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24 FPS

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Until the last breath, it appears that the great Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami kept trying to break down the concept of cinema to its very bones. By the time he left us early in July 2016, gone appeared any indication that he was interested in telling a straightforward story (if still constructed in a slightly conventional manner, such as Taste of Cherry or Certified Copy. I have not yet seen Like Someone in Love, but I understand it was the case in this film too). Kiarostami’s reward as a storyteller was to demand the audience’s involvement in creating and piecing together the incident from fragments in no uncertain way from him.

His final feature film 24 Frames premiered almost a year after his death at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is potentially his most extreme dive into his modus operandi as its premise is simple yet challenging: one by one, 24 static images each held for 4 to 6 minutes. They’re not frozen images, in fact they all mostly involve some impressively complex amount of digital work to give them… well, I don’t want to say life because their actions are consciously robotic especially against a still backdrop, but motion that obviously represents life. And it can’t be ignored that the motion is provided in “natural” forms such of winds and animals inhabiting the environments we spend those small amounts of time in. David Bordwell himself put it beautifully referring to the images as “nature morte” and I can’t think of a succinct way of establishing what we witness in 24 Frames.

Kiarostami doesn’t send us into this experience without warning, as he opens it up with an explanation that 23 of the images we will be sitting in on are based on landscape photographs he himself took and 1 in particular is based on the famous Pieter Brugel’s painting Hunters in the Snow (which also ends up being the frame most augmented by modern filmmaking techniques). And he doesn’t send us into this experiment with intent on making it uncomfortable or alienating: at the very least, the imagery is aesthetically in every possible way as they’re all centered with a sharp sense of lines that is frequently called attention to with a horizon established in some fashion (whether the line in which trees emerge from snow or a stone rail against a beach shore) and depth called attention to with Kiarostami’s powerful use of shadows, like practically hard-drawn artistry. And it’s quite a soothing lulling thing to listen to, composing a rhythm out of the sounds of whatever environments we’re dropped into so that we’re hypnotized into sinking into a frame rather than simply observing it, mostly pleasant with one exception – a frame where we are listening to a sinister droning relentlessly scoring a deer’s uncertainty before it’s punctuated by a violent crack.

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Which leads to the other thing that makes 24 Frames a much easier watch than I’d suppose it could have been: the digital reconstruction of the images Kiarostami wanted to bring to life also lead him to construct a story within each frame so that we’re not just sitting waiting for the next image but instead have a sense of direction. Not every one of the frames necessarily has a “beginning”, but they all have some punchline in which the cut to the next frame is not far behind like the orgasm of a lion or the flight of birds into the air (and at the very least, there are occasional interior shots specifically scored by a opera or orchestral song from a radio or record that furthers the concept of domestic respite after exploring images of the wild, so one can expect the end of the song to end the frame).

I feel there is an angle on which this could be seen as “cheating the experiment”, an attitude I’m not quite sure whether I adopt or not (though I sure it’s not as bad as I make it sound), but that begs me to recognize what the experiment is: Kiarostami is not only expecting us to determine what is the narrative in between the images, but also examine our personal ways of processing a series of images without any established guide to connect them in our minds. 24 Frames‘s ordering of each section isn’t random by any means – beginning with the Hunters segment to indicate towards us what to expect while making us be aware of the artificiality of the movements utilizing one of the most famous works in all of fine art, then establishing a pattern of sorts that uses images that favor windowed perspectives as checkpoints between alternating between the beach, the rain, the snow, the birds, and the quadrupeds, sometimes in combinations of each other. I can’t help imagining while every decision Kiarostami makes on which frame goes after which and what goes on in each on is deliberate, 24 Frames is meant to be an entirely subjective experience for the viewer to read the fragments of a story and input their own in between the shots.

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Obviously because it’s so well made, 24 Frames also could abide by us deciding not to create a narrative for the film and just relaxing within the landscapes Kiarostami captured for one last document. Nothing particularly about the film punishes us for not wanting to play along except perhaps the totally unconvincing manner in which the animals and weather conditions populate the images so that Kiarostami can make sure we’re aware that the cinema’s artifice is just as false as its narrative. But it’s of such a playful good faith sort of giveaway – the way you can tell a Harryhausen creation is obviously an effect but still will play along – that I can’t imagine the sort of viewer who could take umbrage at it, not when the result is still so dazzling. I mean, a movie about images that specifically takes time to return to looking out of windows has to already make you aware that you’re watching a frame within a frame literally.

Besides which 24 Frames as a final collection of all the things Kiarostami loved to do with movies – break narrative, break images, inject poetry, collaborate with the audience – is also a final document of Kiarostami’s pleasant sense of humor, particularly with its final frame, obnoxiously slowing down a television monitor while the rest of the image moves at normal speed until we can get one last gag that seems like a very sweet farewell, whether or not Kiarostami knew he was going to die or intended to continue after this film. The very last moment of 24 Frames is a winking knowing gesture that an artist could only accomplish by sharing it with a willing viewer.

P.S. Tim Brayton has suggested that Kiarostami’s preceding short film Take Me Home makes for an effective companion piece to 24 Frames and argued for it in his review of this film. I have not had the privilege but I hope above hopes that the short ends up on the feature’s inevitable Criterion collection release so I can see the pairing in action.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave

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Hotel Artemis is not the sort of movie I’d like it to be and it becomes a lot less of that sort of movie the more it progresses on. And yet, there’s nothing about Hotel Artemis I can call outright bad. On the contrary, it is one of the earliest joys I’ve had of what is turning out to be a surprisingly great summer. It’s just very clear that writer-director Drew Pearce – making his feature directorial debut after writing credits for Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – had a different idea of the potentials of the plot hook than I did and I don’t think what he does is much more interesting. No matter, he does what he wants to very well.

What that plot hook is: Based deep in 2028 Los Angeles with legendary secrecy (despite a hilariously eye-catching neon sign on the roof of its building), the Hotel Artemis is run by a very frazzled and agoraphobic nurse (Jodie Foster) as a penthouse medical refuge for criminals of several varieties, with the only other major staff member being her burly bruiser of an assistant, Everest (Dave Bautista). And from here, the concept could easily lend itself to a shaggy treatment at mundanity to the extraordinary premise – certainly one I would think in high demand from the popularity of the John Wick franchises’ Continental line – with a revolving door of in-patients bringing their own troubled stories without much interaction between them, but Drew Pearce has decided to things in a much more straightforward narrative line where the pieces are specifically arranged to have a large consequence by the end of the movie.

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Indeed, we end up visiting the Artemis during one of the most volatile times in recent L.A. history as a riot rages on its streets and that violence threatens to break into the walls of the Artemis itself. Indeed, it’s already inhabited by a French assassin and a weary bank robber who have a tense romantic history, going by the codenames of their rooms: Nice (Sofia Boutella) and Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), respectively. Nice is in the Artemis for a purpose she’s keeping close to the chest while Waikiki’s wounded cohort brother Honolulu (Bryan Tyree Henry) has inadvertently threatened their lives by robbing a courier’s pen holding treasures that belong to the powerful and dangerous Wolf King of Los Angeles (Jeff Goldblum in a reveal that would have packed much more punch if the trailer and poster had not already spoiled it), who we learn has a more petulantly aggressive son named Crosby (Zachary Quinto). And just in general, spoiling all the fun is an obnoxious misogynistic arms dealer codenamed Acapulco (Charlie Day), not really having much stake in what occurs but derailing things just by sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong and spitting harsh words towards anybody who enters the same room as him.

Early on, we see how easily the Nurse keeps herself from being rattled from these sort of complications she considers routine to the 22 years she’s spent there – a personal soundtrack (“California Dreamin'” makes an early appearance and if there is a third element to make The Mamas and the Papas references hat trick, I missed it) as she preps areas and a confident reliance on strict rules, like no guns, no non-members, no insulting the staff, no killing the other patients and some others, all enforced sternly by Everest. But as we can quickly discern, Hotel Artemis is set on a day when all the rules are about to be broken, some of them in ways the Nurse was not expecting. Drew Pearce does a very solid job keeping all the pieces moving towards the climax he was aiming for with the help of Paul Zucker and Gardner Gould’s snappy cutting bouncing in between rooms treating each one as its own narrative, resulting in a well-constructed boil where these characters each with their own pressures end up responding to those pressures in turbulent fashion. There are certain plot threads that come back full circle and some that don’t, but it’s a tight enough script that every development feels like a threat and those that don’t blow up in the characters’ face feel like a result of their smart decisions or a manner of coincidence that Pearce sells.

And what makes it work just as well as Pearce would like it to is a cast that doesn’t seem to have a single false note within them. Certainly, the grand majority of them are simplistic archetypes like Boutella’s femme fatale, Bautista’s cynical tough guy with a heart of gold and three different flavors of hot-headed wreck between Henry, Day, and Quinto (five if you include early cameos by Kenneth Choi and Father John Misty), but they all play those archetypes like a fiddle and everybody has tremendous timing with each other. I’m pretty sure there’s only a single scene shared between Bautista and Day where they share one line each and it’s effortless how perfectly the characters get on each other’s bad side. In any case, it does feel like the film is aware the only characters that actually have dynamic to them are Waikiki and The Nurse and the decisions Pearce makes for the third act are very aware of this, so it’s not a surprise that Foster gives the best performance in the movie (Brown and Goldblum battle for second place for me), playing the Nurse as a bundle of nerves who attempts at professionalism are the only think keeping her from breaking down. It’s clear early on all suppressed emotions that take beat by beat to let her guard wear itself out – once again Zucker and Gould do marvels of blunting this by cutting in blown-up memories of a beach – and it’s no surprise that we’ll learn all about what pains The Nurse by the end of the film.

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And yet all of this waxing about how well put-together Hotel Artemis is as a shallow but fun diversion narratively without acknowledging the most important character, the Artemis itself. Production Designer Ramsey Avery crafts two entirely different worlds where the outside of the building is graffiti’d rubble on flaming streets signaling the world’s collapsed while on the inside, the Artemis’ carpeted walls and aged bronze suggesting it’s merely on the way out with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon lighting and coloring the screen with a melancholy whiskey brown darkness to both suggest Everest should probably change the light bulbs soon and that the Artemis belongs to a time long gone. Chung’s framing also favors the remnants of class respite that doesn’t seem to exist anymore except in nostalgic memories, like the mirrored bar taking up the majority of space for Waikiki and Nice’s discussion in it or Waikiki brandishing a gun in the smallest corner of a shot that is mostly a Hawaiian greeting card. Despite being inhabited by smooth plastic white screens and machines reminding us that the future’s already invaded, the characters of Hotel Artemis mostly yearn stylistically for an age long before any of them were ideally born (I can’t imagine these characters being older than a single digit age during the 1960s and 70s that the film tries to emulate), perhaps best embodied in Lisa Lovaas’ costume design for the Wolf King like some affluent Long Island vacationer, complete with leather sandals.

So, it’s a good time that wraps itself up a bit too neatly for my tastes (I would love to see a further series on how the Artemis continues on, but the box office take doesn’t seem to promise a franchise) and is a bit too dedicated to providing a full-on narrative than to live in the world Pearce and his crew have invented. That’s fine. I still don’t have any trouble recognizing that my disappointment at its approach is outmatched by the thrill I had with its trashy thriller sensibilities. Hotel Artemis is not devoid of issues but it seems to survive them just as easily as its namesake survives a night of in-patients and out-patients.

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Raccoon City

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Out of probably any other movie in all of Studio Ghibli’s canon, Pom Poko is probably the one most likely to be lost in translation between its Japanese audience and its international audiences. It all starts from the very U.S. title, which one would assume is supposed to the translation to something but is quite frankly just an onomatopoeia representing the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when it is beat. And when we reel back to the superior Japanese title 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ and give it a literal translation, it goes Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko, a great epic mouthful helps settle the concept of this decade-spanning story being an ancient historical record for an intense period of time, treated the same manner as those feudal eras in Japanese history and narrated with period-based verve by Shinchou Kokontei.

Which is a charming joke because Heisei-Era is what Takahata Isao was living in when he was writing and directing Pom Poko and it’s an era we’re still living in today based on which Emperor is currently in the Chrysanthemum Throne, currently Akihito*. And it would be easy to tell even without that title, from all the modernized elements of Pom Poko‘s cities that make for one side of its conflict, that it’s taking place in a time of aggressive industrial growth… one that intrudes and interrupts on the lives of our tanuki protagonists.

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And in the tanuki is another thing that’s been lost in translation regarding Pom Poko‘s release on the other side of the Pacific, as they are a species indigenous specifically to East Asia and most especially prevalent in Japanese folklore. And because of their lack of presence in the west, Disney saw fit to decide to simply identify them as “raccoons” for the U.S. release, either because “raccoon dogs” (a closer approximation) is too much or they don’t realize that some kids will easily call those creatures tanuki without skipping a beat**. That Japanese folklore is the basis of their characterization in Takahata’s script where they are magical and agreeably mischievous, capable of shape-shifting and utilizing their expandable testicles as tools. I’m not sure if their tribalism early in the film or their traditionalist practices throughout are also rooted in folklore, but it nevertheless ends up becoming the very crux of the tanuki’s struggles from the moment where stern matriarchal Oroku (Kiyokawa Nijiko) interrupts the opening battle between two tribes over an already shrinking piece of land within the Tama Hills of Tokyo and insists that the tanuki unite and battle the humans.

In a world that is progressing beyond old means and attempting to optimize every square inch of itself, reverence towards culture is being muted. At least, that’s in the abstract sense. In a literal sense, the forests and nature in which the tanuki have thrived and made their home is being imposed upon by construction expanding the nearby cities. And so the tanuki spend the entirety of the film utilizing every possible trick in their arsenal to try to save their livelihood and resources. It’s pretty easy to assume that the ideal viewer will take this conflict seriously, but Pom Poko especially wants it to be understood how epic and desperate the stakes are for the tanuki so as to recognize the gravity of moments such as when tanuki use their testicles to cause apparently fatal car crashes or the wise elders of the resistance end up putting their future generations through grueling practices to continue the year-spanning fight.

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And Takahata certainly does well enough to establish that the Hills are worth the battle, how sacred they are to the tanuki, the casual flippancy with which the humans are attempting to occupy it in a dismissively utilitarian way. The Hills, when portrayed in robust abundant greens, are serene and tranquil before the imminent intrusion of noisy construction vehicles smashing through. The scale of certain scenes marry themselves to the tanuki’s perspective but the narrative is fluid enough for us to join the humans’ wonder at moments where the tanukis go all in on their powers of illusion. Like a parade of ghosts, demons, and spooks that’s the most eye-catching part of the entire movie. Or the grand finale of the film, responding to the melancholic and inevitable result of this fight with a warm look at the land the tanuki fight to preserve with enough persuasive power behind rich arbor to shift the ending note to an unexpected bittersweet place.

Anyway, this is not by any means a joyless film despite that intensity and lack of subtlety in its environmentalism. The music by Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon is a bouncy flutey source of fun, giving the conflict a wild lack of edge without deflating the seriousness and updating on traditional-sounding motifs. And, like Takahata would as an animation director, he’s playing with a function of the medium and this time around focusing particularly on shifting the designs of the tanuki themselves (being creatures that lend themselves such a dynamic through their shape-shifting ability even when they don’t disguise themselves as humans) in three separate styles, depending on the tone or point of view of a moment.

The most amicable of these designs is a round cartoonish bipedal look of them when happiest or laziest or just plain knocked out, used for comedic punctuation and inspired by the work of Sugiura Shigeru.

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The most common-form was more detailed anthropomorphic forms with tufts of fur resembling hair and a more grizzled rough and patchy edge to imply wear to their bodily coats. Just enough information to feel complete and whole, but also broad enough to not lose a sense of humor.

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And then, there’s the most aggressive and realistic manner – usually used in direct contact with the humans – where they are reverted to much more detailed quadruped animals, inarticulately growling or standing in headlights.

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Takahata’s deft control between the demands of each scene are probably what sells the nuance behind this bleeding-hearted appeal for humanity to preserve the generosity of nature while recognizing the inevitability of change and the necessity for mankind to grow. It’s essentially a lot better at selling the complexity of the situation than Miyazaki Hayao’s much admired conservationist more straightlaced jidaigeki Princess Mononoke, which leads to an enlightened desire to sell progress and reverence in the same breath. And in that approach towards Pom Poko, it’s clear that Takahata was easy to admire alongside his long-time friend not only on account of his fluid aesthetic decisions but also on account of honest humanity towards all areas of life.

*Akihito has expressed an interest in abdicating next year thus ending Heisei jidai.
**I am certainly not helping with that review title but you have no idea how long I tried to figure out a pun to “tanuki” before giving up.

And because I am me, I could hardly live with myself if I didn’t drop a DEEZ NUTZ!

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Girlhood

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If you’re ever dealing with somebody pretends misogyny doesn’t exist in the film industry and somehow reminding them that Blue Valentine got an NC-17 rating over the fact that women can get orally pleasured doesn’t convince, consider explaining this to them: Takahata Isao’s second directorial film for the now-in-full-force Studio Ghibli (and 7th film overall, roughly if you consider the Panda Go Panda shorts one whole feature), Only Yesterday, took almost 15 fucking years to get a U.S. theatrical release despite being among the many films purchased by Disney in their landmark 1996 deal with the animation studio. It received only one quick television broadcast in 2006.

The reason being that apparently Disney was unwilling to release a film that featured scenes where girls learn about and deal with menstruation, while they were legally contracted not to edit any of the Ghibli films they purchase*. Meanwhile, Takahata’s next film Pom Poko got released in the US with scenes revolving around big-balled raccoons.

Oh well. Their loss because Only Yesterday stands tall as a masterpiece in Studio Ghibli’s history. Although without the benefit of hindsight, it might have looked as though Takahata Isao was not taking as many risks as one would associate him with.

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For like Grave of the FirefliesOnly Yesterday is based on autobiographical material on the part of Okamoto Hotaru, who co-wrote with Tone Yuko the manga source おもひでぽろぽろ (Memories Come Tumbling Down, the title which this film released under in Japan). And again like Grave of the Fireflies, the main focus of the story happens to be the childhood memories of human characters. Not entirely however, as Okamoto and Tone’s series was strictly focused on a year in the life of ten-year-old Taeko (Honna Youko) while Takahata’s screenplay takes the liberty of framing it from the perspective of a now-27-year-old Taeko (Imai Miki) as she takes a break from her office job in Tokyo to head down to the countryside of Yamagata to help her sisters’ in-laws harvest safflower. And it feels like the flashbacks embedded the adult storyline take Taeko aback just as much as they had to have taken the authors of this film aback, but there’s a connective tapestry between the two stories that re-frames everything as look on how our younger origins and yearnings inform the personality and decisions we might make in our later lives even if we don’t realize it until after the fact.

We learn almost immediately that Taeko’s desire to visit and be part of the country life came from an early life where her family was unable to acquiesce to her desire to take a school vacation out of the city, ostensibly because they had nobody they knew in the area. And I would say “that’s it” as far as how those memories tumbling down end up connecting to WHY Taeko is going to Yamagata and yet they do so much more to shape her personality in a manner that never fails to progress the story in some way: it’s almost Tarantino-esque how a scenario or tale adult Taeko is going through or talking about during her stay opens up to an episode of kid Taeko’s time, except it calls the least amount of attention to itself that a movie can while including the line “I didn’t intend for the ten-year-old me to come along on this trip”. It’s essentially the brain’s free association as a narrative structure. It’s smooth and organic and the lack of escalating incident for the movie beyond a late romantic development doesn’t make Only Yesterday feel the strained in the slightest.

There’s also how exciting the film is visually, like all of Takahata’s other films, without flaunting it the same way that his later films would turn out to be. In fact, the development of Takahata’s style between Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday is incredibly subtle, but I’d argue nested in the lines and colors of Only Yesterday is the genesis of all the habits stylistic that Takahata would spend the rest of his life exploring. And those habits are embedded in the distinct designs of each timeline.

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The one that would probably catch a viewer’s eye at first glance is the faces: the faces of adult Taeko’s storyline have more defined cheeks while childhood Taeko’s storyline has a flatter cartoon shape. Not too flat, mind you, just enough to really call attention to the dimension in the adult storyline (established to be the present as far narrative perspective is concerned). And Only Yesterday is very proud of those muscles: the first shot that introduces us to Taeko is her smiling loud enough for dimples and the film is more than happy to give her or one of her farming guides Toshio (Yanagiba Toshiro) scenarios where they smile and flex those faces.

Not that young Taeko doesn’t also have scenes to show off character designs, namely in moments of bliss were her eyes expand into starry happiness like talking to a crush or entertaining a future as an actress. And her reactions to her situations are more cartoon exaggerations, including a moment of her face constantly morphing to appalled looks when teased during the infamous period storyline. In general, the whole aesthetic of the storyline allow for more fantastical freedom – both of those blissful moments are given moments of big rainbows and literal flights of fancy – and while I’m not sure how close that is to the aesthetic of the mange itself, I’m glad Takahata and his crew found a space to use as a playground. It’s interesting to see how these fantasies play in the mind of adult Taeko, as we witness her quote her meeting with childhood crush Hirota (Masuda Yuki) and roll around in bed in happiness.

The other big trademark of Takahata is his exploration of using the blank white empty areas of the canvas to translate a narrative mood. Out of the three movies where he exercises this, he never uses them for the same purpose. In Only Yesterday‘s case, it’s solely applied to the 5th grade timeline where the backdrops are constantly fading at the edges, as though the memory is only barely grasped to and the locations (constantly in the most transparent watercolors) aren’t really being regarded by Taeko, only the event in question. It’s a distant look into the past that the film constantly calls attention to, including a shot where the image pulls away from us to fill the frame with more and more white until I leave the shot altogether and return the present, like an awakening. And yet that distance doesn’t prevent the flashbacks from having a pleasant nostalgia to them in the way of their soft colors and designs, much more pleasant and relaxed to look at than the full information of the adult timeline.

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And the adult timeline nevertheless keeps itself busy with landscapes of rural life: farms and fields and rivers abound in lush, full tones. It is clear that while Miyazaki Hayao was probably the most famously environmentalist of the two within Studio Ghibli, that attitude rubbed off very much on his friend Takahata with all the bright colors of the safflowers being picked (remarked by the narration consciously) and one majestic shot where we slowly witness morning sunlight landing on the workers of the safflower field (this is a very patient film despite never feeling slow, using spans of silence for atmosphere). Toshio mentions it’s important to be ecstatic about your work as his motivation for becoming a farmer and it shows that Takahata believed in that philosophy and wanted it to be prevalent throughout Only Yesterday: the harvest and the green and the dye and the lands are wonderful to be around and we get Taeko’s ecstasy at being able to accomplish her childhood dreams and her fascination with this world.

Which is a pleasant attitude that fuels all of Only Yesterday‘s breeziness, aided wonderfully by Hoshi Katsu’s graceful musical score and adult performances that sound like they’re emerging out of smiles. Obviously, Only Yesterday isn’t all pleasantries when it’s rooted in the turbulence of growing up, but the confusion from those memories simply prove to strengthen Taeko’s feeling of agency in the present and her wisdom, feelings that Takahata translates to us efficiently. Sure, Only Yesterday is probably the least radical film in his arsenal, but it’s also his most unassuming and confident about its own perfection.

*There is a famous legend regarding this clause where Suzuki Toshio or Miyazaki Hayao – depending on who’s telling the story – mailed Harvey Weinstein a katana with a note reading “no cuts” in response to Weinstein’s desire to re-edit Princess Mononoke for U.S. release.

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Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons Are No Match for a Good Blaster at Your Side, Kid.

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I don’t think I would be wrong in identifying Solo: A Star Wars Story as the safest picture the franchise has ever seen, but it’s still a bizarre statement to make in the face of its remarkably disappointing financial run on top of other matters. Namely, it is very easy for one to ask the question “who is this for?” regarding Solo, not necessarily because we don’t know who the target audience for this four-quadrant blockbuster is. It’s because frankly nobody asked for it and the response to its announcement has always been very muted reluctance at most. That it’s doing dire work at the box office is more a shock simply because you don’t normally expect “bomb” to appear in the same sentence as “Star Wars” rather than because excitement was in the air.

Anyway, I called Solo safe and I’m sticking by it. After all, it is directed – after much internal strife – by Ron Howard, a director especially known for his lack of a characteristic style unless you call being unable to smooth out an episodic narrative structure a style. And Howard reliably performs that dysfunction here, though he’s not helped by any means with father-and-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay. It’s a script that was clearly built off of “well, we have several checkpoints we will have to arbitrarily connect the dots to” in regards to the early life of breakout Star Wars character, the cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich): his meeting of hairy Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and slick gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the famous Kessel Run performed in 12 parsecs, the acquisition of his famous ship Millennium Falcon, and a hell of a lot of time devoted to the shiny die that you may or may not have noticed the hanging on the Falcon’s dashboard in the original trilogy.

None of these were particularly things we needed to see and yet they’re spread out in the screenplay over the length of three years in the young man’s life. By which I mean that the first quarter happens where we see Han and his thief partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape the grasp of their shrimp gangster overseer Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) but Qi’ra’s quick re-capture leads Han to try to join the Imperial armed forces in the hopes of earning enough to return to the industrial planet of Corellia and break Qi’ra away from its clutches followed by a big leap in with the title card “THREE YEARS LATER” and the rest of the movie just continues on from there in the form of clunky chapters – a train heist, a mine heist/droid revolt, and a good ol’ bunch of fourth act showdowns – sifted through without anything resembling structural elegance.

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But already Star Wars fans come to a brief roadblock on how to take Solo: A Star Wars Story – they’ve turned Han, previously an ambiguous mercenary archetype with little more to him than that, into a young romantic driven by lost love. For indeed, his desire to reunite with Qi’ra is the driving motivation behind every decision he makes for the rest of the film as he and Chewie tag along with a motley crew of thieves made up of wise quickshooter Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his lover Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau). And that romanticism is a pretty bold shift in characterization to make for one of the most beloved characters in one of the most popular franchises, especially coming from Lawrence Kasdan who is a long-time resident of the Star Wars creative force since 1980. And I have to admit the likeliness that original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were intending to take this sincere earnestness a little more tongue-in-cheek than intended interests me much more than the predictable emotional beats Howard hops into with straight-faced director after Lord and Miller were unceremoniously fired*. But there is a bright side to this: for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to shed any previous associations with the icon and approach the story as its own thing which I’d assume is the best line of inquiry for any Star Wars fan that doesn’t just go to these movies for the unbearably winking fan service (which is present in Solo, including an overabundance of sequel hooks littered all throughout the final minutes. One surprise character cameo only pushes the Disney Star Wars productions into becoming a new Marvel Cinematic Universe).

It also relieves Alden Ehrenreich of any need to attempt mimicry of his famed predecessor Harrison Ford, instead of inputting his personal charm and effortless boyishness as he leads a pretty bubbly ensemble. Glover himself is attempting mimicry of Billy Dee Williams and is getting it right on target. Suotamo, in his second go-round in that fur suit, has already gotten a good hand at the body language Chewie demands while Harrelson is another stand-out in a nitty gritty reluctant mentor, Newton gives tension as an aggressive moll, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings excitement as a very vocally conscious droid. Honestly, the only weak links are the inert Clarke and the unbearable Favreau (who is saddled with the most unspeakable word sandwiches sold as “jokes”) and otherwise the cast is the biggest reason to bother with Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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I would say it is the world-building as well. For sure, there is a pretty wonderful amount of production design going about, like a giant luxury spaceship doubling as the den of bloodthirsty gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams sadly) or the implication of Corellia’s involvement in the creation of the galaxy’s fleet of spaceships. And in some cases, that world-building has a full-on involvement in the spectacle: that train heist is easily the best moment in the whole film, where the bandits are on a mini-Snowpiercer unstoppable snow locomotive and stepping into it from different angles dealing with different obstacles, cut with utter frenzy by Pietro Scalia. And the Kessel Run sequence is no slouch either, utilizing the looming entity of the Empire as a fire under the ass of a chase sequence trying to use the freewheeling physicality of space for comic book pulp.

Again, I WOULD say it’s the world-building, except that Solo: A Star Wars Story heartbreakingly looks like hell as some idiot shot the film’s interiors with a murky lack of lighting obscuring characters and a sense of blocking that doesn’t seem aware of the objects in the frame and dared to slap Bradford Young’s name to this. Chewbacca’s entrance is the worst of these things, where the very “Hey it’s Chewie!” close-up where he roars into the camera and is “recognized” is botched by having not lighting on his face at all. It’s just watching undefined shadows and blotches on the screen occasionally*.

The concept of a space opera that just can’t bother looking good, especially with one of the best cinematographers working today in its arsenal, just feels offensive. It is the least a movie as forgettable as Solo could do and it nearly gets so well done with imaginative set, costume, creature, and CGI designs all around but none of that means much if you can barely see it. It doesn’t register a lot of confidence on its makers’ part. Somebody must have told them the odds.

*Between Lord/Miller getting booted for making a comedy and the burial of Star Wars: Detours, Lucasfilm is starting to feel like fan service gatekeepers.
*No less a reliable name than Bilge Ebiri swears it looked better in its Cannes premiere and it’s the theater projections that are messing up and I sincerely believe his experience except… y’know projectors don’t suddenly retroactively light sets and actors.

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Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

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Discussing the highest-grossing film of 2017 six months after its release hits that sweet spot where I can just about open up with a SPOILER WARNING without worrying much about that turning away readers that weren’t already going to be turned away, yet on the other hand… I also have to reckon that almost anything I have to say about Star Wars: The Last Jedi has already been addressed, usually by better writers than I (for that is a long list). And yet the extreme responses on both sides to the film make one feel like a man without a country.

I mean, I am not neutral on the film: after watching it twice, I’ve settled on “I didn’t like it”. So I’m not onboard with the critical adoration stating it’s the best Star Wars movie of all time or since The Empire Strikes Back. And yet there’s a significant amount of criticisms towards The Last Jedi that I frankly don’t align with, even ignoring the ones I refuse to dignify involving the term “Social Justice Warrior” or complaining about the inclusion of anti-war politics, people of color, and women in significant roles. At worst, I think it’s on the same middling-to-mediocre level that every Star Wars release since 1999’s The Phantom Menace, so it’s not like I find “worst Star Wars movie” to apply to it either.

But The Last Jedi does land a lot of superlatives in my book, with the most gnawing one being the clunkiest narrative of a franchise that’s never been an exemplar of thematic depth and structural competence. Honestly, many of the criticisms regarding director/writer Rian Johnson’s screenplay are not really unique to The Last Jedi. Its unwieldy lack of balance with plotlines (essentially three but they mesh throughout) is definitely something already messed up by 2002’s much worse Attack of the Clones and its snail-in-a-black-hole pacing that leads to nowhere for an entire hour is something shared by the first two entries of the prequel trilogy. And yet, here I am finding it a lot more bothersome on three factors: Johnson’s normally a phenomenal writer and this is uncharacteristically clumsy of him, the movie is the longest in the franchise at a whopping 152 minutes, and it stresses that length by having its best elements bookended and the fairly good moments in the middle interrupted by a large chunks of bad.

The film starts on a great note with an incredible war thriller mini-movie starring Veronica Ngo about her duties as a Resistance gunner while her allies escape a First Order ambush, led by the plucky fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It’s cut right with outright urgency by Bob Ducsay as we witness slow bomber after slow bomber destroyed in the desperate hope of taking down a Dreadnought from the point of view of Ngo’s Paige, cramped and determined in an explosive setpiece. It’s a bit overreliant on turning Star Wars battles into World War II battles with complete disregard to space physics (I mean, these bombs are DROPPED into the vaccuum of space and Ngo stands next to the open door), but it’s bombastic exciting opening spectacle.

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We cut to the remote island planet of Ahch-To, where we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempting to appeal to self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach of her developing Force powers. Luke, however, has grown bitter and resentful of the Force and the Jedi way of life in consideration of how his student Ben “Kylo Ren” Solo (Adam Driver) has gone off the deep end and demands to be left alone in his misanthropic state. And herein, the story boils very efficiently: eventually Rey – with the help with the familiar pair of ol’ Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, officially taking over from Peter Mayhew) and chirpy astromech droid R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) – is able to break Luke down to give reluctant and cynical lessons on how to focus her power. However, doubts fueled by Ren and desires in Rey’s heart to discover the truth behind her origins threaten to derail her journey inward and give her answers she won’t like. Which is why this happens to be the area in which the film is the richest in character drama and development.

It’s been a popular method of detractors to cite Mark Hamill’s resentment for developing Luke as a sullen old man, ignoring that he’s rolled back on his comments, but honestly I can’t pretend I agree. It makes a whole lot more narrative sense than anything else in The Last Jedi and Hamill takes that spot to facilitate a lot of growth Luke surprises himself with when Rey breaks into his life. And Rey remains the most dynamic character to emerge from the sequel trilogy, with Ridley herself having to drive Rey’s arcs and respond to some very empty, disappointing truths about herself before using them as a launchpad for an inspiring arc of self-realization. This happens to be the moment where all of the curveballs in Johnson’s script stick, like the revelation of Rey’s parentage and the usage of evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in his MO mo-cap), but I’ll get to the criticism of the rest later.

Meanwhile, there’s the other plotlines, originally starting as just one: The First Order Dreadnought Supremacy is sadistically stalking the desperate evading Resistance forces, with the shocking capability to follow their main cruiser at light speed and make massive dents in Resistance defenses. It gets intense enough to incapacitate General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and command is now assumed by Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Holdo’s refusal to share her plans to the recently-demoted Poe leads to an extended hissy-fit-turned-mutiny that is a lot less self-aware than it receives credit for. There’s no nicer way of saying this: this plotline and the subsequent split it makes for a secret mission of ex-storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) and the Resistance technician sister to Ngo’s Paige named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) dangerous regresses nearly every character involved into a complete buffoon. The characters make decisions that end up circling the whole narrative back to the same spot an hour of character action later, even well before their floundering leads to results Leia stressed they CANNOT afford but has little affect on Poe, Finn, or Rose’s development. Finn especially goes through the exact same motivational beats he already had gone through in The Force Awakens with extra stress on turning him into a physical clown of a deserter, but all of the heroes* cast here are doing the best they can with disastrous material and barely selling fuck-ups as the actions of believable human beings in distress (in general, I think Dern outdoes Hamill as the second-best performance in the film behind Ngo and Tran has been receiving a frankly mean-spirited amount of vitriol she wouldn’t deserve even if her performance wasn’t the singular source of dedicated humane energy that it is). It just doesn’t stop the frustrating lack of thrust in a story that has too much time not to fill it up.

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And that’s ignoring the inorganic way the movie halts to directly criticize war profiteering, a clunky but noble move often mistaken as deeming The Last Jedan anti-war film which fits it about as well as Iron Man, a film that only seems to be against the bad guys having weapons. Star Wars is a Manichean environment produced by a company pretty spooked at the idea of challenging narrative norms. Moral complexity is alien to it and it’s a miracle that Luke Skywalker as a character accomplishes this, but nothing else in The Last Jedi facilitates this. Poe is rewarded for decisions that lead to a massive amount of lives lost by being promoted at the very end of this movie with Holdo, the very woman who Poe held at gunpoint after trashing her bridge, happily declaring she likes him because he’s feisty. Y’know, because he’s the good guy so that he commit such indisputable travesties. Or how about the fact that shortly after all these bodies occurred, Rose nearly kills Finn and herself in the aborting of a suicidal attack against The First Order and responds to this by saying they will win this war by “Saving the ones we love”, punctuated by her kissing Finn** while a Hitchcockian laser explosion occurs that totally added to the body count. That’s a wild misfire for a movie that is deemed anti-war.

In Johnson’s writing, there ARE fundamentally daring and engaging narrative decisions where the common criticism from the public is that they happened, while my big problem is that they were rolled back. The most notorious instance of this happens to be the apparent death and subsequent resurrection of Leia, a move that feels sincere in the wake of Fisher’s shocking death but existed before her passing and indicates an unwillingness on the part of this new trilogy to move past the legacy of the original. Or the constant feints The Last Jedi makes to affiliations and allegiances being subverted, only to return by the end of the movie to a distinct line between good guys and bad guys. Johnson’s never indicated the remotest dissatisfaction with the development of The Last Jedi and I’m sure he’s happy to have a chance of shaking things up for the duration of the movie, but all the “fake out!” resets feel like the result of the powers-that-be at LucasFilm stating “well, you have to put it right back when the movie’s over” with an Marvel-esque fidelity to their plans for Star Wars Episode IX. It makes the film feel safer than it should.

Now, I’ve long upheld that Star Wars is not an event you go to for the writing and I maintain that in this instance. In fact, some of the other elements are why I can’t damn it as hard as so many detractors seem to.

For instance, it is the best-looking Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s evident that Johnson brought his love of anime into Steve Yedlin’s cinematography with a finger on instant iconography like a character standing off against a First Order grand armada like a splash page imagined by Ralph McQuarrie or a steaming gnarled wreck of a black helmet in a glowing elevator. This movie crazy inventive with red as both an sleight-of-hand replacement for viscera (one scene halfway through the movie uses a red costume’s tatters to replace the gore of the character’s evisceration, another uses the salt-coated red surface of a planet to imply a character’s eruption and later a post-slice blood splatter) as well as just an excitably pure backdrop for the passion of battle – particularly one of the greatest lightsaber battles of the whole franchise, so many combatants cutting through a dome of bright crimson burning down to reveal the abyss of space while dealing with the space version of the armor from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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And those reds aren’t even the main showcase of production designer Rick Heinrichs and costumer Michael Kaplan. It’s actually an element of the Finn/Rose mission: the Monaco-inspired casino planet Canto Bight is one of the better elements of world-building since The Phantom Menace, various in eye-catching colors and creature designs and shimmering in an off-puttingly perfect way making it easy to understand why Finn is so easily dazzled and giving a full gap to the class lines Rose remarks upon to give the sudden politics enough heft. Or the salt planet of Crait, inventively straddling the line between desert heat and winter whites to give a relentlessly wild atmosphere for The Last Jedi‘s climax.

There is a caveat to that “Best Looking” title and it’s a significant one that hampers one of the reasons I go to a Star Wars movie in the first place: The effects are at an all-time worst. Which leaves enough room for dazzling setpieces like the opening escape, the throne room battle, the Canto Bight scene, or a moment of rapid black-and-white impact where Johnson is so proud of the imagery that he shuts off the sound for 10 seconds (you could heard the whole crowd go “whoa!” at my IMAX). But then there’s also the reminder that Snoke is the worst motion-captured character Andy Serkis has ever done, an extended setpiece involving very cartoonish animals rampaging through a planet, and Leia’s revelation as a force-user swinging back to the ship and they’re mighty worse than either of Rogue One‘s grave-robbery, largely because these effects involving living tissue as well that’s always in movement (where Rogue One‘s Tarkin and Leia occasionally were not moving) and pulls the effects further into looking like video game cutscenes. The practical effects are all fine as they always are and Star Wars otherwise still remains as competent in their effects work as an given blockbuster, but man those particular instances stick in my craw.

As does the growing dissatisfaction with John Williams’ returning as a composer for this trilogy. His cues for The Last Jedi don’t hit the depths of The Force Awakens – indeed he seems a lot more awake here, especially on Canto Bight – but his music just doesn’t seem like much more than him doing an imitation of himself this time around. And this is probably the killing blow for me: I specifically go to Star Wars for Williams’ music above anything else. His motifs don’t salvage horrible movies (“Across the Stars” is among his best and that’s from Attack of the Clones), but if his music doesn’t seem to be having fun, I’m not gonna be having fun. And the music doesn’t sound like he’s been having fun since Revenge of the Sith.

My attitude is clear: there are elements I like in The Last Jedi, but I am dismayed by the packaging. There are ideas I admire in The Last Jedi, but I find ruined by the execution. The Last Jedis not a worthless film, in fact I think it’s quite interesting enough to understand why its supporters are so very devoted to the film. It’s a giant contradiction in a fascinating way that begs re-evaluation someday on my part, much as The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi found. But not any time soon, sadly – partly because the goliath amount of time wasted does not entice me to rewatch it soon***, partly because watching it a second time with the intent on focusing on the good has only led to me finding more bad and it felt even more like a missed opportunity. Ah well, not everything has to be black and white. I can sit right in the middle of my island and stay out of the fight that Star Wars: The Last Jedhas started.

*I’m specifying “heroes” because the villains are much much worse than they already were in The Force Awakens. Domnhall Gleeson as General Hux is doing a dumber version of Ben Mendehlson’s flustering functionary work in Rogue One, Driver is tethered to the most predictable storyline Kylo Ren could have been saddled with, and Serkis is still doing nothing. I don’t want to add more problems to this review and I kind of don’t care enough about the characters to even be appalled at their treatment like I am with Finn, Rose, Poe, and Holdo, so they get a footnote and not an actual place in the review.
**They ruined Poe/Finn! Goddammit! Of course that was never canon, but the possibility of the first explicit non-heteronormative relationship in a Star Wars, erased just like that!
***There’s legend of a “fan” cut removing the women from the film which is not only sexist as fuck but wildly misses that all the best parts are starring the women. My fan cut would not remove a single millimeter of Rey or Paige’s storyline, though it would be quite liberal with the rest.

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Make It Rain

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I haven’t seen any of the Sharknado films*, but the vibe I get is that it’s self-aware in a smug way and trying too hard to appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. And that strikes me as obnoxious and unaware of what makes the appeal of a movie that’s so-bad-it’s-good: it’s not that the movie’s aren’t trying to be good on the assumption of a camp factor they haven’t earned, but that they are trying so damn hard that we can’t help admiring their chutzpah. It’s the same sort of vibe I get from Samurai Cop 2 casting Tommy Wiseau as its villain. You don’t cast Tommy Wiseau without trying to cheat your way into camp cinema cred and I apologize to the memory of Samurai Cop as a film I hold dear to my heart, but I didn’t feel like bothering with its 24-year-later successor.

I almost got the fear early into The Hurricane Heist, Rob Cohen’s latest action thriller. It was very quickly relieved by the fact that the same thing that made me wonder if they’re going to try too hard also made my friend and I laugh our heads off in the theater.

It was a CGI skull superimposed in the middle of a hurricane sky.

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You see, Cohen is not new to making trash movies that have somehow turned into fine ironic entertainment. His very last film before this was the tawdry teacher-student sex film The Boy Next Door and my, would that have been quite a hit in the 1990s. Instead it’s a diamond in the rough of 2015**. And it’s hard to believe the people involved in that film were oblivious to the sheer lunacy of their screenplay but there wasn’t a shred of detachment from the execution of that film without letting the audience in on the fun as well. The Hurricane Heist is probably also aware of how utterly dumb it is, but it doesn’t want that to stop you from coming for some sincerely ridiculous “watch it with your friends while drunk” material, starting from that CGI skull (and let me tell you, this is not the last time we will see it).

The skull hurricane happened to be terrorizing the huddled children Will and Breeze Rutledge shortly after witnessing their father being killed by debris in a heavy Category 5. The incident left a distinct impact in each of them as they grew up into Alabama Good Ol’ Boys: Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has become a functioning alcoholic taking care of their pops’ electrician garage, the only thing he has left to remember his pop. Will (Toby Kebbell) has become vengeful enough against the forces of nature to become a meteorologist who drives a high-tech version of the Tumbler from the Dark Knight movies. Will spend his whole runtime functioning as a harbinger of doom for the latest storm kicking up in the way of his hometown, declaring it pre-emptively as an off-the-charts Category 5 and trying to convince his headstrong brother to evacuate with the rest of the city.

This just happens to coincide with the treasury drop-off of $600 million set to be shredded, looked over by haunted agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) and her zen Irish partner Connor Perkins (Ralph Ineson). Casey just wants to get these done quickly to prove herself capable of handling official responsibilities again, Connor’s calm demeanor has something to do with the fact that he planned to use this opportunity to rob the Treasury of that doomed money with no intent of harming a single individual in the building. And so he enacts his plan almost immediately and while there is little understanding as to whether or not he was aware he planned this theft in the middle of a huge-ass hurricane, he was definitely aware that Casey was no longer in the building as she went off to grab Breeze so he can repair the Treasury building’s generator.

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I say again, Connor was aware that Casey was no longer in the building and thus not among the hostages his heist team rounded up. And yet he still started his plan without that important detail. Shenanigans lead to Casey returning with Breeze to a welcome of gunfire in the stormy grey rain. While Casey is able to evade capture, Breeze is apprehended and forced to work on the generator so that Connor’s hacker couple, Sasha and Frears (Melissa Bolona and Ed Birch), can continue their hacking into the vault. Connor also needs Casey’s IPad to open it, which we as an audience are aware he simply needs to dig into, like, an inch of shredded bills to find. Y’know, Connor may not have figured his plan all the way through.

The overly complex presentation of a story that does not need to be this damn complex is only one layer where The Hurricane Heist brings joy to my heart. There are wild creative decisions all around, like the fact that Sasha and Frears are dressed like this is a night at the club or Will’s constant response to a physical threat by the robbers by using the strong tropical winds in his favor. At one point, he just throws a bunch of hubcaps down wind with unconflicted success in impaling several of Connor’s gang with them. At another instance, he swears to Casey they’re safe using sports equipment to remain tethered to a mall while their assailants are sucked into the focused cyclone. Meanwhile, Casey and Will are fucking SLAMMING onto the building’s roof and don’t die somehow. This movie does not give a damn about the physics except insofar as they could provide a ridiculous outlet for Will to thwart the villains without having to use a gun.

Meanwhile, this is also a movie very much aware of the fact that it’s set in Alabama despite being shot in Sofia, Bulgaria and not having a single Southern American in its main cast. The artificiality of the film’s Southern identity is like a wall for it to smash through. The sole yankee is Grace and everybody else is just doing their best mock-up of a shit-kicking cowboy. Except Ineson, but IS doing an understated imitation of an Irish accent and that’s the most sedate part of his performance. His brilliantly tragic work in The Witch would have convinced anyone he’s above this sort of work, but Ineson just doesn’t care: he’s channeling Nicolas Cage-esque tension, repeating unconvincingly that he’s not a violent individual before cursing and snarling at everyone that his plans are ruined including, yeah, at one point cursing the Hurricane face-to-face (again, this character does not appear to be smart).

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Nobody else gets close to Ineson’s level, though Ben Cross from that most Southern of films, Chariots of Fire, tries playing every inch of a ruthless hick sheriff stereotype. And Kebbell is just about the source of any possible urgency the film has, constantly having a look on his face like whatever he’s about to do is a terrible idea but doing it anyway because the movie says so. It’s only more amusing that the points where the film’s pace slow down most are “character moments” between Will and Casey as they give a heart to heart while urinating outside IN THE MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE or take a lunch break to discuss the distinction between peanut butter and tuna fish sandwiches WHILE WILL’S BELOVED BROTHER IS IN DANGER.

I mean, it sounds contradictory to say that this film is proud of its own stupidity but I can’t help feeling like Cohen and company saw the potential to take this film off the rails and took it. And while its craft is not the stuff of masters, Cohen’s editor Niven Howie is certainly intent on presenting the action in a manner that can accidentally wow the right sort of viewer. This is an ambitious movie: one that wants explosions, dwarfing storm clouds, overwhelming overcast rains, destroyed models wherever it can fit them (showing Cohen’s heart is in the best place), and climactic truck chase involving the heroes jumping between them like they’re in a Western. And probably most ambitious of all: this is a film that presents the utopian concept of southern folk who are explicitly proud supporters of climate change theory AND the second amendment.

I wish one of those things was characters shooting guns at the hurricane to stop it, but we can’t have everything. Sometimes, it just takes the simpler things in life to satisfy me.

*Holy shit, there are 6 of them bitches.
**Not to imply that 2015 wasn’t an amazing year for movies because it actually was.

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Devenomized

With the sincerest apologies to Lu Saitta, who had been waiting on this review for a while ever since she answered a question correctly last summer (I ended up delaying it for a Halloween Mummy marathon that simply never happened), I dedicate this review to her and her unyielding patience (or ability to forget bad writers sometimes offer to write stuff for people).

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The Scorpion King‘s origins as a film in early 2002 are quite a doozy. It is not only a spin-off to the reboot franchise of Universal Studios’ Mummy movies from the turn of the millennium, it is a PREQUEL to the SEQUEL to the REBOOT of Karl Freund’s 1932 masterpiece. Less than a year had passed between the April 2001 premiere of The Mummy Returns and the April 2002 release of The Scorpion King, meaning that Universal Studios and WWF Entertainment fast-tracked the production of the origin story on a character who spent more screentime as CGI that already looked video game-like back then in the hopes that he would prove extremely popular in the wake of The Mummy Returns‘ success (not expecting it to make slightly less than its predecessor). This film is the purest form of synergy I can possibly imagine.

The Scorpion King made enough of a pretty penny for the studios to not regret making the movie, but it’s very likely not on the merit of the character’s appeal and more the actor who portrayed him. For The Scorpion King was essentially THE role that began building Dwayne Johnson’s future movie star status from his acquired superstardom as a wrestler for WWE (formerly WWF) under the ring name The Rock, the name which the actor was billed as*.

Now, despite the mercenary intentions that animated the production, there’s little conflict in me declaring The Scorpion King the “best” of the four Mummy reboot films (ignoring the multitudes of Direct-to-Video releases WWE milked), but that is not a tall order. It already has the significant upgrade of moving from the dashing enough and overeager but still out of his league Brendan Fraser to The Rock, who hadn’t yet harnessed his full charisma as a screen persona but is remarkably confident at being a brawny barbarian given that it only requires fierce and mean looks while swinging and grappling no different than he did in the ring. He plays right along with the sword-and-sandals set he’s inhabiting, aided largely by the fact that this time he actually gets to be in the movie with his legs attached.

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Yes, the Rock’s just the right sort of arch tan-muscled masculine tower in which to build a very boilerplate story of The Scorpion King’s original identity: Mathayus (The Rock, duh!), last of the Akkadians after witnessing his brothers’ betrayal and slaughter during their mission to assassinate the warlord Memnon (Steven Brand)’s sorcerer that’s been ensuring his conquest of Mesopotamia. This mission is only further complicated by the discovery that the mark is in fact an attractive sorcerESS given the obvious name of Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and, after 30 minutes of escaping and taking another go at killing her without being distracted by her beauty (made harder Mathayus by the fact that his second ambush happens to be while she’s naked), discovering her to be a hostage of Memnon and decides to escape with her into the hot desert sun without much of a plan except to stay as far out of Memnon’s grasp as possible and smolder at each other, despite Cassandra’s clairvoyance promising certain doom for Mathayus’ valiant actions.

The screenplay by Stephen Sommers (who directed the previous Mummy films), William Osborne, and David Hayter (HEY KIDS, SOLID SNAKE!) meanders with betrayal towards its desire to fit enough plot and qualify as a feature without wanting to give unnecessary depth to its characters (it is somewhat dedicated to reminding us of Memnon’s formidability, probably because Brand has to pretend to give the Rock a good fight), but – barring the fact that Mathayus could have learned everything he learned about Cassandra well before the things he had to go through – it gets to where it needs to be without wearing out its welcome. There is the irresistible observation that placing this is the 2800s BC and identifying Mathayus as an Akkadian implies the events of the film to lead into the Akkadian Empire, but his name is Mathayus instead of Sargon and there’s the ahistorical claim that he’s literally the last survivor of the race. And the setting of the film being in the Biblical city of Gomorrah, famously destroyed long before by God in the Book of Genesis. And the fact that the Mummy Returns presented The Scorpion King as a bloodthirsty ruthless tyrant and here he’s a charmingly scrappy rogue. But y’know, I’m feeling generous.

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The Scorpion King also makes the significant upgrade of replacing the computer-effects-dependent glutton Sommers. Now, we have Chuck Russell who doesn’t have much in the way of control of tone (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) but luckily The Scorpion King doesn’t demand much in the way of shifting tone. It’s essentially a middle-tier feature-length episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, swashbuckler all the way down with occasional indulgence in extra badass star vehicle (and one I’d say Russell qualified for based on the Jason and the Argonauts-esque skeleton battle at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). Sure, there’s a tiny bit of comic overtones but they’re mostly pulled in by the quicksand-like gravity of the wily horse thief sidekick Arpid (Oscar winner Grant Heslov and if you’ve seen The Scorpion King, you do not need me to tell you that the Oscar was not for Acting), pushing them to the side of a scene rather than making them interrupt any of the action. Even before The Rock was an ACTOR, you could hardly upstage the dude with a clown.

Russell’s main strength is competently putting together setpiece after setpiece until the movie runs out of time (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) and The Scorpion King bats a decent enough average to breeze on its 92 minute runtime as Russell’s shortest film. Not that some of them aren’t ruthlessly cut to confusion, such as the middle sequence where Mathayus returns to Memnon’s stronghold and escapes with Cassandra (somewhat a big setpiece made out of smaller setpieces, including the most blatant Indiana Jones rip-off in a franchise that spent most of its time ripping those movies off). But the grand majority of them have a Raimi-esque theatricality to them based on how “oh this really metal thing happens where the swords are on fire” and “then this really metal thing happens where he tosses a guy in the way of a tomahawk”. It’s all in the service of making The Rock look cool and having a coherent or interesting style is merely incidental. If there is to be one major highlight, I would say it’s a battle during the escape in which Mathayus leads the guards into a cave during a sandstorm, using the limited shafts of light and a panning soundtrack to impose on the viewer the same sort of frightened confusion towards our hero’s guerilla tactics as the head guard while his men are effortlessly killed (there is one “Are you fucking kidding me?” moment where a guard gets swallowed by quicksand and then ANOTHER idiot guard steps into the same quicksand after seeing the guard die that way and no surprise at HIS fate).

So, is the movie successful at being quality entertainment? I don’t know. The seams are pretty much there. This movie looks its budget, with less characteristic production design than its predecessors and much dodgier CGI including a sequence where The Rock steps through a wall of fire and it separates as though it were a curtain. But Russell makes quick, tight work out of a script that doesn’t entirely know where it’s going and the Rock is one of several archetypes portrayed by a capable cast (including Bernard Hill as an absent-minded professor and the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the big burly rival turned ally). It all feels barely adequate to me and I’m hardly going to look back on it after tonight, but y’know the saying about one’s person’s discardings is another one’s treasures. That is how artifacts get made, even ones from the early 2000s.

*You will notice that some folks such as myself who grew up in that wonderful time in the 1990s have trouble shaking off calling him by The Rock, even though he’s moved on from that brand. I think I mark the line at being born in 1998 as my sister was and strictly refers to him as Dwayne Johnson without much recognizing him for his wrestling origins.

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X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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