In the Jungle, the Miny Jungle

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It’s been a little over 3 years now, but I don’t think we as a film culture have ever healed from the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide and I don’t think we ever will frankly. And the reasons why are as clear as the nose on our face. Not only was it upsetting to discover how Williams was suffering in such a sudden fashion, but it was the suffering of a man whose constant animated mugging and heavy warmth moved an entire generation of young filmgoers in a sentimental manner away from a similarly manic but not nearly as heartfelt a contemporary as Jim Carrey. And I am sorry to say that, despite growing up right in the middle of that generation (Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire having come out around my first year on Earth and being inescapable), I am not one of those people as an adult. As a child, it was probably easier for me to enjoy but as an adult, I just don’t think the mugging and tenderness mix very well, though I think Williams pulled it off wayyyyyyy better than somebody like Roberto Benigni.

Let this often be a lesson in how heartless and muted from nostalgia I am as a human being.

Joe Johnston’s 1995 adventure children’s book adaptation Jumanji has more than enough mediocre elements in it that I don’t really have to talk about Williams any more once I get started than to say that while there are moments where he is definitely selling the manchild aspect of his character of Alan Parrish (most particularly his anxious body language in a scene where he avoids kissing Bonnie Hunt’s love interest Sarah), this is a frustratingly sedate performance that doesn’t nearly make good on the promise of a wild man emerging out of the jungle biome of the titular cursed board game, Jumanji, an admittedly interesting piece of lived-in production design that feels carved and otherworldly. At the center of that board game is a supernatural looking orb that feels like it’s just full of darkness.

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How Parrish ends up trapped in that board game to begin with is of the interest of the first scene set in 1969 as the adolescent Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) deal with Alan’s troubles with his wealthy and overbearing father (Jonathan Hyde), bullying from Sarah’s boyfriend, and guilt from costing one of his only friends Carl (David Alan Grier) his job by playing Jumanji and ending up with Sarah traumatized by watching Alan get sucked in and then getting run out by a bunch of bats.

Fast forward 26 years and now the board game has fallen into the hands of newly orphaned siblings Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, respectively), who begin playing it after moving into the Parrish home and finding themselves in peril as the board game unleashes a jungle into the house and with it eventually an adult Alan (Williams). Finding out soon enough that they cannot undo all this damage to the house until they complete the game AND that they cannot progress in the game without the now adult Sarah (played now by Hunt), they begin tunneling their way through warning rhymes of a new beast prowling amongst them that they must dodge or incapacitate as vines and trees and rain and other environmental elements begin covering up the Parrish home.

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Now, essentially this is just a platform for setpiece after setpiece of our characters versus Giant Venus Flytraps and Crocodiles and Lions and all until the in-game hunter Van Pelt (Also played by Hyde, probably to represent Alan’s unwillingness to grow up in a very shallow way, but Hyde’s clearly having fun with it) breaks out and the mayhem spills into suburbia. And the unfortunate thing is that these are… bad setpieces. Forgettable and flat, with terrible CGI (though I doubt this bothered me in the 1990s, but the monkeys especially look bad. The best looking monkey is a makeup job.) and a lack of urgency in the way they’re cut at all.

Joe Johnston is mostly hit or miss with me as a filmmaker, but I get the feeling that Johnston is so much stronger when he gets to work in period pieces like the previous Rocketeer and the later Captain America: The First Avenger. And Jumanji is not not that, given that the “young Alan in the 60s” scenes take up a frustrating amount of runtime but they’re shot in the most default Rockwellian aesthetic that would have been the laziest thing I’ve ever seen Johnston do if it wasn’t for the carwreck that’s The Wolfman. And that’s the closest to inspired he ever feels, for when it gets to the modern world… everything’s so bland and uninteresting to look at, especially in a very central chase through a department store where any energy comes from a clamorously percussive score by James Horner and a completely uncertain sense of cutting by Robert Dalva. Neither of these things give the movie a manic chaotic sense of fun, it’s just tiring in a nauseating way. The jungle scenes in the mansion at least want to have some sense of atmosphere but they’re so clearly colored in a funereal manner that dampens any sense of fun and lit like an amusement park’s promotional material. It’s unable to match up to Jumanji‘s goal of being an answer to the earlier Jurassic Park – a family oriented hit about a dysfunctionally put-together “family” trying to survive the savagest elements of nature.

Even when the movie finally gets everything wrapped up neat and tidy in the 90s storyline, there is still no less than 15 minutes left to go as it tries to solve all of Alan’s childhood dilemmas in one swing and even when it’s nowhere near as long, it’s reminiscent to me of the feeling I had with the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had a desire for things to just stop and fade eventually for I did learn or gain anything from watching Jumanji and could feel the time slipping out from under me like Alan’s fingers slipping into the board game.

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What a Happy Day It Is

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I’m going to spend almost the entirety of this post gushing over what I consider to be THE cinematic achievement of 2017 (and arguably the last movie I saw that year if you live in a timezone that is not mine), so I think I can be forgiven for identifying the most frequent criticism I hear on animator Don Hertzfeldt’s last-second released* short sequel to glorious and wonderful World of Tomorrow, this one titled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That criticism is essentially “it does not hold up outside of the context of World of Tomorrow, more particularly it does not hold up without watching World of Tomorrow immediately before it.”

Now, identifying that criticism does not mean I agree with it. Certainly, people would enjoy World of Tomorrow better with the knowledge of having seen Episode Two and it’s probably a lot easier to catch all the neat continuations of World of Tomorrow‘s visual anchors with the first short film fresh in your head, but Episode Two is certainly its own standalone story with its own insights on humanity and its own abstractions of those emotions into gorgeous technicolor seas washing together to fill the screen and sharp digital lines of various forms.

That said, Episode Two is soooooooo very much rewarding with the context of its predecessor in many ways. For one, much as Hertzfeldt made clear how tough it was to craft a new narrative from the new audio recordings he took out of his 5-year-old niece Winona Mae, there’s not only a challenging yet coherent narrative out of Episode Two, there’s also an evident growth from the last time we saw Mae’s character Emily Prime, rendered as a stick figure like every other character Hertzfeldt ever animated who isn’t a Simpson. There’s a lot of room for a little maturity and confidence between ages four and five, as Emily will indicate when a new adult clone of Emily (animator Julia Pott again) with a 6 on her forehead and a clangy metallic machine on her back suddenly barges into the child’s peaceful drawing time with a lot more urgency behind her “HELLO EMILY” (or is that just the fact that every line Pott delivers from this heavily damaged being is so loud and heavy? She still retains her mostly emotionally stilted line readings like before, still a huge strength) and Prime responds to her presence with a frank “you have to sit down, okay?”.

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I don’t want to go to far into what follows that introduction of Episode Two on a narrative sense (I will try to keep things thematic instead) because it’s so eventful and full of wonderful surprises, but I will explain how the middle ground into the same arresting colorful backdrops of dynamically undefinable computer generated shapes comes from ours and Prime’s entry into the mind of the clone. And if you thought the universe Hertzfeldt gave us in World of Tomorrow was dysfunctional, at least that one had real-world logic to it so we could recognize a rock when we see it or what part is the ground. Here, Hertzfeldt takes advantage of the opportunity to frequently glitch (both in on-screen and on the soundtrack) and leave remnants of visuals well after it’s communicated that the character or object is not there anymore to establish the fragile and impaired state of the being whose memories and emotions we are exploring.

And those memories and emotions are the product of a feeling of incompletion and dishonesty to one’s identity (indeed Emily Six’s existence as a clone/storage unit to Emily’s experiences is what gives her the titular “Burden of Other People’s Thoughts”), visually represented by backgrounds with gaping angular holes in them either interrupting an otherwise colorful scene with big spots of empty black or cracking a monochrome shot with chaos underneath it all. The uncertainty of our character at one point causes the colors to bleed in an artificial and digital way and it is the moment when it is clear Hertzfeldt has now mastered the usage of computers for his animation style. The force with which he deconstructs already unstable settings with dissolves and superimpositions** and aggressive revolutions of vertical smoke and clouds in dark tones of purple and red (Taylor Barron is credited for those clouds and, man, the movie would not nearly feel as urgent without them) is reminiscent in my mind of “Part 8” in this year’s return of Twin Peaks***, a rivaling attempt to translate intangible interior sensations such as depression and pain and loneliness into pure stimuli for the viewer. It is then no wonder “Part 8” and World of Tomorrow Episode II are the only competitors for the Best. Damned. Thing. I. Watched. in. 2017. The difference, other than moods since Hertzfeldt has never been as dark as David Lynch, is that Twin Peaks‘ anchor is the context of the TV series itself and Episode 2‘s anchor are distinct character presences. We’re here not only to sink into the mindframes the visuals lull us into, but in turn to recognize how that is the way the apparently blank Emily Clone 6 feels before we dig into the why.

Did I not mention this movie is funny? I promise it is, even despite what I just described.

Indeed, the more time we spend within the clone’s mind, the more we realize “oh this piece of scenery is her memory” and the clearer it is what the elements on her person, like the “6” and the bracelet across her wrist are AND what they happen to mean to her, neither of which are very happy answers. I don’t have trouble guessing that the way Hertzfeldt tried to cheat his way around Mae’s mostly unconnected lines is by crafting the true crux of the narrative around Emily Six (indeed, there is a span of time where Pott is the only voice in the film and it’s the most structurally clean moment in the film, though it also contains the broadest humor in the work – which is still hilarious if not very surprising – rather than the joyous randomness of Mae’s presence) and it means that we’re privy to more sadness surrounding the first 2/3 of Episode 2‘s 22 minutes.

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The last third, though, oh my Odin. Let me count the ways in which it accelerates World of Tomorrow Episode 2 into my heart as a wonderful blanket for the soul. First, we witness the full clout Mae gets over Hertzfeldt’s story in two moments (one of which preceeds that last third, mind you) where she ends up giving resolutions we would expect to this dense and dark depth into questions about existence we never want to ask. And in the way that only a five-year-old child could possibly do. Second, by that hand, Hertzfeldt indulges in simple yet bright and playful (and so much cleaner) designs full of cotton-candy-colored energy and life while retaining the still-impeachable logic that the setting would need, acting a foil to all of the fearfulness we saw before (it also is maybe the most rewarding sort of callback to the first World of Tomorrow and I feel like even being vague about how is kind of a spoiler). And third is by a lovely sequence of fluid movement and animation lifted up by The Nutcracker‘s compositions, not only surprising for a stick figure, but particularly for Hertzfeldt who has never in his career given us anything to imply he could make his characters so graceful and flowing as he does within the last few minutes of Episode 2 and probably could not have done so if he hadn’t finally mastered the digital technology with which he now animates.

It’s at once a shining moment of unexpected versatility on Hertzfeldt’s part but a beautiful tear-welling moment of catharsis after an exhausting 22 minute journey. It’s not often that you see an artist who will bravely dive deep into the sort of melancholy and gloom that Hertzfeldt is more than familiar with at this point and still rise effortlessly back up into unabashed optimism and inner peace. It’s possible that he couldn’t do it without the help of the innocence of his niece’s imagination and that is kind of one of the conclusions The Burden of Other People‘s Thoughts lands on: that while it doesn’t do to live in the past, even when it hurts us, there is still a solace in our childhood we ought to embrace and remember. But that is only ONE conclusion of many The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts holds in its treasure trove and here’s hoping more can be pulled out before the next Hertzfeldt comes to surprisingly top this one (I didn’t think World of Tomorrow could be topped and yet here we are). I have only scratched the surface in my first two viewings.

Oh, I watched it twice. Did I mention that? On the same day.

*A last second release that probably cost it a spot on the shortlist for The Academy Award for Best Short Film, Animated and that shit is GOING TO STING for the rest of my life.
**Again, Hertzfeldt’s usual M.O.
***For those who read this asking when I will return to my David Lynch retrospective, STinG is not here at the moment but if you leave a message, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you, bye bye.

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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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The Not As Maximum Force of the Future

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third entry to George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, begins with Max having now abandoned his old shining high throttle V8 Interceptor to trudging through the wastelands of the desert in a camel-drawn wagon. In the middle of his travels, though, he suddenly finds trouble once more when an AirTruk driven by a guy named Jedidiah (Bruce Spence) who resembles The Road Warrior‘s Gyro Captain in all ways (including being played by Spence) except having a son (Adam Cockburn) jacks his shit and takes it all the way in the distance for Max to chase after them.

The hunt leads Max to a thriving and kaleidoscopic place that resembles a pulp bazaar in all fantastical ways except with more dirt and dust to brown up the imagery. This place is known as “Bartertown” and is at the center of a power struggle between its founder and ruler Entity (the legendary Tina Turner in absolute scenery-chewing yet funky glory; she’s undoubtedly tuned-in to the craziness and I love it) and the head foremen of the pig feces refinery that provides power to the town – “Master Blaster”: a duo between the intelligent dwarf Master (Angelo Rossito) and his giant strongman valet Blaster (Paul Larsson) who know that the Bartertown’s survival rests on the refinery still running.

To throw this in her favor, Entity arranges for Max to be able to legally kill Blaster as according to the rules of Bartertown so that Master can forever be in her mercy and unable to threaten revolt or embargo ever again. This goes according to plan until a sudden revelation about Blaster as a person makes Max have a change of heart and break his contract. As a result, “Master Blaster” meet an unfortunate fate based on the laws of the Thunderdome in which they fight and Max is exiled back into the wasteland, only to be found by a primitive group of kids living in an Oasis and basing their cultural beliefs on the results of a Boeing crash where they were among the survivors. A belief that leads their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) and the rest of them into thinking Max is the prophesied pilot to fly them back home.

And here’s why I not only stop giving a synopsis of the movie but also where the movie outright stops it’s shit… taking forever to move on for the rest of the movie’s 107-minute runtime (I believe we get to this point in the premise at around the 50-60 minutes mark). So… yeah…

This is maybe a good time to note that the children is exactly where George Miller was apparently leading the story, even if it takes a while to actually get to the point. At the beginning of the project, it was not conceived as Mad Max film (The Road Warrior intended to be the end of that) but as a post-apocalyptic adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (though the boys themselves seem to resemble more the Lost Boys in the end than the children from Golding’s novel). It was only after some discussion that the movie was agreed upon to have Max turn out to be the man who found the children and from there the rest of the project developed itself.

But that still doesn’t answer for the leaden and slow approach to the story that sort of starts well before we even get to the children and only becomes absolutely damning once we actually meet the children and have Max juggle between their dilemma, Jedidiah’s theft, and the power struggle in Bartertown. And the explanation for that happens to be a little bit more depressing.

Since they met in 1971 at Melbourne University, Miller (studying medicine) and film student Byron Kennedy had been close friends and filmmaking partners. Together, they made a notorious cult short Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (a film that is actually near impossible to find apparently, as I’ve really wanted to check it out) and Kennedy became producer for Miller’s films since the first Mad Max.

In 1983, Kennedy suddenly died from injuries incurred by a helicopter crash and Miller was still grieving over his friend when he decided to go through with the project. In order to keep from overwhelming himself though, he had George Ogilvie, who had directed a miniseries in Australia The Dismissal which Kennedy and Miller produced and Miller co-wrote, take over the majority of directing duties. Miller instead opted simply to handle the action scenes, while Ogilvie took over everything else.

And the thankful thing is that, unlike something like Dracula (a movie which also suffers from a director’s grieving disinterest in a project, but much more severely to a point that it’s kind of a shit movie), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome still has a lot of thunder inside it to keep me interested and catching up with it (or given the pacing change – it catching up with my interest), even if it’s not going flowing as quick as its previous two films were. For one, both of the two major action setpieces Miller directs are still exciting and fun. The Thunderdome battle between Max and Blaster is quite frankly wacky in the best way possible, with a literally off-the-walls approach that reminds me of all those Nickelodeon Game Shows I watched as a kid. The two of them bounce around on bungee cords slamming into each other, grabbing whatever weapon they can and gleefully chasing each other up and about, without ever feeling sloppy or amateur. It’s still perilous and deadly, but this is probably the way I’d expect such a death fight adapted for a children’s film and it does so in a manner that the gleeful chaotic fun can be enjoyed by adults in that same juvenile manner.

The other big action setpiece – a finale vehicular chase once again – is not entirely original. In fact, it’s very clearly the movie remembering why we loved The Road Warrior and while having to force us to compare it to one of the best actions scenes ever made is quite a self-damning task, there’s at least one aspect of which I can give the chase scene here a one-up than The Road Warrior. This movie’s chase scene is shot better in a wholly superficial way. The horizons melting with each other, the Bartertown settings given more license to feel full now that we’re zipping through them like The Rules of the Game zips through La Coliniere… Dean Semler is clearly able to give Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome a more polished (but thankfully never clean) look to it than the previous films, but it is the final chase where it absolutely pays off.

Beyond that, we still have a very functional movie still. Ogilvie is thankfully no slouch when dealing with the different cast of characters that live in and beyond Thunderdome, even if he’s not as married to the characters as Miller was when he was interested. Between that and the still interesting touch of civilisation building within Bartertown (production designer Grace Walker and costume designer Norma Morriceau seem to have approached building life within the setting as a more Western version of The Road Warrior without this time needing to raid BDSM and Sports stores), it’s still doable to slog through what’s left of the movie between Thunderdome’s battle and the chase into the sky.

But it is still a slog and it’s a painful one to go through after having lived through stories so easily and simply realised within Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s predecessors. And witnessing this movie’s fall from the heights of The Road Warrior put me in a final more cautionary stance for Mad Max: Fury Road as I finished this film just in time to leave for an stage audition and then go to the theater to finally watch what was one of my most anticipated films of the year… now having seen how low the franchise has gone and hoping that this movie wasn’t going to be worse…