangars that imprison tigers in them, until it’s a yellow-crimson and alien and unrecognizable. Mandy‘s final shot only confirms a space that seems to mirror the character’s final states of mind.

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For another thing, Mandy is as aware of the presence of cosmic influences as its predecessor but humorously unconcerned with it. Bill Duke’s understated cameo that functions to demystify the dragons Nicolas Cage intends to slay. If it weren’t for the beautiful final shot, a repeating dream format, and a jarring drug trip montage 2/3 of the way in, its dry humor might be seen as dismissive towards its inspired ideas. MIGHT. Instead, all it means is that Cosmatos and his cast and crew – I never even had time to acknowledge the brilliant duality in Brett W. Bachman’s editing because for all the first is patient and in no hurry for us to soak in the place-setting, the second half ratchets and escalates to a roaring final third cutting and that’s while still indulging flourishes like a dissolving superimposed close-up between Jeremiah and Mandy or a ghostly slowing-down of movements. And I don’t know who’s responsible for the three major title cards but I want them all in my bedroom wall – they’re all going to have fun with the movie. Having a sense of humor does water down how exhilarated it feels about itself, in some ways, it makes Red’s statements more badass in a casual way (“Don’t be negative” is my favorite line in the movie).

Anyway, if I’ve sold anybody on rushing to see this movie, I’m going to insist you stop reading right here because it’s gonna be a good ol’ spoiler alert while I go into what I think the movie wants to say. I sure hope the promise of Mandy‘s rock and roll sensory overload is enough to imply your satisfaction (though there is clearly going to be some people that know this isn’t for them). Indeed, there are some who would argue understandably that Mandy is much more rewarding without reading much into it and it’s certainly rewarding enough as manic carnage with a metal soul.

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I am not one of those people.

That sensory overload is not just sound and fury. It’s a story about loss and the sort of devastation it brings to a personality and to a home. Nicolas Cage is an actor we are familiar with as acting unchained and unhinged, grinning maniacally and screeching and yelling frequently. It’s amusingly extreme, but extreme nonetheless and primal. And in Mandy, there’s a context to that… Red has just had everything that made his home a home destroyed. Everything that domesticated him. He’s now a wild animal, caked in blood by the time he finishes off the Black Skulls and now only speaking in order to discuss the violence he is about to return to the people who killed Mandy. It’s extremely self-indulgent and unhealthy in its portrayal of him drinking and snorting and slashing and decapitating (and if Loeb’s camera movements during the centerpiece bathroom breakdown imply anything, the film is aware of this and afraid to approach him, instead just hovering around) but it’s Red letting his masculine rage out against the Children nevertheless. And by the end of it, he has a John Wick-like emptiness and roams aimlessly down this landscape too close to comfort to Jupiter.

And yet there’s a layer of the film that implies that it’s not Red’s grieving that’s occurring: it’s Mandy’s. The constant dreams where she is present in gorgeous animated form guiding him, the juxtaposition between him and a tiger, the mythological items that appear (with the villains’ tools always being granted a sudden flashing green) similar to the books Mandy reads, and the final shot of starlings (a bird Mandy has much grief for) giving a soundscape to illustrations of Red in heroic form share a back and forth between how one person might shed any humanity in dealing with losing someone and another might use storytelling and comforting associations to mourn softly. As Mandy’s shirts imply, she is also the metalhead between the two of them so it’s safe to assume Cosmatos gave Mandy the same tastes as himself.

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It’s an authorial cycle that doesn’t lean towards a complete answer but the ambiguous way in which Mandy maintains that its eponymous character remains involved and arguably a prime mover of the story allows leans on every aesthetical device being something that informs Mandy’s personalities and likes (despite Riseborough giving a significantly more interiorized performance than anyone save for Duke), probably the most defined character in a movie that’s mostly archetypes.

That’s just me, though. Any positive reading of Mandy seems like one I can dig and overall, it’s a film that refuses to bore me and just wants to be the biggest and most ambitious version of a violent revenge story that it can be. There’s no denying Cosmatos has plenty he wants to say within it – the fragility of male ego (though the fridging of Mandy makes it hard for me to call it a feminist movie), the delusional nature of personality cults if not religions generally, and the true purity of metalheads vs. hippies – but he doesn’t really need you to take those things out of the movie with you. All he wants you to do is take these words to heart:

“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock ‘n’ roll me when I’m dead.”

(wisely refraining from crediting the verse to convicted murderer Douglas Roberts)

*I am willing to shoot to death anyone who tries to claim Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 comes even close.
**I am for the record still very very angry we will never hear his scrapped Blade Runner 2049 score.

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I’m Going to Keep It Real with You Guys…

I’m taking a break.

Right now, writing about movies is not my current focus in life and what IS my current focus in life is a bit too urgent to allow share space in my brain for anything else right now. It’s frankly getting to a point where I’m feeling overwhelmed and burnt out about movies, nearly unable to watch any without feeling some obligation to overanalyze and dissect everything I watch even if I’m just trying to watch them for leisure.

No, best to put this down in writing rather than just have it popping up in the back of my mind often while trying to push myself to write one further word without my thoughts fully formed. It is especially heartbreaking to do this NOW because I feel 2018 has been a significantly more rewarding year for movies than its two preceding years, but perhaps that just adds to the necessity of me needing to stop for a bit: just appreciate the movies without trying to intellectualize them into critical rhetoric. I don’t have to turn off my brain or cease communicating with others about movies (and I obviously won’t), I just don’t have to treat it like a chore or an anchor on my ankle.

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Here’s what’s up: I will be finishing the last two movies in the Takahata Isao remembrance and I will be writing about Lu Over the Wall because I got the OTHER Yuasa Masaaki movie of the year out of the way (and also wrote about his Netflix show, Devilman Crybaby, on the Film Experience). I will be finishing those up at my own pace, ideally by the end of the month.

After that… I’m taking it easy for a few months. I may pop in every now and then on The Film Experience and people can obviously keep track of me via letterboxd. Before the year is over, I’ll see what to figure out regarding writing. Maybe I’ll just take things one at a time, like I should have. Maybe I’ll just write about the movies I feel like. Maybe my life will be cleaned up enough to stick to the usual methods of relevance (Oscar nominees, Box Office Winners, etc.) with a lot more punctuality.

In the end…

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Anyway, before I step out, it would be rude (and anyway stick in my throat) if I did not leave you all with a plethora of capsule reviews of the multitudes of 2018 releases I have seen over the past 8 months that I have not gotten around to writing for one reason or another.

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The 15:17 to Paris (dir. Clint Eastwood, USA)
Absolutely Eastwood’s career-worst. Thinks the premise of a guy actively waiting for the opportunity to be a hero is actually compelling, forgets that it means nothing’s gonna happen for 75 minutes. Honestly, the non-actors give the “best” performances in the movie.

Acrimony (dir. Tyler Perry, USA)
Possibly Tyler Perry’s career worst. Totally confused on its stance with the central conflict between Melinda and Robert.

American Animals (dir. Bart Layton, UK/USA)
Interesting attempt at docudrama. I don’t think it fails, but I don’t think it’s a huge success. Distressing heist sequences to combat the slick fantasies these characters indulge in and knock the “glamor” out of this violent assault.

Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland, UK/USA)
I’m still fucked up, give a lot of minutes.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (dir. Peyton Reed, USA)
I liked it more than Avengers: Infinity War, which means it’s just ok.

Bao (dir. Domee Shi, USA)
Very easy to go “WHAT THE FUCK” at THAT moment, but that has already taken over the conversation and neglected how otherwise warm and pleasantly squishy this short film was.

Book Club (dir. Bill Holderman, USA)
I am obviously an old woman in loving this movie.

Breaking In (dir. John McTeigue, USA)
Gabrielle Union turning into her own home invader is a whole lot of fun to witness.

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The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah, USA)
I’m probably the lucky one for deciding to go to sleep after the Super Bowl and go to work before bothering watching this.

The Commuter (dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, France/UK/USA)
After years of trying to recruit Liam Neeson’s help in becoming a trashy French Hitchcock, Collet-Serra has come the closest (and still pretty damn far) with this shaggy Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train mash-up. I regret that I made it sound smarter than it is (and it thinks it’s that smart with shallow observations on the economy snuck into it), but it has a strong enough handle on tension to keep itself from being boring even during its extended climax (where it REALLY rides on The Lady Vanishes as a basis). Maybe I just never get bored of Angry Liam Neeson.

Condorito: La Película (dir. Alex Orrelle & Eduardo Schuldt, Chile/Peru)
I find it tough to believe that this chauvinistic source material was for children.

Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu, USA)
Uninterested in the actual social or personal ramifications of the characters’ wealth, but that’s so we’re less conflicted about adoring the total lifestyle and outfit porn of all its characters, buoyed by the inherent charm of every single personality. And it’s not shallow either: in lieu of the economical lens, it goes into the generational gap.

The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci, UK/France/Belgium)
It’s weird to say In the Loop is the superior movie because The Death of Stalin has much more going on in its form and attempts to deliver weird framing, faded costuming, and caustic atmosphere in its sound. But… it’s just that In the Loop is much funnier than this very hilarious film.

Early Man (dir. Nick Park, UK)
Not reinventing the wheel, but that’s because that wheel rolls smoothly and if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham, USA)
Absolutely hurt to watch in a good way.

The Equalizer 2 (dir. Antoine Fuqua, USA)
Just decides to abandon the mysterious lack of identity of its lead to instead deepen the personality of Washington’s McCall. That’s the one major difference and depending on your attitude on that, it will color your attitude on the movie. Also this movie’s real-life Hurricane FPS is not as fun to watch as the first movie’s Home Depot slasher movie.

Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (dir. Shinbō Akiyuki & Takeuchi Nobuyuki, Japan)
Wish I knew in advance anything about this movie like how gross it is about women or how it recycles its own animation over and over or how godawful it is about J-Pop or how inconsistent its time travel rules are. Has a few minutes of great looking animated lighting, otherwise trash.

The First Purge (dir. Gerard McMurray, USA)
Good thing that finally changing the director somehow did not make these better at staging or cutting setpieces. I would hate for it to do right by Y’lan Noel’s screen presence as an action star. Real glad this franchise remains having no personality beyond being another John Carpenter rip-off with shallow political observations.

First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, USA)
Does not really disminish my attitudes on Paul Schrader being an asshole who makes movies for assholes (especially that ending – which I loved but I know I’m an asshole), but it feels significantly sincere in its moral anguishes, its incorporation of impersonal organization and frustrating administration into religious matters, and its exploration of distress in faith. I honestly think these elements make it easy to ignore its incredibly transparent Bergman and Bresson influences and see it as Schrader’s utilizing of old European religious film vocabulary to express his own fears of the modern world’s trajectory. Accomplishes certain Taxi Driver character interiority better than Taxi Driver, fight me.

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Forever My Girl (dir. Bethany Ashton Wolf, USA)
This is a goddamn country music version of Bojack Horseman.

Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley, USA)
A David Fincher film that I liked more than most of David Fincher’s movies!

Game Over, Man! (dir. Kyle Newacheck, USA)
Stop.

God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (dir. Michael Mason, USA)
The least objectionable of the trilogy (its final observations taking more of the responsibility onto the church rather than on others) but also the silliest in its early attempts at darkness. I could have waited until streaming or some shit.

The Green Fog (dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, & Galen Johnson, USA)
My favorite movie of the year yet. Utilizes the familiarity of Vertigo to function both as direct ode to San Francisco (as was commissioned), but also an examination of dialogue’s presence in cinematic storytelling, what associations an audience’s brain will make, and relentlessly hilarious montage gags.

Gringo (dir. Nash Edgerton, USA)
I don’t know what either the two writers or the three editors were smoking. It’s a complete structural mess that could easily be fixed by abandoning the attempted mosaic narrative (including the worst one carried by an unimpressive Joel Edgerton) and just focus on the one sympathetic presence in the whole film, David Oyelowo. That would shave a lot of Theron’s great performance, but this movie desperately needs to be streamlined. Unfortunately, fixing that still doesn’t fix how totally unfunny the whole movie is or how boring it looks.

Hearts Beat Loud (dir. Brett Haley, USA)
Slightly disappointed its focuses are leaned more on Offerman than on Clemons, but not as disappointed because Offerman is wonderful and the two perspectives of Frank and Sam make for compelling narratives (with the movie being entirely on Sam’s side). Also, totally dig the title song and the sequence of its creation.

Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster, USA)
Absolutely does not care for the well-being of its characters but the performances themselves snatch that sympathy hard enough to so that Aster can be totally cruel without any inhibitions. Terrible ending monologue that tells us what we already know. One of the worst theater audiences I’ve been with.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (dir. Genndy Tartakovsky, USA)
OK, even though these movies have finally become great to look at, with a nice visual foil in the stout Van Helsing versus the lanky Dracula, Tartakovsky has taken enough bullets for Sony Animation. They better let him make what he wants now. Please.

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Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson, USA/Germany)
Wonderful design and lateral framing, Bryan Cranston makes a terrific rugged voice, Greta Gerwig’s character is the worst, pretty gross about Orientalism. I like it, but I’m very labored about it.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (dir. J.A. Bayona, USA)
No less stupid than The Lost World: Jurassic Park but completely sheds the self-serious environmentalist sobriety of that one, so it’s also significantly more fun than any Jurassic Park film since the first. Helps that Bayona gets to take the whole third act through his own haunted house aesthetic.

Lean on Pete (dir. Andrew Haigh, UK)
Could have easily became misery porn but Charlie Plummer sees it the whole way through.

Life of the Party (dir. Ben Falcone, USA)
My Mother’s Day present to my Melissa McCarthy-fan mom and I so wish my best friend was Maya Rudolph’s character.

Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti, USA)
The type of movie where I’m so glad it exists for the community it matters for but I was so very uninterested in otherwise, other than hating Logan Miller’s character and wishing violent death on that psycho.

Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker, USA)
A frustrating movie that comes with certain elements of the territory: the ambling improvisational nature of the story and its contradictory goals of criticizing art for exploiting severe issues like mental illness while also dedicating itself to entering the headspace of Madeline herself. And yet it accomplishes everything in swift enough time to give it flying colors. Helena Howard possibly gives the best performance of the year, an intense ticking timebomb of chameleon instincts.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (dir. Yonebayashi Hiromasa, Japan)
Studio Ponoc’s conservatism to its predecessor Ghibli’s house style is comforting and wonderful, not losing an ounce of its impressiveness when it opens with a high energy setpiece like the explosive escape and has a whole lotta liquid design moving around. And that anti-Chosen One narrative endears me even further to it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie, USA)
The more I watched this film (which has been three times, for the record), the more evident it is that it really wants to have fun with the “dark and gritty” expectations of its premise and happily reject them, even if it feels uncomfortably tied to this star factor of Tom Cruise being presented as this caring and uncompromising moral paragon. Even then, WHO CARES? This is a movie for us to watch Tom Cruise try to kill himself in exhilarating ways and if it is not stylistically interesting, the scale of the setpieces and ambitious insanity of their presentation is all one needs to take this all in.

Mute (dir. Duncan Jones, UK/Germany)
OK, so I was expecting the best Blade Runner sequel of the decade and instead we got the worst Ghost in the Shell remake of the decade.

Ocean’s 8 (dir. Gary Ross, USA)
Came for the cast, most of the cast delivered. Gary Ross puts on his best Soderbergh imitation, which is not much but enough.

Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King, France/UK)
As nice and kind as its predecessor, but maaaaaaaaan, I just can’t join the crowd in thinking Hugh Grant’s funny performance outdoes Nicole Kidman’s energetic macabre.

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Peter Rabbit (dir. Will Gluck, USA/Australia)
Fuck that rabbit, I hope he dies.

Proud Mary (dir. Babak Najafi, USA)
It is honestly irresponsible that this movie got a big damn release. Did people get paid for post-production here? It looks like a student film.

Red Sparrow (dir. Francis Lawrence, USA)
Can’t figure out if this or mother! is the worse movie about gender, but at least this one is funny to laugh at with its accents and Charlotte Rampling being a cold-seduction-minded Mother Superior.

The River (dir. Chloe Zhao, USA)
It feels absolutely mean to acknowledge that the acting is what makes this movie feel unpleasant to me, because it’s just people performing their own lives but that’s frankly what it is. Feels like the rugged beauty of its landscape photography overpowers any attempts to critique how the environment builds fatalistic masculinity.

Samson (dir. Bruce Macdonald, USA/South Africa)
So PureFlix’s attempt at pulling out all the budget stops results in just a Hallmark-caliber TV movie. Even the best actors in the movie – Rutger Hauer and Rutger Hauer – are sleepwalking, so y’know something something “hard to stay awake during church”.

Searching (dir. Aneesh Chagantry, USA)
I feel like this movie exists specifically to make me eat my words about “cheating” an aesthetical perspective because your movie is not good. Searching is astonishingly good and all the shortcuts it takes with close-ups and non-diagetic music just turn it into compelling tragedy one second and thriller the next. Helps when it’s guided by John Cho’s best performance to date, distressed and lost as we piece together who his daughter is with him.

Show Dogs (dir. Raja Gosnell, USA)
Ghastly in every way, I’m glad these are mostly computer-generated dogs because I would hate to see their limbs twisted in this uncanny anatomy.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (dir. Stefano Sollima, USA)
Does the exact opposite of all things that made the first Sicario compelling nihilism, so no fucking surprise when this ends up just feeling like an episode of your favorite Drug War procedural.

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The Strangers: Prey at Night (dir. Johannes Roberts, USA)
Does the exact opposite of all the things that made the first Strangers terrifying, so no fucking surprise when this movie is the total opposite of scary. But it IS good looking – even beyond the famous pool sequence. Feels like it wants to pass for an 80s film but didn’t have the budget or conviction to actually be period.

SuperFly (dir. Director X, USA)
The shift is time and location actually does so much to define the film’s personality and drive its approach to the Game. Loses much of that poignance and moral observation in the latter half where it wants Priest to whup everybody’s ass, satisfying as it is to watch everything click together.

Thoroughbreds (dir. Cory Finlay, USA)
Well, this is a cold movie that doesn’t know what to do with all the coldness Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke provide. Leaves its momentum frozen in its tracks. ‘Cause it’s so cold.

Tomb Raider (dir. Roar Uthaug, UK/USA)
Less confusing than Assassin’s Creed, significantly more boring. So I’m not sure who’s losing this race for a video game adaptation universe, Square Enix or Ubisoft, but the concept that the Fassbender/Vikander household are going to ruin video game movies for another decade is the only aspect of these films that is thrilling to me.

Uncle Drew (dir. Charles Stone III, USA)
Totally artless in its transparent product placement despite insisting with bleeding sincerity on the heart of the sport of basketball. But it’s still brisk and fun enough with its murderer’s row of one-word personalities given silly make-up, where Kyrie Irving is most experience (and thereby best) to give a broad physical and vocal performance.

Unsane (dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA)
I am very unhappy to learn that Soderbergh’s next movie will be IPhone-shot again but at least he upgraded to Tarell Alvin McCraney rather than the fucking writer of The Spy Next Door.

Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell, Australia/USA)
No less stupid than The Commuter and Fallen Kingdom but, unlike those films, Leigh Whannell abandons the actual hook of the premise way too eagerly to try to deliver his overcomplicated idea of a compelling mystery and even abandons the humor between Grey and STEM. The subsequent twists just give me rollercoaster nausea instead. Still, the few fight scenes are incredibly amusing, Logan Marshall-Green is very game in the physical demands of his role, and I dig the future ghetto aesthetic in the middle of the film (despite the rest of its production design being wildly inconsistent).

Winchester (dir. Michael & Peter Spierig, Australia/USA)
Literally would be willing to forgive ANYTHING if it was able to dedicate every inch of itself to the confusing geometry of its setting and making us feel totally lost all over it. It does not do this and what it does do is boring.

A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay, USA)
Think its deficit is a little bit overblown but I’m not admiring of its ambition enough to pretend I like the movie.

You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK/France)
Ramsay’s most masculine and distressing movie to date, dedicating itself to sounds on the edges to disorient us from disturbing memories and images. Also uses framing and shot lengths to apply its title strictly on Joaquin Phoenix’s burly frame as it simply exits our view. All this power and yet it’s last on my Ramsay ranking, that’s how great she is.

Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Kafka-esque spiral around the title character’s imprisonment in the bureaucracy of European imperialism that never seems to bottom out on hilarious absurdity, especially in its uncentered third act that whips us around temporally before we can even realize what happened. A masterpiece of the year for certain.

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See y’all around.

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There Cannot Be Good Living Where There Is Not Good Drinking

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There is one problem with the animated comedy Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and it’s not a tiny one, but I wonder if it would be something I could easily have dismissed if I had seen the anime series, The Tatami Galaxy, of which it is a loose spin-off (though all indications point to this probably not happening). Both of these projects are Kyoto University-based stories of student lives adapted from novels by Morimi Tomihiko, brought to bold life by director Yuasa Masaaki, writer Ueda Makoto and Yuasa’s animation company Science Saru. And mind you, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is just another blip on a great year for Yuasa and Science Saru, having also produced and released Devilman Crybaby and Lu Over the Wall stateside earlier this year (The Tatami Galaxy, meanwhile, was produced back in 2010). It is a very big blip and possibly the greatest thing they’ve produced yet.

I’m not even sure that if my thing is a problem, it is a problem for me. Because Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a very wildly speedy film that doesn’t allow you to linger too long on the details of what’s going on. In fact, it’s very tempting to call the movie “manic”, but that’s an aggressive word to use. It’s more like a looney whirlwind (which eventually becomes quite literal by the third act) of colliding incidents and the people who get spun around by those incidents. And yet it is narratively coherent in that stream-of-consciousness manner – Ueda’s script tightly packs incident into 93 minutes, is episodic enough to chop it into three distinct acts based on its characters’ objectives (though spoiling the later objectives would be a total crime), nearly everything that comes up at the beginning of the movie (which acts as an expositional dump of four characters and their hilarious madcap lives) returns full circle, and every single character appears to generously have their own arc though there are varying levels of importance to their arc.

It is also aesthetically coherent, especially if you’ve encountered Yuasa’s rubbery flash animation style before where figures are flat but bold at the same time without losing a sense of depth (mostly Yuasa deliberately eschews shading for depth) and colors come in distinctive blocks that define the shape of a character or object more than any outline could. It makes for a great mirror to the narrative’s feverish absurdity, such as when characters take part in a wacky crouched ritual known as the sophist’s dance or a boat-train will peel out practically leaning in the direction of its voyage as though it were pulled. The only deviation from this style is moments of internalized fantasy or memory from characters, where the backgrounds become brightly monochromatic and defined by lines while characters are totally filled in by their primary colors with no features whatsoever. It’s a nice establishing of how unformed the thoughts of these characters rushing through an exciting night would be.

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There is a central driver of the breakneck momentum. She is a floral and bubbly presence, a girl identified solely by her Junior class and black hair color as “Kohai Kami no Otome” (Hanazawa Kana). And she burns with anticipation of feeling like an adult, which apparently means drinking a whole lot of brilliantly colorful and large drinks. I am myself a teetoler and yet Yuasa has  brought such spirited vibrance out of the colors of the alcohol and turning the different shapes of glass into feeling like characters that I feel pleasantly just watching Kohai take ‘em down with her new friends. But what she is truly driven by is a potent dose of id. She feels like drinking, so she gets a drink. She feels like dancing so she dances. She wants a book. She wants to challenge someone. She wants to act. A character acknowledges that she’s always in motion and it’s so fast to keep with her both physically and intellectually. One of the first things we see her do is tighten up her arms and chug her body like she’s being wound up as she decides what she’s going to do for the next while before marching forward, a gesture repeated. Even before Ueda reveals what this gesture means to her, it’s clear that Night Is Short, Walk On Girl will be following her.

In particular, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is the story of her extremely festive night on the town, as she runs into and makes friends with all colorful manner of folk like the bar-crawlers excitable Hanuki (Kaida Yūko) and crafty long-chinned yukata-donning Higuchi (Nakai Kazuya) or the pessimistic diminuitive gremlin-esque crimelord Rihaku (Mugihito), who shrinks further and further within the expansive space of his boat-train. Even when one of the first things happening to her is a creepy old Todo-san (Yamaji Kazuhiro)*, she takes care to give him a “friendly punch” (that still knocks him across the room) because she finds him harmless and doesn’t want to fight anybody. And meanwhile, it appears to be an eventful night: a wedding, a book fair, the school festival, a series of guerilla pop-up musical theater performances.

It’s arguably overcomplicated and definitely exhausting by the end of it all, but the peppy attitude of nearly every character is infectious and it’s always interesting to witness how the movie will twist itself into a new style. An early drinking battle involving Imitation Denki Bran alternating between a character collapsing in a growing nihilistic blackness as he espouses aged fatalism while another sips the same alcohol and has flowers apparate in her confident profile with yellow and pink surround her, parrying his statements with youthful cheer. This moment is the strongest of many battles made between the relentlessly joyful anticipation of entering adulthood and the resigned regretfulness of late age and the young always win out.

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There’s also the hilarious meta-textual element of the theatrical performances that keep occurring all around the festivals despite the best attempts of the Festival Leader (Kamiya Hiroshi) to shut it down and jail them all, commenting on events we just saw occur and eventually just taking the film over outright to turn it into a late musical. Or the existence of the weirdly steadfast (and appropriately square-headed) Don Underwear (Akiyama Ryuji) saying he will not change his underwear until he reunites with a girl he had a passing fancy with, showing another side of this film’s idea of determination, or the impish Spirit of the Book Fair (Yoshino Hiroyuki) trying to sabotage unfair prices for knowledge.

Anyway, I came here saying there was one problem and it’s that there is one character whose arc Night Is Short, Walk On Girl gives as much importance as Kohai and it’s the man who is romantically interested in her, likewise identified solely by being an upperclassman “Senior”** (Hoshino Gen) and who spends the night trying to catch up and follow her are attempting to arrange their paths enough to make their pairing seem like destiny. And the frank fact is that Senior’s side of the story is not AS interesting as Kohai. That may be the point and the movie does give him a lot of wacky shenanigans to go through (especially when they collide with Kohai’s story as expected), but the character isn’t as dynamic as his castmates. He’s a straight man in a movie I don’t think needs one (Kohai functions well enough as one).

But his story does have purpose and it feels like two separate paths – one based in resoluteness, the other based in spontaneity – reaching the same point in the end because that’s just fate. And while I don’t think Night Is Short, Walk On Girl wants us to overthink any deep commentary on destiny or chance, the observations are there. Mainly though, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl just wants to barrel through the most exciting boisterous explosive night one can put oneself through and if I may end anecdotally, watching it on a very tiring and uncertain night made me walk out of the theater with renewed vigor and energy for at least the rest of the night.

*And mind you, this character and his fetishism of Japanese erotic wood paintings along with some other developments makes Night Is Short, Walk On Girl feel like Yuasa’s most reflexive look on his own perversions.
**Or “senpai” as the movie calls him, but fuck you if you’ll catch me saying that.

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They’re Going to Destroy Our Casual Joys

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If I had seen Strange Days sometime in my teenage years, it would have been a part of my “25 for 25” project and had some deciding factor in how I put together my personal canon and identifying the aesthetics I am attracted to most. Instead, I saw it for the first time a few months shortly AFTER I had turned 25 and it never had the opportunity to turn me into the sort of cinephile it could have, although I find it fortunate that the sort of cinephile I am happens to be very compatible with it.

I’ll make one more declarative statement before getting into the thick of what makes me a fan: If I had seen it early in my high school life, it MIGHT — MIGHT – have become my favorite movie. Indeed, it is very easy to see what it shares with my main favorite movie champion holder* Blade Runner: they’re both the stories of disgraced ex-police dealing with a case over their head set in a future version of Los Angeles while grappling with the morality behind technological advances. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that co-writer Jay Cocks (with James Cameron, who conceived of the entire project) had previously attempted to option Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with Martin Scorsese well before it was adapted into Blade Runner.

Any sci-fi film set in the future with even the slightest hint of noir owes its existence to Blade Runner anyway. Beyond that, Strange Days is a different film in every line of its DNA. Most of its differences feel rooted in the fact that Strange Days is set in 1999, which is easy to laugh aside now as an apparent lack of foresight but such if you fail to recognize that this movie was released in 1995. Cameron wanted to set the movie so close in the future that it’s practically the present, just around the corner with urgency towards its decrepit view of the future. As a result of the proximity of the time period, director Kathryn Bigelow and production designer Lilly Kilvert don’t give us flying cars and neon baths. Instead, things look like they’ve poisoned the concrete jungle into corpse-blue under Matthew F. Leonetti’s lens. The militarized police force occupy every corner, with each cut by Cameron and Howard Smith on the streets practically darting desperately to seed them. There’s an unstable paranoia that comes with being set in the turn of millennium. Even if you’re too young to remember the fears of Y2K, a character constantly refers to the imminent new year as the end of the world and it’s hard to argue when the designs feel on edge. It’s more anarchic than refined and it’s easy to see why the inhabitants of this world are eager to escape to memories of a better age with the main technology at the center of Strange Days: the SQUID, a cerebral device that is able to record an experience on a disc giving you the same physical sensations and emotions.

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We’re introduced to this tech (and the movie itself) through a visceral and roughly textured single shot with the point of view of a robber before a disorienting death drop wakes up Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the aforementioned disgraced ex-cop who now makes his living selling discs on the black market as he lambasts his supplier for trying to sell him a snuff disc, because he’s got morals. As we spend more time with Lenny, we discover his pathetic and unhealthy inability to move on from his musician ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). Lenny uses every possible opportunity to rely on the kindness of his overworked best friend, bodyguard/chauffeur-for-hire Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), to find his way to clients through which to make his unsavory trade and to facilitate his stalking of Faith in whatever seedy foggy multi-colored industrial punk dives she’s performing at whenever he’s not replaying overly bright SQUID memories of her in his lonely apartment at night.

Despite the wounded sleaze (It’s very easy to see how Fiennes got this role after playing the sloppiest Nazi character ever in Schindler’s List), Fiennes communicates a sense of warmth particularly through his shocking but calming eyes seeping through his greasy long hair (something brought up by more than one character and it’s not for nothing that the movie’s first shot is a close-up of his eye**). Nero is clearly a heart-on-his-sleeve louse that is pushed around rather than pushing others around and he’s constantly able to rollback up with a salesman smile. Lenny and Mace’s dynamic, thanks to being the best performances and the center of the movie, appear to be the most honest in the film: In Lenny’s aimless appellations and intentions and Mace’s frustrated objections and straight talk out of the heart. Bassett isn’t the protagonist Strange Days eventually turns her into from the start, but she walks in already with the exhausted attitude that she’s the only one getting her shit straight and Mace as a character benefits from that attitude as she enters with one of her many moments getting Lenny out of trouble.

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In any case, somebody trusts Lenny enough to arrive to him in a frazzled and anxious state asking for help: Iris (Brigitte Bako), an old friend from Lenny’s time with Faith, who drops a jack into Lenny’s car just before it’s repo’d and then disappears entirely. And whatever the reason she’s scared, Lenny is certain it has something to do with Faith’s manager/new boyfriend Philo Gant (resident 90s bad guy Michael Wincott) and a conflict of interest should be expected when you think the man your ex left you for is involved in some heinous stuff, particularly when it all circles around the impromptu murder of conscious and outspoken hip hop figure Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), another client of Gant’s.

This is a lot of stuff, but Strange Days gets to clean it up nice because it seems like Bigelow and Cameron were intent on making two different yet harmonious movies. Cameron’s basis has always been on the emotional matrix between Mace’s feelings for Lenny while trying to protect Faith, it’s the very first element he ever conceived of the film before even the futurism (it’s for this reason that I find it very curious he gave this concept to Bigelow, who was already his ex-wife of 2 years by the start of production in 1993). And it’s a line carried through by the lead actors certainly, but Bigelow as a filmmaker appears to have little use for it. She’s making a conscious and angry film – galvanized to finally start this movie after the 1992 proved to be one of the most heated eras in American race relations – utilizing the arrangements of the characters to unlock different observations on brutality as a result of a police state, voyeurism on the sufferings of others, the self-deprecating and regressive effects of nostalgia, the ease of white men to avoid trouble that black people (and especially black women would find themselves in), the objectification of women in the media, black women being put in second rung or expected to lay down for white women, conspiracy theories, hip hop and music’s place in observing these issues and having an affect in communities, all mirroring the 1990s in which this film was released and the anxiety in the air. Surrounding these characters’ romantic complications is a whole society developing and decaying in ways that were apparent in the real world. The resultant world-building feels like an extension of the heightened emotions of their romantic complication and lack of awareness.

I’ve already gone through the production design insisting that police are ever-present, down to helicopter lights constantly flashing through the windows. But it’s also in the manner that, for a 2 1/2 hour movie, Bigelow’s direction is violently fast and may as well prove to be coming off her growth as a notoriously “masculine” director with Near Dark and Point Break. There are few action setpieces in Strange Days and they are dangerous and fantastic (while also being the areas where Mace takes charge), but even the majority dialogue sequences have Leonetti’s camera movements whipping around like a paranoid eye and Smith and Cameron’s cutting turning the atmosphere frazzled, denying any sense of calm. And Bigelow is unafraid to go to harrowing places: halfway through the film comes a controversial rape/murder sequence involving cross-cutting with a character witnessing it via the SQUID, first with gleeful interest as he misreads the scene and then with horror as he recognizes the victim, her emotions, and the actions. The end result indicts an audience’s interest in the exploitation of individuals for profit and entertainment.

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I am making this movie sound a lot more unpleasant than I feel it is: it is paranoid, it is violent, it is charged, but it has two lead performances able to guide us and make us feel safe even when they don’t and it has moments of relief from the tension that appears throughout the movie [particularly scenes involving Mace’s family and particularly her son Zander (Brandon Hammond) who has a small but comforting slow-motion shot involving fireworks to assuage Mace’s fears]. I also feel like I am making this movie sound perfect, which is not even close to. For one thing, while Strange Days is ahead of its time in many ways, it’s not altogether prophetic. Being a 1995 film about the future that doesn’t invoke the internet at all makes it an outlier and not in a good way. It also has a mostly unimpressive supporting cast beyond Fiennes and Bassett: Lewis feels like the weak link in the movie’s core conflict, feeling way too young for the jaded rock star part she’s trying to play and treating her character’s contempt for Nero less as genuine frustration of a man who is essentially stalking her and more like a teenager lying because she feels like it. Even if that’s how the character is meant to be (which I don’t think so – I like to think Faith does not want Nero to get hurt but she genuinely does not have any remaining romantic feelings for him), it feels like it makes the emotions so much flatter. Meanwhile, the best the supporting cast can do is play unidimensional archetypes of roles they seemed to be typed as in the 1990s like Vincent D’Onofrio being one note of angry or Tom Sizemore being one tone of grimy.

And yet still, I love Strange Days with all its future warts and if there’s something I think signifies how easily I am able to forgive its sleights, it is its climactic finale during a boisterous New Millennium party in the streets. At one point, it is the most harrowing sequence in the film as someone is beaten to the ground in closeness, the next the crowd has jumped in to save a life and it’s a release of all the pent-up anger the film has built under itself, and finally Bigelow inconsistently decides that all is right: justice is served by a confused system that nearly killed an innocent minutes ago and the world does not end at midnight like we feared. And while this is an ending I fundamentally disagree with, the final grace note of where our characters end feels so emotionally right and reassuring as the streets celebrate all around them and we look up to a new night sky while Lori Carson & composer Graeme Revell fades into Deep Forest in a peaceful compulsively delightful ending.

And then the disc ends and I open my eyes.

*give or take a Casablanca.
**In fact, that’s another thing Strange Days and Blade Runner have in common: a close-up of a character’s eye appears within the opening cuts of each film.

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