Blood’s Thicker Than Mud

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I have only one criticism of Mudbound, Dee Rees’ sophomore feature adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, so I’m gonna open with it and then be flatout done talking shit about Mudbound. Especially because it isn’t really an entirely fair criticism and it isn’t even close to justifying the amount of sleeping done on the film. But here I go anyway stating my obvious feeling about Mudbound: It is not as interesting looking a film as I’d like it to be. Much as I am happy to see Rachel Morrison’s name show up on the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography (the very first woman to receive the honor), it is way too clean for the grubby tale of generational hardships in the South that Mudbound is, threatening to be the one element that gets in the way of allowing us to sink into the many points of view Mudbound provides because of how aesthetically picturesque the imagery is. It’s not as though Morrison doesn’t know how to settle the tone of the story, especially in the darker moments where she’s so mindful of shadows and rural color tones in a dusty olden manner, but it’s way too sharp in a modern way to not hold the viewer at a divide in the time setting.

But of course, “you’re too good at your job” is the best kind of criticism to have for some. And I like to think that my expectations were way too high on account of Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah being handily one of the best-looking movies of the decade, possibly the century if I’m wildin’ a bit. And considering the quality of literally everything else in Mudbound, it’s still no excuse for the lack of marketing and campaigning on the part of Netflix, the lack of attention given to it by viewers, and the lack of love given it to it by an awards season that was DEFINITELY aware of its existence but still acted like better movies were around this year.

Yeah, I think at this point it should be obvious this is less a review than a rant, but I’ll try to reign it back after one more unqualified superlative: Mudbound is not only better than Pariah in otherwise every way, making the sort of evolutionary step in direction one dreams of out of the talented Rees, it’s also better than possibly all of Best Picture nominees this year*.

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OK, wait one more superlative and this one I will be able to qualify: In spite of Bright and Mute‘s… *giggle* “world-building” and the production value of a Jolie film and all those super pigs, I handily believe Mudbound is the most ambitious film Netflix has released. Narrative and thematic ambition, mind you. There’s no super-pigs here. What Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have managed to thread out of Jordan’s novel is a sprawling view of 1940s Mississippi and when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling. The screenplay casts its net wide on what it whats to observe about the state of existence in the years of and after World War II, what that means for a black woman to feel obligated out of survival to have to neglect her own children for the well-being of another, what that means for a black man to be in a position where he can build or earn his own property and yet the state of American society steels leaves him to be trampled underfoot, what it means to be a white woman resigned to domesticity too quickly to stifle her own romantic dreams and sinking into misery, what it means to be an entitled white man on the road to being the gargoyle of his monstrous father but desperate to establish a decent household in financially hard times.

The black woman is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black man is her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). The white woman is Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the white man is her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), son of the odious racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In the middle of all of this is still the perspectives of Florence and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both of whom are drafted overseas to Europe in the thick of the war and discover a vastly more different environment than America – especially Ronsel, treated less objectionably for his skin color (this watering down of Europe’s own racism would possibly be more objectionable to me if it weren’t co-written by a black woman) – then return to the same old miserable South they came from.

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It’s a film of many themes and many perspective (pretty much all the characters I named except Pappy have their points of view adopted by the movie): masculine camaraderie, surrounding violence, both sides of abandonment (as we later learn more about Ronsel’s life in Europe), the trauma of war, the resilience of enlightened youth versus the resignment of tired old. Race, gender, class. It’s all explored in this tapestry of the toughness of life and all the angles they have to come from: man or nature or cruelty or desperation. None of these elements are approached with less than the amount of intimacy that Rees afforded her lead character in Pariah. It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me think that Rees could make any movie in the world from this point on and do a decent job with it.

But as Ebert said, it’s not what you’re about, it’s how you’re about it. All the Great American Novel approaches in the world could not get me over the moon about this movie if it weren’t an incredible piece of craftsmanship, such as how Mako Kamitsuna deftly cuts into moments to give ownership of the moment to a particular character so we can understand their inner commentary, sometimes to more than one character at a time just by mere patience and condensing all of the things Mudbound wants to say into a powerful 2-hour package.

And there’s an even bigger gambit in between all of the sound design making us feel the infertile soil beneath the characters’ feet reflecting off of their inability to grow out of their situation with the decision to use multiple narrative voiceovers for our six characters, which is just an insanely bad idea most times. Mudbound is not one of those times, Rees and the soundtrack fully able to space out those voiceovers to work for interiority of character and them lift off of them for sweeping grandiosity, a providing of several pieces of a larger picture of a time and place that is far in the past without having the same sort of divide the cinematography gives us. This isn’t necessarily something that would be easy without the help of one of the year’s best ensembles, who prove to be just as adept at soulful recitations of thoughts as they are at weary postures showcasing how hard life has stepped on them** and their struggle to still retain humanity and dignity in all of that, but the fact that Rees could make such an outrageous move in only her second feature and pull it off without a false note ringing in any of the voiceover work should be enough of a indication of what a miracle Netflix’s most worthy Oscar contender yet has been.

*The only real nominee that gives it a run for its money rhymes with Thantom Phread.
**And mind you after everything the characters go through, the ending feels so emotionally right. I felt like crying.

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Lucky as a Rabbit’s Foot

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What do I get to say about Logan Lucky that wasn’t already said in one phrase before the movie was even over: “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”, a very knowing grace note of a background line by returning-after-a-4-year-hiatus director Steven Soderbergh (who had helmed the recent Ocean’s trilogy) and mysterious writer Rebecca Blunt (speculated by some to be a pseudonym for someone else, namely either Soderbergh or his wife Jules Asner).

It is impossible to conceive of a more accurate representation of what that movie is and presents about its characters and their lives, that it’s a heist movie from the exact opposite end of the economic background spectrum (Logan Lucky discusses this last element as a central motivation for the heist and certain actions after the heist, though Logan Lucky is not nearly as tenacious a commentary on finances the way Magic Mike is but it is a big one on class. More on that later.)Those characters being the Logan siblings – limping laid-off divorcée Jimmy (Channing Tatum), amputee veteran bartender Clyde (Adam Driver) who has a prosthetic left arm, and dry hairdresser Mellie (Riley Keough) who is apparently on the most stable footing out of the three of them.

They are frequently down-on-their-luck, due to a curse according to Clyde, Southern folk who are clever enough to attempt to turn that into the makings of a damned big heist of Charlotte Motor Speedway, THE Nascar home track, a heist that through that same hard luck ends up forced to occur on one of the busiest days of the speedway’s year – The Coca-Cola 600 Race.

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Most of this sounds a lot more glamorous and epic than it actually is, especially naming Tatum and Keough among the cast, which I want to make clear isn’t the case. Soderbergh’s given us an very muted heist film, trying to feel casual and at-home within the humble settings between Virginia and North Carolina and pleasant about all of the culture of country life in all of its fairs and impromptu hang-outs in bars or mobile health clinics. Most of all there is nothing glamorous in how Jimmy, a recently laid-off divorceé, is faced with the possibility of not getting to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) as his re-married ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) has to move from North Carolina to Virginia, one of the things that spurs this heist’s necessity to him.

I don’t want to call it a shaggy film because the thoroughline with which it explores this community swiftly (not in-depth, but enough that we’re not wondering where we are) and the rush by which it gallops through the heist are all too tight to become anything we could call “shaggy”, but it’s a more relaxed movie than any heist movie has any right to be. We may as well speculate that Soderbergh is happy to be back in the south (having been born in Georgia) after spending time in the glitzy glamour of Hollywood and the world and that probably the chance to make Logan Lucky within his familiar home region might have coaxed him out of his retirement to make the film just as well as his proclaimed newfangled concept of film production and distribution. And that home feeling just radiates out of the film without any self-consciousness about it being rural and grainy south, especially when the movie uses John Denver as a wonderful emotional anchor (out of the multitudes of films released in the US in 2017 that famously utilized Denver’s music in its soundtrack, Logan Lucky has my favorite one by a landslide).

Tatum himself is also Southern (Alabama-born) and its no surprise he’s able to slip into the handy and gentlemanly but rugged state of mind and guide us through it like a second language to him, but it’s a surprise when most of the cast are able to follow up on him. And as this movie is not necessarily the Tatum show, it leaves Daniel Craig’s blonde manic Joe Bang and Keough’s Mellie with more than enough room to upstage the star in his own territory. Still all are pleasant and welcoming and interesting as the last, except for the deliberate point of Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious British caricature who is meant to stick out like a sore thumb and be generally odious. For the first 2/3 of Logan Lucky, while it’s lightly aimed at the unfairness of the established economy on the little guy, MacFarlane and Dwight Yoakam’s bit turn as Warden Flop Sweat are the closest we have to present antagonists and Yoakam is too hilarious to be at all unlikable.

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At the last third of the film is when Soderbergh and Blunt seem to lose track of what kind of movie they were making and suddenly shifting to an incongruent FBI detective film starring Hilary Swank in a performance where we can understand what she’s going for even while she falls flat on her face as Sarah Grayson, the investigator in the aftermath of the heist. And frankly, it outstays its welcome given how little we want to see the Logans get a comeuppance, the amount of nothing to come out of Grayson’s entry into the story (including a very misfire of an attempt to recreate the final note of the first Ocean’s Eleven), and the frank fact that the movie just stops being a hell of a lot of fun and clunks and drags on its way to the finish line.

It’s not enough to stop me from falling in love with Logan Lucky as a return for Soderbergh, probably because ironically the damage of the third act makes me appreciate what preceded it even more. You see, Logan Lucky is frankly safe as a movie for Soderbergh. It maps neatly onto most of the work he’s already done and it’s shot and set in an area of the world that he has a strong affinity for. It’s not necessarily a challenge for him nor does it provide something new for the viewer if they’re already fond of Soderbergh. But it’s fun and it has energy and it’s breezy and it’s hard to see myself not having a good time with it. So sometimes, taking the country roads home rather than speeding around in circles is the best sort of drive to take, especially if it’s your first time back on the wheel in a while.

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Severance Package

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The Belko Experiment is the sort of premise that, unless it has an immaculately talented director behind the wheel who could balance it all, could almost only go in one of two directions – it could either be a broad comedy doubling as light satire or it could be a cold harsh and cruel picture that’s a tense watch, though not a hard watch. I don’t think a movie with this many pieces that would make us go “but how the fuck does THAT work logistically?” could survive trying to play things too straight-faced and serious.

And so James Gunn’s screenplay for The Belko Experiment ends up a double-edged sword, in how it does have a broadness to it in the mystery behind its central location – an apparently outsourced office for Belko Industries all the way in Bogotà, Colombia that is outrageously guarded with military-grade weaponry and prison looking concrete gates on the outside, though still seeing the need for indoor security headed by the casual Evan (James Earl). The also ridiculous logic behind employees agreeing to painfully implanted trackers or the building of steel doors to cover up the entire building could like wise not be entirely taken straightfaced without being a total wink at how far people are willing to go to be offered any position, though that’s just too general here already. And especially when a voice on the loudspeaker (Gregg Henry) announces to its employees that they must kill each during an allotment of time or they will utilize the explosive trackers to kill many more. It’s not hyucks, but it’s got heightened distance. If anything, the only element of the film that doesn’t seem to have an actual business atmosphere analogue is how all of the management heads, including COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), are former military with heavy combat experience, thus having a head up on the men and women beneath them that they can kill, but overall it’s an unsubtle portrayal of competitive work environments except with physical violence instead of the downsizing and staff cuts.

And so, Gunn’s script able to sell these with enough humor behind it desperately wants to be something of a comedy and satire. Indeed, the film even includes in its large ensemble many of Gunn’s regular actors, such as Henry, his brother Sean, and Michael Rooker (Gunn remains a producer on the film and I’m sure he was slated to direct at one point). There’s also one very recognizable comedic character actor in the form of John C. McGinley. So humor is in the idea of this movie to especially sell the commentary of cutthroat office atmospheres.

And unfortunately, director Greg McLean is just not funny.

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Mind you, McLean is actually a wonderful idea for a movie about the brutality of others desperately shedding each others’ blood and as a result The Belko Experiment ends up working very capably as a thriller. It should be no surprise that the director of the nihilistic and overwhelming Wolf Creek is able to carry this movie’s stakes and horrors (though I’m not certain I’d call this a horror movie). Not enough to make this into a nailbiter, but given the amount of familiarity the premise of “put people into a room and make them slaughter each other in order to make a statement” at THIS point in the decade, it’s amazing to have any amount of tautness in the atmosphere at all.

And to be quite real, McLean certainly feigns in the direction of some amount of irony. It’s hard to deny that in how editor Julia Wong uses the occasional Spanish covers of classic rock tunes such as “California Dreamin'” into a rhythm for which our hearts jump on each shot and axe to the face (Wong, easily the movie’s best weapon, also has a way of utilizing cuts just at the moment of a body part giving way to the film’s not-quite-severe gore – enough to let us see the ugly viscerality of it and sell it before she cuts to the next element of the scene leaving it still fresh in our mind when we move on).

That honestly leaves the cast themselves to be guided by McLean to turn into sweaty and harried blood-covered beings who have two particular types – those who can’t grapple with this kill-or-be-killed environment or those who are eager to just step all over their peers – and the cast, mostly fronted by either John Gallagher Jr. or Melonie Diaz (as the unfortunate new recruit) all know how to turn their bodies into collapsing alarms of panic. And once again McLean, Gunn, and Wong structure all this material into several diverging storylines so that we can capture enough of the characters to make it hurt more when we see their grisly demise, the same sort of multi-narrative angle Battle Royale perfected with the premise beforehand.

Basically, it’s not reinventing the wheel and I can’t figure out anything within it that makes it a must-watch. But The Belko Experiment is not anything less than a decent bloodletting thriller as well, short enough not to outstay its welcome and shallow enough to prevent the nihilism within it from ruining our day.

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Sofia Coppola’s Tenchi Muyo

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I don’t think I can blamed for feeling that sometimes feminine-focused storytelling is better understood by women. While of course Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood did fantastic work with their adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil back in 1971 under the title of The Beguiled, but Sofia Coppola’s remake of their film is a lot more relaxed and confident about the complexities of its characters in a way that Siegel and Eastwood couldn’t be. Indeed where Siegel had to grab every incident in the plot and squeeze out the most melodrama he could possibly stomp out of a story that feels alien compared to the rest of his work (save for possibly another Eastwood collaboration – Two Mules for Sister Sara, though I have not seen that one), Coppola’s treatment of this material is more chilly and sleepy. And that’s appropriate since she’s a lot more familiar about the malaise shuttered women feel in a singular location for an indefinite amount of time, surrounded by the harsh masculine violence (portrayed by a brilliant sound mix just distantly implying the battles occurring).

In Coppola’s The Beguiled, she explores that malaise through the tale of Martha Fansworth’s (Nicole Kidman) girls school in the middle of Civil War-torn Virginia as one day her young student Amy (Oona Laurence) brings the wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Bringing a smoldering and helpless man into these four walls obviously sends a shockwave through Farnsworth, her teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and the five students, including and especially Alicia (Elle Fanning).

Young women locked in four walls and that empty time and space informing them. This is exactly the type of material she’s been working with for much of her career – her first three features The Virgin SuicidesLost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette especially. And while probably more plot-driven than either of those three films, Coppola ends up finding a way to let The Beguiled simmer into just watching all these characters who don’t know how to respond to each other bounce off the walls emotionally. Gorgeous walls they are too, designed by Anne Ross in light pinks to feel like a pale ghost of a house trying to dress itself up for company but giving way to beiges failing to hide the school’s emptiness. And captured in lyrically soft lights by Phillipe Le Sourd that let those colors blanket the scenes in bored yet distinct ways. It’s a lovely film to look at and thereby a lovely one to live in despite the characters we’re living with, all vulnerable in some way, all trying to hold control over the situation so they’re not obliged to one another. So that I find Coppola’s Beguiled better, by a sly margin, than Siegel’s Beguiled should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me except for maybe those whose opinions usually align with mine and diverge at this point by disliking the movie.

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Can’t bring myself to blame them. If there’s one place Coppola fails in Siegel’s stead, it’s that her Beguiled is so lax that it doesn’t bother to scrounge up any momentum as a thriller*. While that might add to a violent jar when the third act escalates, at no point in the movie – even at that first act – does it feel like it’s anymore than a really spiteful character drama without the slightest hint of danger. That’s probably not aided by fact that in an ensemble almost entirely personified by different levels of repressed female sexuality (this feels a lot sexually heightened than Siegel’s film, but it’s still there – especially in Farrell’s chemistry with Dunst) and varied in responses to that repression, the odd man out is Farrell. Maybe this is just as a unfortunate result of having seen the original first, but Farrell – extremely attractive as he is – does not have an ounce of the sexual charisma that Eastwood had as McBurney. Nor does his about-face around the second half of the film feel much dangerous as it is presented like a kneejerk response to misfortune. And that’s troubling, given Farrell has shown all throughout his career that he’s capable of both sex appeal and heightened antagony (I particularly think, funny enough, of another remake performance – Fright Night – combining both). In any other movie, Farrell’s muted performance would have been adequate. In the context of this heightened conflict of sexual wiles and manipulation, it’s an outright liability.

As for liabilities in the ensemble, the biggest one is not who is on-screen, but who isn’t. The black slave character of Hallie, previously a grounded presence that suspected McBurney early on, ends up removed on Coppola’s part (explained as her feeling unqualified to talk about slavery). Ignoring the evident collapse of the third act’s tension by taking away a character apprehensive to McBurney’s presence and thereby straining the already pretty languid pacing, I don’t really find much argument against the fact that deciding to make a Civil War film while consciously removing a pre-established black character is erasure (although Ira Madison III – among others – argues otherwise). In either case, the drama has to be entirely rearranged by Hallie’s presence and so Coppola as writer and director has more heavy-lifting to do.

I think she pulls it off and earns her Best Director Award from the film’s 2017 Cannes premiere, providing a film that balances the atmosphere in an uncanny way between the funereal and the flowery and brings a shudder to me while she also composes a forceful clash of charms from at least three different powerful personas on-screen (Seductive Fanning, Matriarchal Kidman, Erotic Farrell; on top of the brilliantly withdrawn Dunst and the impressive informal arc from innocence to complicit darkness in Laurence provides. I only regret that an actress as talented as Angourie Rice doesn’t get much to do). It’s not as overt as its predecessor, even in the carnality of certain relationships. I find that a boon, letting The Beguiled wrap around me into an ennui relatable to the characters on screen and nestling itself nicely into the output of a director I’m always ready to revisit.

*The guy I watched Coppola’s film with was actually surprised after-the-fact to find out that it was supposed to be considered a thriller. He hadn’t seen any advertising of course, which angled Coppola’s film as a horror film (I probably wouldn’t have convinced him to see The Beguiled with me if he saw those trailers).

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Our Hospitality

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It’s already shocking enough to imagine Clint Eastwood as the centerpiece of a film about female sexuality… kind of. The fact that he’s the smoldering handsome slab of manliness that women are all over is completely expected of Eastwood, but that he’d be willing to play that objectified role in a movie more indebted to the perspectives of the women surrounding him and how they respond to his presence rather than just how much of a sexual dynamo he is is what makes me surprised at the man’s involvement at the peak of his grizzled masculinity.

That this generous ensemble look into the shuttered lives of frustrated women in the depths of the Southern summer heat like a Tennessee Williams work went gothic is directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood’s regular collaborator and who probably surpassed Sergio Leone as the biggest hand in coding Clint Eastwood as a lonely tower of violent machismo, is fucking mind blowing.

Because The Beguiled, adapted into a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (pseudonymed due to Maltz’s blacklisting into “John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice”) and based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, is frankly successful at shading in dark the stresses of these women in their humid prison, something the qualifications of both of its most prevalent authors (Eastwood being the one who introduced the material to Siegel).

Those women being Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), the sophisticated and maternal headmistress of a girls’ school run in the middle of the Mississippi woods and one of only three adult figures around, the others being frail teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and weathered slave Hallie (Mae Mercer). The school is surrounded inescapably by the chaos of the Civil War and that chaos leaves in their midst one day the near-dead Union Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), who young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) finds and helps bring to the school even after McBurney alarmingly kisses the twelve-year-old girl – ostensibly to hide from Confederate troops seeking him, but in an unmistakably sensual manner.

From McBurney’s entrance into the walls of the school, The Beguiled becomes most interested in simmering the sexual tension slowly to a boil based on the various ways every single inhabitant responds to the sudden presence of this rugged piece of virility healing in their comforts. Martha quickly announces her intentions to relinquish McBurney to the Confederate troops once he heals, but clearly finds McBurney an entertaining replacement for her late brother. Edwina is positively smitten by him in an unhealthy pushover way. The eldest teenage student Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is lustful and attempts to seduce McBurney. Hallie is reasonably conversational but more than a bit wary of McBurney’s intentions.

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This is a story that could easily develop into “guy trapped among libidinous woman must escape these crazies” and to be fair, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what Siegel’s picture is. While the movie is interested into what brings the women into such malaise, it’s hard for Siegel to make a movie starring Eastwood not mostly interested in Eastwood and The Beguiled feels most tonally engaged when it gets to function as thriller with the women, but I’ll get to that soon. Still it is clear early on that McBurney is more than a little bit manipulative (though his injuries are legitimate and life-threatening) and he’s aware of the carnal inhibitions he is ripping out of the women all around him. As Eastwood’s chilly and smug inhabitation of the role informs us, McBurney’s certainly trying to turn those things to his significant benefit and the movie is only waiting for it to blow up some explosive manner, which it does in the third act thanks to the unhinged high-scale performances of cold and deliberate Page and especially Hartman, who gets to take hold of the conflicted feelings of lust and rage that Edwina has beaten over her in an explosive scene connecting the second and third act and spins between them in a deliriously pitiful yet vicious way.

Page and Hartman are supported by Don Siegel’s possibly most nakedly heightened work to date, indulging in flashbacks to the potentially sordid affair between Farnsworth and her brother to punctuate the ugliness behind Page’s facade (as well as certain ones introduce to us how clearly McBurney is not above dishonesty or self-preservation), the occasional double exposures on images to establish a meditative mood that still manages to hold an edge on the characters, or Lalo Schifrin’s score rising like steam in a boiling pot to warn us of the duplicity still in delicate choral strings. And we still don’t get to the most outrageous element yet, Bruce Surtees’ use of shadows into sculpting scorned female gargoyle faces on Page and Hartman at their most enraged. Up until that climactic sequence, Surtees is restrained in framing the house as anything more than an innocuous yet prison-like cage for the women, partly funereal with just enough delicacy in its soft tones to give the visuals a lilting feel. Mind you, there are those who might consider these elements hokey or overwrought and they do handily seem dated in a manner that feels less digestible if you aren’t quite into it. For me, I eat that right up and find it utterly compelling as thriller.

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After all, it’s what heightens the film enough to melodrama so that Siegel and company into slapping one in the face with the toxicity of the situation, from McBurney’s smug ability to take hold of these women in a creepy manipulative way unconcerned with their well-being (or any principles at all, one of the most horrifying moments late in the film where he goes on edge and threatens to rape the characters now that he’s much once he’s asserted his masculinity at gunpoint), Edwina’s helplessness in her own self-destructive path throwing away the security she previously had in this aristocratic home, Carol’s excitement at exploring her newfound sexuality with a tall male object to aim her open blouse at, Hallie’s necessary resilience to the cruelty of McBurney and the Farnsworth clan (another flashback cutting into a sinister exchange as through triggered by past trauma to Hallie), and above it all Miss Farnsworth herself psychologically fencing with McBurney to contain control of her girls for completely selfish reasons as McBurney attempts to put her under his wiles and avoid being further under her mercy as he already is.

But perhaps the true indicator of there being no moral center in The Beguiled, only culpability in human darkness, is the young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who is our first character – the one who finds the half-dead McBurney – who is kissed on the lips, who remains so smitten by McBurney that she spends an amount of the runtime his biggest advocate against being turned over to the Confederates, and at the end has a very key involvement in the lethal finale of such a sharp and moody descent into the vices and violence of repressed sexuality.

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Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

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This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

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The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

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Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

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I Believe the Children Are Our Future, Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way

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I live in a very weird bizarre limbo attitude with Sean Baker’s latest film The Florida Project. Like real Mr.-Krabs-meme type of deal. On the one side of it, the majority of Florida-based critics I had been hearing from leading until its availability to me on the tip of that terrible state, Miami, have been… alarmingly hostile*. Including many friends whose opinions I not only trust, but who had a lot more enthusiasm and praise for Baker’s previous film Tangerine. I did not share that same love for Tangerine (partly because it toes the line between laughing at its characters and laughing with its characters salvaged by two phenomenal leads, partly because it’s ugly as hell), so it only aided my hesitancy to see The Florida Project.

Meanwhile, those critics’ antagonism towards the movie is drowned out by the mountains of praise the film has ben receiving since its premiere at the 2017 Festival du Cannes and its continued run in North America, essentially securing at the very least a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe and there’s still enough time in the year for A24 to ride that good will to get either The Florida Project or Lady Bird even more nominations (anything but The Disaster Artist, please). And far be it from me to always ride with the majority opinion, but I like to think there’s actually a reason when people seem to really like a movie.

That movie being a slice-of-life-in-poverty through the perspective of wild and mischievous six-year-olds, not unlike the Our Gang series of short films from the early 1930s that get a special thanks credit. This particular gang of little rascals isn’t a large one, beginning with just Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) who live one floor away from each other in the Magic Castle hotel in Kissimme, Florida, and early on rounding itself up to include Jancey (Valeria Cotto) from the Futureland hotel across the street after one of spitting on and then cleaning her mother’s car. Apparently Mooney’s license to explore with her friends is enabled by her financially unstable and immature young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker and Chris Bergoch’s script spends most of its 115 minutes observing the hotel residents and the events alongside the kids, but only slowly developing a narrative involving Halley’s volatile lifestyle intruding on Mooney’s wide-eyed wonder.

So, where do I stand?

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I dunno. I think it’s mostly ok. There are two things about The Florida Project I feel strongly about and they’re both on the opposite sides of my reaction spectrum: I love Dafoe’s performance’s as the hotel’s manager Bobby, a character’s that’s just an occasional satellite to the story full of humane frustration of the gang’s hijinks but also obligatory paternal warmth in understanding their youth and vulnerability. His Oscar chances look promising and I can’t say it’s undeserved, making the most out of every small moment he appears in such as dealing with a predatory old man or amicably moving a group of Sandhill cranes off the property or failing to talk with his son.

Meanwhile, there’s the thing I really hate about The Florida Project, which happens to be the ending so I can’t be as descriptive about it except in saying it felt like an extremely dishonest moment and looks no less ugly than any shot in Tangerine, though there’s also the logistical answer of why The Florida Project chose its look. A scene isn’t made or broken by one scene ideally, but you do pick your ending note for a reason and Baker’s choice of note for The Florida Project feels disastrous and kind of confirms the naysayers’ accusations of exploitation.

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It is very tough for me to hold exploitative nature of the film preceding that ending against it, for very shallow reasons of mine. The Florida Project IS poverty porn but in a visually pleasant way. Florida is the fucking worst, I feel qualified to say after living most of my life at this point in the state, and the Orlando area is just grossly tacky and overcrowded with tourists. Magic Castle and Futureworld are the most normal buildings we see all through the film and they’re both sickly purple concrete constructs in a sweat, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe doesn’t see that. He sees a big vibrant block color interrupting serene glade horizons capturing the light so softly, you’d think it’s fragile and defining the blues and greens and violets. He sees an assuring geometry and symmetry to the floors and doors from the exact right angle, like relaxed clockwork.

And because Zabe sees it, it’s so clearly translated into how the kids themselves see Kissimmee and in turn how the audience is stuck visualizing it. This sort of transformation of a soft serve shaped ice cream booth into the most miraculous sanctuary from the truth of Mooney’s living situation is exactly where The Florida Project hits the target on its ideal. It’s unfortunate that at times the movie sometimes makes decisions that pull away from her perspective in an untethered manner. The most obvious bit is a moment between Bobby and his son (Caleb Landry Jones), but the moments that really grate on me are the ones focused on Halley, who turns out to be so much more shrill than any of the kids possibly could be. Especially when the film takes a character turn with Halley that makes it impossible to sympathize with her in the final act of the film, even while it’s desperately asking for us to feel so. Which only butters me up into being frustrated and annoyed by the ending to the point of asking “What the fuck was that?” as the credits rolled.

But up until that point, The Florida Project proves itself to be quite a success at the things Sean Baker wanted to capture. It’s not the cleanest tone and it’s not a game-changer (the return of child-centered realism isn’t brand new. Beasts of the Southern Wild was less than 5 years ago), but something that might have earned my respect and admiration to the level of Tangerine. It’s not much, but it’s something and as The Florida Project has proven both in content and in reception, not much can be the world to the right eyes.

*To be quite honest, the majority (but NOT entirety) of those people are from South Florida and we are decidedly not some unimpeachable authority on Central Florida, no matter how many times we went to Walt Disney World.

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Float On

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My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it doesn’t reflect my feelings on the movie outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. It is impossible to miss the logic behind both decisions: production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very basis of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work cut for it to accomplish narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or give depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.

Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they’re valid, but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.

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King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lures Georgie into a shockingly violent end.

Meanwhile, Bill and new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are independently noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, prepares to fight against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.

Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.

But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård adopts an exaggerated stance like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to the primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.

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Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels honest.

It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide. It even deviates away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that’s fleshed out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis comes out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.

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But anyway, the town of Derry as a location is built on the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, that’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.

It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.

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*Though it seems like even on that end, the movie skims the price tag. There’s a hilarious tweet of a guy nitpicking a single Lego block used in the background, but I’m thinking of a character beat of a wide shot towards a wall of tampons that all have noticeably 2016 packaging. Incidentally, talking about this in public with a friend led to an eavesdropping teenager who asked how I’d recognize that and we (alongside another eavesdropping woman) subsequently informed him that he’ll come to the day when his girlfriend sends him for tampons.
**The miniseries is inferior to the film in most ways, but they at least got this structurally downpat by making each initial encounter a kid had with Pennywise function as an extended flashback of trauma after they receive Mike’s call.
***Most especially aided by the fact that the movie removes all the cosmic elements of the novel – which work well for the book but seem overkill as a cinematic story – and makes the terror localized into Pennywise. But from what I understand, Chapter Two has intentions to involve the cosmic elements. Ugh.

25 for 25 – Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damnurai

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John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven from 1960 is possibly one of the most formative movie-watching experiences of my life. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever heard my dad be enthusiastic (possibly the second most enthusiastic he’s ever been save for The Battle of Algiers. It was definitely the movie I watched long before I got a chance to look at Kurosawa Akira’s classic Seven Samurai. I grew up wanting to be Yul Brynner (though the list of people I wanted to be as a kid is vast… at one point it was Godzilla, I’m sure) and there are frankly some remakes in cinema where which version you watch first seems to be the one that you overall prefer between the two.

If you are expecting me to claim I prefer The Magnificent Seven to Seven Samurai, you will be severely disappointed. The Magnificent Seven is the one I hold dear with all of my heart and I would even dare to claim there ARE areas where it does in fact improve over Samurai (namely in its treatment of its villains… casting Eli Wallach will do that), but there’s no context where Seven Samurai is not the overall better movie. And given that this is a Seven Samurai lovefest, that is the last we’ll hear of the cowboy flick for now.

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The hook is recognizable in its simplicity: in the volatile Sengoku period of Japan, a farmer overhears a passing bandit army planning to attack his isolated village soon and brings the new to the rest of the unmartialed fellow farmers, who wallow in misery at this threat. Desperate, they ask the village elder Gisaku (Kodo Kokuten) for advice he tells three villagers to go to the village to recruit samurai with the sole promise of food, which proves to be a challenge worthy of its own hour’s worth of content (in the shortest-feeling 207 minute movie in history) due to the samurai’s pride. Eventually, they’re able to scrounge together a motley but dedicated crew of samurai: war-weary Kambei (Shimura Takashi), his impressionable disciple Katsushiro (Kimura Isao), Kambei’s former comrade Shichiroji (Kato Daisuke), the strategical Gorobei (Inaba Yoshio), laconic swordsmaster Kyuzo (Miyaguchi Seiji), and the cheerful Heihachi (Chiaki Minoru). As they’re on their way to the village, they’re tagged along by the temperamental animalistic Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro) who insists he’s totally a samurai when it’s clear he’s not “legally” and ends up making up the seventh warrior recruited to train the villagers to defend their home against the bandits.

That was a long synopsis, but seriously: it’s just seven guys defending a home against many. It’s almost like a Herculean fable when you dilute it. The richness in Seven Samuraas a narrative is how every single character in that village, once the samurai arrive, feels completely lived-in and involved in their own drama outside of the actual conflict. It never gets to mosaic narrative mode, since our focus is on our heroes developing a camaraderie and more able leaders and warriors, but the movie is clearly just as concerned with the state of the farmers and what they must go through to evolve themselves. There’s a reason we begin with said farmers after all and there is tragedy and fear and wisdom within the farmers we get glimpses at, sometimes intertwining with the samurai’s tale. This in turn makes it an exercise in class commentary and Seven Samurai is not at all subtle about this facet, having moments of conflict within the clashing cultures all over. Hell, the most obvious subplot’s involve squaring with Kikuchiyo’s heritage and young Katsuhiro’s romance with farmer Manzo (Fujiwara Kamatari)’s daughter Shino (Tsushima Keiko). This is something that Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu, and Oguni Hideo’s screenplay can only map out, it takes a cast as collectively incredible as this film to truly bring these themes to life in such a natural manner that makes nearly three hours of restrained drama seem just as compelling as the action that follows.

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And my what action! Kurosawa is a craftsman first to most minds and Seven Samurai seems like the high standard for what kind of movies Kurosawa could make at the very peak of his long career. I don’t mean to dilute the national identity of Kurosawa’s work, but obviously part of what made him so internationally accessible (and his earlier film Rashomon end up being the gateway to foreign films once again being welcomed with arms wide open in the US) is his clear influence from John Ford, but I must say there’s so much in Seven Samurai that feels entirely Kurosawa’s own – from his cutting on movement to always keep the movie feeling like it’s rolling and keep our interest on what’s happening (there is an Every Frame a Painting video that comments on Kurosawa’s focus on this), to his disciplined compositions with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai relaying to themselves a geometry for the characters that tells everything. Obviously the ending shot is the most telling example of this and we’ll return to that, but possibly my favorite moments involve a chaotic element imbalancing that discipline in an emotional way even if not literally – like when Kyuzo rushes into the distant enemy to steal rifles and Kurosawa/Asakazu dare to have him disappear into the darkness before a cut or the high flames engulfing a hut as we witness what happened to Rikichi’s (Tsuchiya Yoshio) wife. The inability to sit still or go according to the rules creates drama and you have to follow the rules before you can break them (slight without making grand gestures). Kurosawa spends that first hour establishing those rules and then shakes the audience when it comes to battle.

No moment more chaotic than the central battle close to the finale, when the bandits are exhausted from the samurai’s guerilla tactics and rush into the village en force and Kurosawa/Asakazu opt to have us sit in the middle of the battle captured by the compact focus of the telephoto lens they brought to Japanese cinema, engulfed within it via the telephoto lens. It races following whatever elements it can all the way until the final blow and when somebody is killed, Kurosawa compounds movement by having the shot person LITERALLY CRASH INTO A BAMBOO WALL, giving it more power. If that doesn’t signify Kurosawa’s belief in drama given to movement, I don’t know what does… maybe the direct way a character sits and grouches when in grief.

Anyway, I want to return to that final famous shot of Seven Samurai, a shot given much more devastation by the amount of time spent growing with its characters followed by how much the violence and casualties weigh on our sympathies. It invokes a weariness towards war in the sands moving and the wind whistling with an emptiness communicated (plus the farmers’ cheerful song at the victory is by now completely faded away, instead Hayasaku Fumio’s theme in its most funereal incarnation after a strong fullness all throughout). It invokes an uncertainty of where the survivors will go here (again directly communicated by the final line which is “this victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.”). And the visual division of those lines has such a mathematical element that you have to think about how these deaths are just a constant to the samurai’s lives. The mood and tone of the scene is clear (and it’s obviously deliberate to have this the final image of the whole movie) and what it says overall against war and violence is direct. There’s an obvious dysphoria in message between this moment and the same moment in the remake Magnificent Seven that I will reserve for the time that I may one day talk about Magnificent, but in the meantime… I wanted to leave this simply as testament to Kurosawa’s brilliant control of his imagery and sound to pull the viewer’s heart into the conflicts on screen, the masculine rough personality that covers his work here, and the apparent lasting legacy in nearly every element of the action, writing, and soundtrack blankets international cinema beyond.

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We Can Jack Up Our Prices on Two-Time Galaxy Saving.

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I’ve been struggling to write my pained angry review of Beauty and the Beast partly because I have no way to not turn everything all around to the injection of Daddy Issues and that is, at best, just a couple of scenes.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is proving to be a tougher time as it is loaded to the brim with Daddy Issues and, while this was a shocker even before the trailers with Kurt Russell’s reveal as Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father Ego showed up (given Yondu’s very last lines in the first movie), I’m not 100% certain it felt organic to the film. Largely because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 means backpedaling a lot on the relationship growth between the central group: Starlord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion captured by James’ brother Sean Gunn, who also gets a live-action role as a space pirate Ravager), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are almost all pushed backwards into feeling more like people who just met each other than a team who had their fair share of trials together. This is most severe on Rocket, whose retrograde is how the plot kicks off, but it’s also lessened by the fact that Cooper is just a fantastic voice actor in the role and sarcastic and biting things to say are like a second language to him. Can’t say the rest about most of the other cast members – the energy in both Pratt and Bautista’s comic element seems to be draining, but they put up a good fight and Diesel’s voice is at this point so altered he feels like a practical non-entity. Saldana at least gets more to work with in Gamora’s continued feud with her cyborg adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) (with its own amount of ties to daddy issues), but it’s tough to keep yourself engaged in that story when one of the characters is a stern and terse figure and the other is written as a one-emotion character of rage. Which is not to see Saldana and Gillan can’t make their arc work, but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

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That’s a lot more words than I intended to open with ragging the hell on a movie that I actually walked out enjoying and liking. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may have not known the proper way to bring back its characters, but it’s actually some of the most impressive visual work Marvel has done since the first movie came around. The bold and bright color palette design of the first movie is now bolder and brighter and yet still balanced by the hands of Scott Chambliss, even when it’s complete blocks of one shade like the gold of the Sovereign throne room and the wonderous kaleidoscopic fauna of Ego’s… well Ego’s home world, I will stick to in order to avoid spoilers for people who aren’t fans of the comic. And this in itself is home to some wonderfully kinetic comic book framing by Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham, which in turn lends themselves to the most creative fight scenes the MCU has brought us this side of Captain America: Civil War. A zippy arrowflight shown via closed-circuit television, an opening monster battle out of focus in the background as Baby Groot dances along to the best soundtrack he could. Yep, there is now a second Awesome Mix with songs I am compelled to say I overall prefer to the selections in the first movie’s Awesome Mix – Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (which was on the soundtrack to my high school angst), and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” – but I’m not so sure about how its used in the film. A lot more inorganically (like the character developments) and sometimes blatantly recycled or out of place (“The Chain” appears in one scene it doesn’t need to and the movie cuts the song before it reaches its awesome climax) and yet there are moments like the aforementioned arrow battle that it works like magic or Rocket’s ambush of Ravengers using traps and guerrilla tactics. Basically as an aesthetical delight, this movie delivered some and more on feeling like the trailer to Thor: Ragnarok thought it was gonna be the first zany and bouncy MCU film.

And then there’s still the fact that not all of the characters are a wash. Sure, Michael Rooker is not playing Yondu, but instead a version of Space Merle, but the extended screentime in the presence of Space Merle and the new ties he has with the Guardians (and chemistry with Rocket) is wonderous thing (generally, getting a closer look at the Ravagers culture appeals to the punk in me). Kurt Russell has moxy enough to believe that he and Pratt could be related while turning his charm levels up high for when the movie is expects him to about face as a character. And Pom Klementieff is the best possible new discovery as Ego’s cute socially awkward empath Mantis, who seems to have stolen all of Bautista’s oblivious humor and yet is generous enough to make the two actors a perfect odd couple to share the screen with together. Yeah yeah yeah, she’s a Born Sexy Yesterday, but a fun and unsexualized version.

It’s weird to admit I was dreading this as a simple retread (and it IS) and sure it does not earn its 130 minute runtime, but it is the most fun you could have being recycled another storyline and isn’t it enough to ask we have a good time? If Marvel can keep things at that level like Vol. 2 and Ragnarok promise, I can see myself getting tired of the “same-old comic book movie” criticisms.

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