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Raiders of the Lost Oak

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I don’t know what it is about Oakland that makes first-time filmmakers so confident, daring, and willing to pull out any possible cinematic flourish to appeal in the audience in such stylized yet urgent way, but let me tell you we need more debut filmmakers attacking subject matter with the same kind of relentlessness. Hell, we need more filmmakers in general to swing material where it hits us, with little care as to whether everything lands or doesn’t.

Most of Blindspotting lands, let me tell you. Most of it lands as hard as a movie about the tension in police brutality, racial identity, and cyclical violence should land in order for you to get the message and walk away shook. And some moments the reason you had to catch your breath was because you heart was tightening in anticipation of horribly unfair things to happen to Collin (Daveed Diggs) while some moments, it’s because you could not stop laughing in relief of the aftermath.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t just talking about Carlos López Estrada’s directing and how he’s well-acquainted with establishing moods via editing rhythms with the help of Gabriel Fleming and realism via nighttime cinematography of the traffic lights and streetlamps illuminated city streets with the help of Robbie Baumgartner. I’m also talking about how well he’s effortlessly he’s able to handle the multitudes of tone that the screenplay by Diggs and Rafael Casal. I haven’t been able to find proof that Estrada himself is from the Bay Area, but Diggs and Casal are natives and confidently provide a map of moods and attitudes that Estrada and his crew bring to the screen that give the streets a two-sided personality based on what Oakland was and what Oakland is turning into. And it is a disarmingly funny screenplay full of lively energy despite dealing with subjects that are no laughing manner, but that Diggs and Casal know all too well to sugarcoat: sometimes casual life in Oakland is going to be violently interrupted by some brutal truths.

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One of those brutal truths introduced early on in the split-screen opening credits: the before and after of Oakland’s gentrification, turning from a diverse melting pot community that is overpoliced into a mecca for performative hipsters. The very next brutal truth is the impersonal “rehabilitation” system as a judge sleepily states to Collin the terms of his parole for a crime we are not privy to yet. The next one takes a smash cut worth 27 days from his zoned out face in a courthouse to his zoned out face in a neon-decked Uber with his best friend Miles (Casal) to reach, during which time we learn that Miles is the more intense stereotype between the two of them of “gangster” behavior. For one thing, the very first thing we watch him do is offhandedly buy himself a gun from the Uber driver and most of the things he does since is the sort of thing that would get him in trouble with the law if he were the very same color as Collin, often with grill-grinning antagonism. There are many exchanges between Collin and his ex-girlfriend/co-worker Val (Janina Gavankar) that serve to implicitly and later explicitly state just how easy it is for Collin to get in trouble for nothing while Miles is able to walk away after inciting that trouble.

But the very bond between Collin and Miles is a genuine one, chemistry that comes effortlessly from Diggs and Casal being childhood friends without feeling like cheats because both actors are able to craft distinct flesh-and-blood identities with their own personal lives and conflicts, so it’s painfully easy why it appears Collin is strong on refusing to cut Miles loose even if it appears as though he must. Plus, if getting to write their own dialogue feels like stacking the deck in their favor, their delivery of impromptu raps to describe their current situations and states, swapping verses and even words back and forth like they’re passing a blunt, a wonderful connective version of dialogue between the two characters (and something that comes natural to both actors – Diggs won a Tony for his charming performances in Hamilton and Casal’s main career is poetry as a regular of Def Poetry).

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This relationship is the core of Blindspotting‘s deft handle on tone: if the audience is having a good time, it’s because Collin and Miles are having a good time, usually in the presence of Miles’ relaxed but no-nonsense homelife with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). If the movie is tense and upsetting it’s because tension is brewing between their relationship or because some other urgency regarding Collin’s closing parole status is causing added stress for him that nobody around him recognizes.

Or he could be reliving the incident of that very same night we catch up with him three days before his parole’s end, where he watched a police officer (Ethan Embry) gun down a black civilian (I am uncertain but I think it may be Lance Holloway, somebody please correct me if I’m wrong*) on his way to make curfew. It is a moment that haunts Collin directly and indirectly all throughout Blindspotting, a reminder that all the negative perceptions of black people and the pressures keeping them from responding to a changing world have a dead end at the wrong turn. If there is anything like an inciting incident to this shaggy hang out plot, it is this wake up moment.

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And yet it can not be overstated how absolutely funny it is in between those angry and occasionally violent releases. Blindspotting does not play around with serious revelations such as that nor abandon them, but it’s impressive how well the movie is able to unwind at most of the harshness with a good reminder that Collin and Miles have each other and especially using every turn life gives them to show the difference between the two characters and how they can roll with Oakland’s development whether it’s a health drink or a developer’s party. It’s not a message movie despite its lack of subtlety in its stances, it’s an observational one and one without any distance towards the characters. Blindspotting is the sort of movie that thinks everybody deserves to make it out ok in the end, especially Miles despite him having the most apparent flaws (and there is at least one scene where Miles looks REALLY ugly to the audience, but the film knows how to confront that directly).

Honestly, the only real flaw (other than some clunky transitions) I can consider a possibility against the film (read: seen it brought up by filmgoers I respect) is its late attempts at an unconventional structure with two climaxes close by, but I can’t say I’m way too bothered by it. For one thing, the second climax feels less like a restart and more like Estrada ratcheting the tension to its highest point. For another, the script is structured that way because Blindspotting is the story of two men, not one, and their personal conflicts are not the same. I mean, in the end, that’s just the whole thesis of Blindspotting, beyond giving us the best and most gorgeous portrait (I hesitate to say eulogy even if the movie is aware of what’s to come) of Oakland’s urban side: Collin and Miles may come from the same place, but they don’t come from the same place and they’re not going to reach the same ends. But it’s great to watch them take the journey together and hope they can stay together for as long as they can.

*Or remind me to correct it when I inevitably buy the Blu-Ray and so can actually stop at when the character’s name is identified.

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…Are the Same That Burn Crosses.

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I like to think of myself as a formalist. And Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman is by most angles formally and aesthetically sound, with a brilliant leitmotif by Terence Blanchard that varies in tempo and key depending on the mood and tone of a given scene and radically propulsive editing by his regular Barry Alexander Brown. I mean, it would have to be at least some amount of aesthetically distinct to win Lee the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Rarely do I find myself put off by the actual content of a film if the film attached works extremely well as cinema and Lee has long proven himself one of the most adept directors in utilizing cinematic tools to amplify his attitude and using his vast knowledge of film history as one of the industry’s resident scholars to turn the medium’s ugliness against itself.* I frankly think BlacKkKlansman is a movie where he accomplishes this, so I do walk away thinking it’s a good movie.

But – and this is where I have to admit Lee is infinitely more qualified to tell how angry is “angry enough” when it comes to the United States’ atmosphere of racism – I don’t think BlacKkKlansman is angry enough and that’s disappointing to me.

To my knowledge, the script was originally written by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz until Spike Lee joined last September, apparently rewriting a part of the script with Kevin Willmott (who worked with Lee on his previous film, Chi-Raq). The parts Lee and Willmott rewrote are easy to pick out and I’m not sure they outnumber Wachtel and Rabinowitz’s contribution. For there are moments that full of an unmistakable charge towards racism in America (particularly the lecture prologue on the scientific proof of white supremacy by an unflattered Alec Baldwin feels entirely like something I’d expect if I saw C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and only its being preceded by a famous shot in 1930s cinema is what prevents me from assuming it’s all Willmott), but there’s also a lot of neutral summarizing of the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel).

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In 1972, he was recruited into the Colorado Springs Police Department and eventually roses from the records room to working as an undercover attendant of Black Power figurehead Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins)’s local speech to initiating his own investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan just by lifting up his office phone, calling local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and proclaiming his hate of all non-Aryan races in the earshot of everyone in his office, including fellow officers Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi). Flip meets on Ron’s behalf face-to-face with the chapter, including the intense paranoiac Felix (Jasper Pääkönen), while Jimmy is recording the encounters and Ron continues to correspond with the Klan over the phone, eventually reaching National Director Grand Wizard himself David Duke (a brittle-yet-prim Topher Grace in his non-Ocean’s-movie career-best).

Most of this material is presented in the cleanest manner and I mean completely clean, like two steps away from Wikipedia summary if not for the liberties the screenplay takes with the story. Not just how matter-of-fact Lee’s direction of moments like Ron’s beginnings in the records room or his mingling with local black student union president Patrice (Laura Harrier), but how absolutely unwilling it is to delve into the complications of the matter. Flip says some vile things to Ron while undercover, some of them to his own face, and there’s never a doubt on the film’s mind that Flip’s aggression is all a game. Despite the Chief of Police claiming in one scene that Ture is a threat to the peace, Stallworth insists in one scene that he is not and the Chief accepts that he is not. The police force depicted here are all unconflicted good guys except for one character by Frederick Weller who exists solely to be booed and jeered as the “bad apple” in the force. In general, despite Patrice’s only major contribution being somebody Ron has to protect and occasionally explaining how racism is institutionalized, the film refuses to confront Ron’s desire to battle the system while being unfortunately a part of that system as it arranges for its depiction of the system to be altruistic. The only disorganization comes from the buffoonish and dumb hicks that are the resident KKK, an approach that feels like the sort of white liberal reassuring I would not have expected from Lee.

I don’t want to lay this on the feet of the white co-writers necessarily. I know that Flip’s Jewish identity was an invention of theirs and a mid-film monologue regarding his feeling of assimilation among white people is one of the few times Flip gets to register as a complex character with his own arc, though it is unfortunate that the entire arc gets contained to one scene. Mostly, it just feels like the main priority was just putting together the episodic investigation with only a few avenues for it to truly become a Spike Lee joint, which it does the more and more it leads to its own finale after a wandering middle where the pieces shuffle inch by inch. That it doesn’t seem interested in talking about racism ingrained in the police force is unfortunate, but I’m gonna assume the man who made Do the Right Thing knows all about that anyway.

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Anyway, the “Spike Lee joint” material pops in every now and again after that Alec Baldwin rant (which mind you has terrific editing to imply how flustered and foolish even the most “learned” person can be when all of his mistakes are public). Enough to outweigh the bland stuff, if not in quantity then in quality. Ture’s speech is superimposed by beautiful black faces in chiaroscuro lighting as he verbally tears down perceptions of ugliness towards black people, making us see exactly what inspiration Ture sees in his fellow peers. The most powerful cue of Blanchard’s theme appears at a cold reveal involving a Klan shooting range, defiant and sad at once. Most impressively, Harry Belafonte delivers an account of the horrifying Jesse Washington lynching in 1916 in gruesome detail accompanied by photos while cross-cut with the Klan watching the infamous Birth of a Nation and celebrating the Gus lynching scene, defiantly condemning one of the foundational motion pictures in cinematic history and its acclaim and legacy.

And yet it only feels like bits and pieces have that fiery soul to them rather than the whole movie and even while it ends on its most impassioned moment, involving a direct wake-up call to remind us that a few prank phone calls and averted cross-burnings did not stop racism and violence from remaining in the US, it’s of a ballsy unwieldy move involving archive footage and a static final shot that feels dynamic in its message that some might call the messy side of Spike Lee. Personally, I wish the entire film was that kind of ballsy messiness (after all, I don’t doubt we’d still have moments I loved most with that don’t give a fuck attitude). It’s the most galvanizing moment the entire movie has contextualizing the story with the current atmosphere and it’s impossible to ignore the message from that moment, misfire or not. Maybe Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting both spoiled me, and I can’t pretend a movie led by this kind of performance from Washington (who has clearly inherited his father’s confidence) is boring, but I was not expecting the filmmaker who had been fighting these battles before Boots Riley or Daveed Diggs had to be pulling some of his punches.

*Matter of fact, now that I have that down, I’m thinking BlacKkKlansman would make a worthwhile double feature with Inglourious Basterds, which has similar observations and practices towards cinema. Ironic given the notorious feud between Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

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Some of Those That Work Forces…

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In the third act of Sorry to Bother You, two men spend a bit blithely pondering on the meaning of some street art being used to send a direct revelation we the audience are already in on by that point. And in the middle of their discussion, the character we know to be the artist steps up in exasperation and states in a monotone “Maybe the artist was being literal.” This is so far along the film that I can’t imagine somebody needing to get such a direct message by writer/director Boots Riley, known as the radical frontman of the political hip hop group The Coup, but if you needed to be reminded that Sorry to Bother You had all the subtlety of a Bong Joon-ho or Elio Petri film (including similar attitudes on class and industry), then you ARE right in Sorry to Bother Your‘s target audience anyway, so what am I gonna blame?

For the record, I uniformly love Bong Joon-ho’s movies and pretty much the two Elio Petri films I’ve seen. So, it should be pretty damn clear early on what side I’m on regarding Sorry to Bother You‘s bravado.

It’s not just that Sorry to Bother You lays its leftist themes on thick with every step of its plot, it’s also a rare and rarely powerful thing: it is the most literal surrealist film I’ve seen since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, both of which sharing the traits that they come from wild and bizarre visualizing a world only slightly different from ours. Hell, I’d say that Riley is so much more direct in the draining effect of capitalism on the individual than Lynch in his films’ themes (deliberately of course). It might help that I agree whole-heartedly with its observations and that prevents me from finding it heavy-handed but I can’t imagine any scenario where this kind spirited clarity of vision and message isn’t compulsive and involving for a viewer, especially with the relentless mania Sorry to Bother You expresses.

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One way the film accomplishes a sense of a wild fever dream without being vague about its themes is in its star, Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield has been spending much of the decade getting more and more visibility and his arguably most popular roles to date, Darius on the tv show Atlanta and a tragic bit part in Get Out, have been done well enough to sell us on his greatest strength, having zoned-out facial expressions that look like he just had the wind knocked out of him. He brings appropriate existential fear to every development no matter how high or low they take him. Stanfield makes an excellent human anchor to how ridiculous things are getting.

Anyway, Stanfield’s Cassius “Cash” Green is starting from the bottom: living out of his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland with a car so beat-up it smokes after he uses it and he has to physically move the windshield wipers. We meet him just as he gains a telemarketing job that he hopes will give him more than 40 cents for gas, but the intrusive and stressful commission-based job is proving to be an unsuccessful venture until a veteran black co-worker (Danny Glover) informs him on how to assure the people they’re calling: using an unthreatening idealized inner white voice (in Cassius’ case, provided by David Cross; I swear Glover’s sounds uncannily like Steve Buscemi but apparently it’s an uncredited sound engineer). Cassius’ quick mastery of the tactic gains him attention of his frustrated co-workers, organized by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) to revolt against their skeezy supervisors (Robert Longstreet, Kate Berlant, and a perfectly cast Michael X. Sommers). Cassius also gets those supervisors’ attention while they seduce him with the unconfirmed possibility of ascending to “power caller” level.

And it’s from here where I feel like Sorry to Bother You comes so wild that I can’t move any further up in a plot synopsis without spoilers, but at the margins of this story are the ominous presence of WorryFree, a company that blatantly imprisons workers for a lifetime of labor in exchange for not paying for your prison cot, sleeping cell, cold cafeteria food, and jumpsuits. And standing against WorryFree is the radical group Left Eye, where we learn that Cassius’ artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) aids with agitprop art in an attempt to let others know about the evils of WorryFree and its sociopathic CEO Jeff Bezos Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

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Cash’s story will collide with that political atmosphere sooner than he expects as Sorry to Bother You has an obscene amount of momentum in his opening rise, rushing into his power crawl, with oh so much information being dropped in between scene transitions because we can’t wait to see ourselves at the top before the film suddenly feels like the new trials of Cash are prolonged and stretched out and his relationships become so much more strained and his conscience tugged at with no end in sight. The movie doesn’t become sluggish or sedate – it’s much too nervy and wired for that – but it doesn’t feel as brisk and the script loses sense of its structure. This only makes me relate further to Cash and his anxieties and while I certainly get the complaints about Riley’s still green handle on filmmaking, I can’t help finding this “weakness” into a strength.

And besides which I think there’s a serious underestimation on Riley’s ability as a storyteller, even from fans of the movie. Visually, he has an eye for frames that use lines and blocking to corner and box Cash in discomfort whether he’s in an extravagant chandeliered elevator, his broke car, a Fortune 500 glass office, a chill-out bar in sleepy dark blues and reds, a big mansion filled with debauched people, or a cold blue cubicle. He’s able to use sound mixing in such a surrounding and asphyxiating sense, whether the music at a party or an angry crowd of protestors. He has an unstoppable imagination on how far he can push the directness of his storytelling: not only with the white voice dubbing, but sequences that drop Cash from his cubicle into other people’s home adding to his sense of intrusion with his cold-calling or how as Cash starts coming up, Riley has his humble setting and fixtures of his garage room crack open like shells to unveil upgrades in wealth until he’s living in a clean white window surrounded high-rise apartment. And this is to say nothing of Jason Kisvarday’s set designs and Deirdre Elizabeth Govan’s costumes themselves feeling like extensions of Detroit’s artwork, like her constantly changing earrings or the transparency of the WorryFree ads’ sinister nature. The two of them provide a block-colored alternative Oakland, both in the walls and the inhabitants trapped within those walls.

Riley’s also proven to be an impressive director of performances as there’s a clear line dividing his dedicated ensemble between the evil corporate leaders embracing the ghoulish caricature they’re playing. Omari Hardwick’s Mr. _______ not as wild, but his presence is such a confident and aggressive tower of masculinity in his facial hair and suits to match and the fact that his name is constantly bleeped and almost all of his lines are spoken by Patton Oswalt helps. Hammer especially digs deep from his privileged background to add a huge layer of disconnect with every other character unless his relationship is owning them. Meanwhile, the characters we align with like Cash, Squeeze, and Detroit are so grounded and down-to-earth to be relieving company. Even the comic best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) is of more “hang-out” humor than anything else.

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All this competence turns Riley’s other “weakness” into a strength: his refusal to keep leash on the tonal changes of the movie. It flips from hilarity to horror on and off without any true rhythm to familiarize us. The third act in particular is where the most heinous revelations of Lift are made aware to the viewer and it’s immediately followed by one hilarious gag regarding the different shades of green he paints his doors and his incredibly puerile pitch for Cash’s next move, punctuated by a claymation instructional video narrated by a naked cavewoman whose breasts the animator took great care to keep in exaggerated swaying. It’s not a strength I’m too defensive of, as it turns exhausting by the end of the film and its final note is quite a bit too glib about a situation that should be haunting, but it’s hard for me to mistake it as a crippling liability.

So is Sorry to Bother You unwieldy? Yes. But it’s not sloppy. That unwieldiness keeps the audience from feeling like their feet are planted on the floor. That’s because Sorry to Bother You doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, even if it wants you to have a good time and laugh along with its sharp and bitter messaging. Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge of contradictory intentions – scare you, amuse you, feel unreal, confront you with reality – that you wouldn’t expect a debut to succeed at, but by god does it will itself into success. If only we had more first-time directors jumping into the artform with this much bravery, regardless of how inexperienced they may be. Their experience might just be what makes them perfect for the job.

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Kept Under Lock and…

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The future of the Insidious franchise is currently in question now that franchise writer Leigh Whannell is in doubt as to whether he wants to continue writing for it as the remaining co-creator (the other co-creator and his former collaborator, James Wan, has moved on since Chapter 2 to better things like skydiving cars, superheroes who talk to fish, and entertaining apologism for Christian con artists). Still the fourth and latest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, has already nudged itself in a direction that doesn’t seem very promising to me: it’s implied – nay, the very last scene of the film essentially propels it towards – a continuation without Lin Shaye’s presence*.

Now, I’ve eschewed the opportunity to write on the full series (maybe I’ll cover those gaps later this year), but let me tell you: it’s not a very consistent line-up, quality-wise. A large part of that happens to be the very disappointing insistence by Whannell’s writing to lean heavily on the overburdened mythology involving the blue-tinged spirit realm known as “The Further” and trying to use a lot of words just to say “demons live here and sometimes possess or influence living people” and the only way those words don’t really crash the whole thing down is because Shaye delivers most of that mythology with a sense of urgency that the material never earned one bit. Even that’s not the only merit about Shaye’s performance as medium demonologist Elise Rainier, but the fact that she’s a reliable source of warmth and personality, approaching her investigations in a superficially relaxed and assured manner as though she’s doing a solid for a friend despite how transparently draining this practice is for her. Even in spite of Shaye’s age, she has higher spirits as a 74-year-old woman tragically burdened by her abilities and responsibilities than I do as a 26-year-old who can’t talk to ghosts (… yet).

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The decision halfway through the run to turn this reliably compelling character from a late-film exposition delivery system to a protagonist has been a smart move for the longevity of the franchise and the character that The Last Key suggests will take over for Elise, her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), unfortunately feels like a non-presence, especially given how a whole quarter of the runtime has her taking charge without being able to take charge. Perhaps if she could have, it would have distracted me further from the other horrifyingly reliable source of banality in the Insidious franchise, Elise’s bumbling ghost-hunter-parody assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) and oh gawwwwwwd, if this franchise continues they’re also implied to continue tagging along while this time around hitting on Imogen and her sister Melissa (Spencer Locke).

So yes, I’m going to miss Elise a lot and fear what is to come for a franchise that I already wasn’t too fond of anyway. But I will say that Whannell and director Adam Robitel have put together a pretty fond farewell for the most part: The Last Key establishes the sort of toxic childhood Elise (played by Ava Kolker as a child and Hana Hayes as a teenager) went through in the 1950s in her family’s remote New Mexico home, exacerbated by her executioner father (Josh Stewart)’s abusive antagonism towards Elise’s powers and the sudden release of a noseless key-fingered demon (Javier Botet) who wastes no time murdering her protective mother (Tessa Ferrer), all of which leaving a rift between Elise and her brother/Imogen and Melissa’s father Christian (Bruce Davison).

Sometime after Insidious: Chapter 3 but shortly before the first Insidious, the now adult Elise and her partners get a call from her home’s new inhabitant Ted (Kirk Acevedo) reporting paranormal activity happening, forcing the reluctant Elise to face her past and particularly her feelings of guilt towards the key demon’s freedom and thereby her mother’s death (not to mention Christian holding Elise accountable for abandoning him when she ran away from home). And walking back into the domain of her childhood pain means unlocking secrets regarding its line of inhabitants that fundamentally shift the way she looks back on her hard memories.

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Now, of course, saying that the movie wants to deepen the Elise’s character one last time before she leaves the franchise does not necessarily mean it accomplishes that well: this is still a Whannell screenplay and he’s rarely shown a grip on how humans talk or behave on a superficial level, so the idea of going deeper into a full-on character study is much too daunting a task for the writer to do well on his own. Still, Robitel’s entry into the Insidious director’s holds up as well as his two predecessor’s (Wan and later Whannell taking his directorial debut with Chapter 3), able to jump into the formula they set for spooky haunted houses between the murky and earthy living world and the dingy dark blue shadows of the Further, even despite the relative goofy look of this movie’s demon (he lacks a palate and…) or the fact that Elise is missing in action for a hot minute and leaving us with characters that either are annoying or don’t feel present to drive the film.

Hell, it’s kind of by Robitel’s strength that the opening sequence is so distressing, utilizing Whannell’s need to have Elise abused, unleash Keyface, and kill off her mom in apparently one scene and one night and turning that unbalanced density into something that makes the momentum of the opening disorienting and uncomfortable. It’s affecting enough for us to align with Elise when Shaye gets to take over and even when Robitel doesn’t get that much narrative material to work with in one scare scene, he can still up the tension in the air so that it feels like maybe something of that power will occur (and he does get at least one more moment to do it: a game of hide-and-seek that occurs halfway through the film just after we’ve been given unsettling information about a character and climaxing without an out-of-character yet desperately violent act that leaves one of our protagonists shook).

Now, I’m going to admit there does come an early point where Robitel’s repetitions get more obvious to us and Insidious: The Last Key stops being scary (it also happens to unfortunately align with the absence of Elise, compounding the movie’s issues). Nevertheless, it goes far enough along the way so that we don’t have to wait long for an extremely satisfying resolution telegraphed by the constant presence of an item dear to Elise and Christian, aided enormously by Joseph Bishara’s score incorporating and foreshadowing an element of safety from Elise’s past and keeping that item present in his musical cues, and most of all smoothly facilitated by having its light source roll towards a heroic figure in such a silently climactic way. A wobbly descent can still be relieved from sticking the landing, something I’m not sure I can entirely acclaim The Last Key for doing when it ends on the sort unsubtle and clunky “here comes the first Insidious” note that it does. But even if I’m not sure I can call The Last Key a good movie, that final sequence involving the confrontation of old demons and the warmth with which it congratulates Elise is the sort of love for its character that stayed in my mind six months after watching it, even if it’s only the one character.

*Though this is not really set in stone, given that Chapter 2 is the chronologically latest entry and it ends on a note saying that Elise and her partners are still working, despite certain developments.

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About a Guy Named Robby on the Fourth of July

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I don’t have much to say about the death of Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, but I do have things I want to say starting from the observation of how very appropriate it feels that – even as a person who was by all means an international transient (I don’t know if, for all his work in this country, he ever turned citizen) – possibly did more to shape my view of the United States of America than any other cinematographer who ever lived. This is possibly something that rubbed off on him from his first and most well-known collaborator, the German genius of the road movie Wim Wenders, but it’s something that was maintained even well after their last work together in 1991.

It’s probably most relatable to me that neither Müller or Wenders were truly America, but they were fascinated by the myth of America and how they could dissect it to landscapes of lonely stretches of silence like Alice in the Cities opens on adopting the malaise of its journalist lead attempting to collect all the high-contrast images we see in black and white he took through out the continental nation into some comprehensive glimpse of the country and only getting a tired incomplete perspective out of it before returning to the same void he felt in Europe or Paris, Texas – arguably the best work of either and definitely the more direct investigation on America – interrupting the sparse baked textures of identity-less deserts with towering dwarfing edifices of downtown Houston’s skyscrapers, both supplying a uniform sense of wayward melancholy informed by the hot colors once the characters reach metropolis. With Wenders, Müller was able to take the biggest patch of nothing in Southern America and create a mirror for the weary traveller in the United States.

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And when Müller began branching out to further English language productions headed by different filmmakers, he’d find new angles on which to look at the country. I’m sure by now it is known what my feelings towards the like-wise foreign-born Alex Cox’s Repo Man are, but it should not be denied how effectively Cox and Müller turned the urban concrete jungle of Los Angeles into an expression of its punk population’s anger and the cutthroat attitudes of its working class. Or likewise, behind William Friedkin’s crime drama To Live and Die in L.A., where Müller collapses the same city into varying pieces based on how they function as a crooked extension of the empty and corrupt souls of its characters. One city, two different lens by one cinematographer.

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If I am to consider Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark one of the better films in a filmography I’ve grown cold to over the years, it’s strictly on the power of Müller being able to take a Lynchian alien quality to the industrialization of the country and apply it headfirst to both amplify the deliberate drabness of this melancholy musical and to apply an American personality to a film by a filmmaker who frankly never stepped foot in the country (and his later films Dogville and Manderlay both visually betray von Trier’s lack of knowledge on America, neither of them shot by Müller). And hell, Müller never needed to go outside as Barfly‘s muddy whisky browns of a drinking establishment cover as much of Mickey Rourke’s sloppy look as possible before the bitter whites and grays of the outside world (even in his character’s very own apartment) give a stark contrast of reality.

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Of course, I’m always going to be more enamored with outsider perspectives of the United States than anybody else, but I think Müller’s most definitive work as the man who captured all areas of America’s spirit for me is with his later collaborations with Jim Jarmusch and I imagine Jarmusch brought out as much of the best of Müller’s work as Wenders did: in three different usages of Müller’s penchant for stark black-and-white, Jarmusch is able to apply them to bring stark reality to the injustices of the “justice” system in Down by Law, a funereal sobriety to the deconstruction of the Western myth (both genre and culture) in Dead Man, and just a relaxed casualness to the minimalistic vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes. Meanwhile, Müller was also there to bring color to Jarmusch’s vision of Memphis with Mystery Train, taking care to establish the cool blues Jarmusch was aiming for while interrupting them with blasts of red whenever Screamin’ Jay Hawkins walks into the room or the Japanese tourists pull in their bags. Or translating that cool into urban textures that meditate with Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, perhaps one of the coolest movies ever made from a filmmaker whose whole aesthetic was “cool”.

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Anyway, I guess I’m just saying that it’s inevitable but unfortunate that Müller had to go because while I can’t imagine Wenders and Jarmusch would have been two of my favorite filmmakers without his grace and moreso on the 4th of July because I don’t think America will ever look as dynamic and interesting on the silver screen without him.

R.I.P. 4 April 1940 – 4 July 2018
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Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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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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