Raiders of the Lost Oak

124117

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

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

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

screenshot-from-2018-07-16-07-47-51

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

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

blindspotting

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

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

blindspotting-domestic-trailer-1_scruberthumbnail_0

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

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

636672203689016532-051bsg-157

Raccoon City

screenshot2b252893202529

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

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

6faba42167ba73e62a6a7793c8dad221

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

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

pompoko5

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

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

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

7130915pompoko1994_screencapsgrafica-magica_40_

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

ffae952c75ef1be2e935d402b7ee2e93-pom-poko-hayao-miyazaki

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

8264f-pompoko-realistic

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

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

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

pompoko

Stay Woke

Film Title: Get Out

Director/Writer Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a special sort of screenplay the likes of with I can’t remember having encountered since Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. It is the sort of screenplay where the writer wanted every single element that comes up to turn around full circle by the end of the film like Chekov’s Gun on maximum. Which leads to storytelling on paper that is rich enough to have the audience speculate on a character’s eating habits (even though Peele has gone on record claiming any possible reading of said moment is inadvertent on his part) or the motivations of its antagonists as they traumatize and assault black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) on his visit to meet the white family of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). And this is especially wonderful when a movie is as eager to function as commentary on anything, let alone racial commentary which Get Out is for the majority of its duration. Very rich and deep commentary on race that also shows off Peele’s knowledge about horror structure and how he uses it (namely the beats of The Stepford Wives, itself a commentary on gender roles). That and Peele having a great handle on the comedy to keep it from undercutting the unsettling control of atmosphere and tone.

Oh yes, despite the spoilerific marketing driving home the idea that Get Out is an all-the-way horror film from the go-to indie horror house Blumhouse, Get Out IS in the end a horror-comedy. There is a sect of its fans that argue it’s not, but there’s way too prevalent an edge of satirical surrealism and a subplot that is so often brought up calling it a “subplot” feels inadequate is so unambiguously comedic in execution (not only does this subplot have an integral part in the final act, it practically gets the last word in the movie) that I can’t imagine anybody trying to sell that Get Out is not a horror-comedy unless they feel there’s a negative connotation with associating it with comedy. Which to be fair, it could be assumed that Peele – best-known for his comedic partnership with Keegan Michael-Key – was unconfident enough in his ability to make a horror movie that he had to use comedy as a crutch, but whether or not that’s the case, it just feels like almost every single choice we see on-screen was one he had absolute control over. He certainly had that much clout as an artist today.

get-out-catherine-keener

Anyway, I mentioned the subplot of Chris’ best friend, TSA worker Rod (Lil Rey Howery), and his paranoia about the trip Chris is taking without elaborating on the actual plot as is, so let me backpedal as is. Like I said, Chris and Rose go on a trip up to what looks like it has to be an isolated New England town (though the film was shot in Alabama) Rose’s overtly rich white liberal parents neurosurgeon Dean and therapist Missy, who are given perhaps the most inspired piece of casting in the form of the wonderful Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Both of them, especially Dean, are remarkably fulsome to Chris’ arrival and it only gets worse later on when they have a backyard dinner party where the degree to which Chris is complimented and questioned on his racial makeup, how it affects his experience in America, and – most creepily – his bodily anatomy becomes aggressive and disarming and yet, shockingly, not antagonistic. In fact, the only outright form of antagonism is from Rose’s douchey masculine brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), drinking and trying to try MMA moves on Chris.

And that’s the wonderful surprise about Get Out and its tackling of racism: we’re used to a certain portrayal of racists in pop culture and media that it has to be angry white conservatives who absolutely scowl at black people are uneducated and so on, but not here. No, Peele is not interested in that but in how white liberals’ eagerness to be so sincerely helpful to the black man can be translated into patronizing microaggressions and that sometimes meaning well doesn’t mean shit if you’re making someone uncomfortable. And sometimes you can still be tone-deaf about some things, like having a black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel).

get-out-2017-3-news

The sincerity of the villains’ actions and comments is legitimate. They seem to be motivated by a fascination with black people as possibly superior beings, not inferior and a desire to… well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t feel like the villains hate black people at all. This sort of sharp exaggeration of how people want to look progressive without much identifying a minority as an individual is eye-opening to people like me who fit exactly into the target of this movie’s satire (and the ones it pisses off… well, the less said about them, the better).

There’s two main weapons to creating a satire so effective alongside Peele’s knowledge of the horror genre and they’re kind of complimentary to each other. The first is that the cast is just perfect. Like no argument about it, every single performance is perfect. Keith Stanfield, an actor I love so much he’s the sole reason I’m willing to watch Adam Wingard’s next movie, has little screentime and yet embodies two distinct personalities (one relaxed and genuine, the other restrained and mysterious) eerily and effectively. Keener and Whitford layer cringe dialogue of out-of-touch characters with sinister attitudes and that’s before the obvious reveal of their intentions with Chris. Gabriel certainly made a memorable turn in one single scene and one repeated “No” over and over (it helps that her big scene involves a constant close-up on Peele’s call), but best in show is unambiguously Kaluuya.

Because the second thing is that Peele’s trusts Kaluuya’s reactions to everything he’s being asked and going through that Peele’s direction can play with the ridiculousness of this situation being overt and almost comic. Indeed, that’s how a lot of the inquiries – namely “would you consider being black to be advantage or disadvantage?” or “I would have voted for Obama a third time” – are presented during the day as laughable as a Key & Peele skit, especially the dinner party. Kaluuya’s reactions and disarmament off-sets it from waving aside the problematic element.

And then there are the moments at night, which are intense and on Chris’ wavelength so that Kaluuya can guide the viewer to being unnervingly helpless just from his eyes watering and his hindered movements. And the movie gets visually interesting here, with Missy’s therapy sessions being a vehicle for engulfing blacks and ominous firelit interiors.

All of this trips when Get Out goes full-throttle in its final 20 minutes as a horror film, in which case it just becomes all the sort of disinteresting Blumhouse tropes I’ve never been moved by without an ounce of self-awareness until its final beats. This is also however the moment where the audience I was in the theater with (especially my girlfriend) got exhilarated by the action taken in a cathartic way, so that may just be me. In any case, the movie doesn’t stop with the subtle race jabs (especially with how Chris escapes), the design of the Armitage’s domestic dungeon, and the overall craft of Peele’s work on this most impressive and intelligent of film debuts until the credits roll, so what can I say except gesture at the great film Peele made up until that point.

mv5bzty2njg1owetyzdmyi00y2exlwe2zjatm2uwymy4zmi2zdbjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq4ody2nja-_v1_