Raccoon City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above the Rim

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Guillermo Del Toro has long been in the business of making movies for Guillermo Del Toro, who must be deep down inside still the monster-loving child he was at age 13. I think I acknowledged this the last time I reviewed one of his movies, in which I had to admit that The Shape of Water may have pleased many many people but I was not one. However, it is more often the case than not that the tastes Guillermo Del Toro and my own align with a click and I am very very happy to have the opportunity to talk about a film that illustrates that.

It is also the case that audiences have been very much on the way to devaluing Pacific Rim as a film since so quickly after its release in the summer of 2013, which is hilarious given that it was one of the few highlights of such a dire summer. Not even necessarily out of slim pickings, but in a summer where the biggest popcorn tentpoles included such consciously unsmiling fare as The Wolverine and Man of Steel, one can hardly be blamed for finding joy in one of the few non-animated wide releases to just be about looking cool and having fun while killing giant monsters in giant robots. But even beyond that retrospective of a timeframe I don’t think deserves one, there is of course several popular criticisms of Pacific Rim that I can’t help spending my time here shaking quickly off:

First, there is the shallowness with which it homages all the properties Del Toro yolked the concept from: beginning especially with the seminal anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion and moving down the line to Mobile Suit GundamGodzilla and the other Toho monster movies, Ultraman, and even a future noir influence out of a favorite of yours truly Blade Runner*. And certain of those influences – especially NGE – imply a sort of emotional and thematic severity that most popcorn films, let alone Pacific Rim, are even remotely interested in attending to. Pacific Rim never made any promises of being a 1:1 remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion and hardly needs to be an in-depth exploration of its protagonists depression and emptiness in a cruel world barreling towards their destruction.

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It just needs to be one thing: a vehicle for how we watch giant mechas called Jaegers, sanctioned by the united governments of a desperate world, fight and crush the sinister skin-cracked sea-emerging creatures called Kaiju that threaten humanity so. Which the screenplay by Del Toro and Travis Beacham knock right off the bat, establishing that the world is in this state, that the war between humanity and alien invaders is in media res here, and boom! In less time than it takes to make a turkey sandwich, the game is on. The combatants are goliath, the environments variable, everything else is pure theory.

The efficiency of the screenplay does not somehow mean that it is devoid of weaknesses, however. For the lack of depth with which we are introduced to characters we ride along with the Jaegers are of a cliché sort: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a former hotshot pilot, is being pulled out of a retirement originally brought on by the death of his co-pilot brother (it is established that the Jaegers require two compatible minds to operate and what better signifier of compatibility than fraternity). The grizzled no-nonsense General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is the one who pulls Beckett out and, after an assessment, pairs him up with Pentecost’s adoptive daughter and long-time aspiring Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). And then there’s so many other clichés surrounding them: namely the pair of wacky scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman or the eye in the sky brains of the operation played by Clifton Collins, Jr. (a famously Mexican actor, though the name Tendo Choi suggests the character is… Chinese?).

And of course, there is the surrounding friendly rival allies from different nations (minus the friendly in the case of Robert Kazinsky’s Chuck), portraying an international unity in our heroes efforts. It’s more than textual as each of the main Jaegers – Gipsy Danger, Cherno Alpha, Crimson Typhoon, and Striker Eureka – are distinguished within the design of Andrew Neskoromny & Carol Spier with worn-out colors that suggest national pride in the face of an apparently losing war (the Chinese Crimson Typhoon lives up to its name) and bodily structures that suggest the utilitarian focuses of their nations, such as how Cherno Alpha has a core that resembles a defensive plant. Or even just doing more for character than the script, given that Chuck is easily the most aggressive of all pilots and his Jaeger Striker Eureka comes with blades on its forearms (though there is “that’s so cool!” moment where we learn Striker is not the only Jaeger with that edge).

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The Jaegers are not the only place in which the design is inspired. To begin with, the Kaijus themselves are alive and crackled, the CGI giving their body that living feeling of movement that can’t be said for a lot of animation even in this day (look at the “zombies” of Rogue One). And we have here a world that recognizes the sort of social and aesthetical impact that the existence of Kaiju would have across a society: a religious shrine is made out of the bones of a dead Kaiju, jobs invented out of creating walls in a new defense economy, fallout shelters, black market interests, and the interior design of a Jaeger feeling like a mechanical brain. This isn’t world-building: the world is already built just beyond the corners of our eyes, it’s world exploring.

And again, rain-soaked night time neon metropolis backdrops are my personal catnip. That some of these Kaiju vs. Jaeger battles occurred in dark oceans with shafts of light above illuminating fragments or dark rainy cities, as though this obscures the giant beasts of metal and bone, doesn’t ruin the effects anymore than it did in Jurassic Park 20 years prior. It works, the goliaths have a sense of physicality and scale that the camera is barely able to hold onto in full and promises more than meets the eye, making the battles have punch and impact, earth-shaking popcorn movie spectacle that we rarely see these days. It’s absolutely hard to lose the joy Guillermo Del Toro had putting these battles together, complete with great “Oh snap!” moments within them.

Still storytelling through design and action does not hide two-dimensional storytelling in plot. The characters are mostly flat as a board beyond Elba showing you can’t keep him down with first draft writing (the rest of the cast sadly do not fare as well with Hunnam weakest and that just brings more attention to the flaws of the script). And yet, when I hear Transformers used as a ridiculous comparison, I have to say it doesn’t indulge in the weaknesses of that franchise: there are no real “idiot plot” characters, no racial caricatures, no garbage humor, the very last beat of Pacific Rim rejects the concept that Raleigh and Mako are anything beyond very fond friends without losing any of the heart behind their friendship. The only real elements of the writing that gnaw under my skin are the leaps of logic and misunderstandings of science or physics (including the much mocked line “Gipsy’s analog. Nuclear.” as a response to all Jaegers being digital) that barely hold together the concept of a series of nations deciding the best response to monsters is to punch them out to a hell of a lot of city damage in big mecha suits and I just need to shut that thought in my mind up with one response:

“Listen, motherfucker, do you want to see robots fight monsters or not? Eat your damn popcorn.”

*I will confess that while I was sold already from premise and filmmaker long before the trailer hit and blew my socks off, the moment that cemented that I was watching it the night of was the end of the trailer with a raining neon Tokyo backdrop and Ron Perlman wearing future suave gangster threads being told by Charlie Day “It is pretty cool.” Yes, it was.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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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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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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Apes! Together! Strong!

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Its conclusion is obviously less than a month old and there’s the test of time by which I swear most of my movie opinions on and I’ve clearly always been high on the hype before there was even a final chapter being filmed, but I still have no qualms in making the hyperbolic statement that the prequel/reboot trilogy of films for the famous Planet of the Apes franchise – 2011’s Rise of, 2014’s Dawn of, and now 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes – are the best popcorn movie franchise of the decade, possibly of the century (the only real competitors for that title is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise and they’re both hindered by their most recent installments because disappointingly weak). They are surprisingly intelligent enough to trust their audience, they give such dignity to the characters inhabiting the roles to make the drama feel full of weight in the present tense rather than reminding us of what’s going to happen in the main franchise, and this is all done partly thanks to the very tippity top state of the art effects working so wonderfully in fleshing out our central characters in this film that, when we sink right into the story of escaped Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan’s struggles to find a safe haven for them in the midst of the human’s killing each other out, we’re not really registering that we’re looking at digital air. We’re witnessing full-grown beings with their own emotions and inner commentary.

So, a full-on salute to both Serkis’ always incredible work as an actor inhabiting CGI characters, for his translated physicality and the subtle expressiveness of his face, playing just a powerful emotional anchor before the work of Weta Digital, which has evolved long since its early days with Serkis embodying Gollum, has provided us with no just Caesar as a compelling and emotive protagonist against heavy odds, but a whole damn race of apes with their own distinctive personalities (again with the help of a game cast) largely expressed in their physical wear and their gestures. I don’t believe Lake (Sara Canning) has more than maybe 15 minutes of screentime but she’s recognizable enough that there’s a good hour between when we leave her in the first act – as Caesar and others leave the main Ape tribe to seek vengeance against the militaristic humans who threaten to exterminate them – and when we see her again for the third act. And she’s just a new character, that’s saying nothing of the ones we already knew since Rise, like the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal and weary chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the tough and brave gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All three accompany Caesar on his quest to find the deranged Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who hunted for the tribe and left enough damage to have Caesar seeing red.

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It’s also mostly thanks to the fact that director-writer Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from Dawn) know well enough the characters that producers (and former writers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver created in Rise to cash in on all of the emotional attachment we’ve invested in the characters and their quest to find peace in a world that devolved into chaos because of their sudden existence. This is a movie where the cost of their struggles starts to take a toll on Caesar in particular and it crushes War for the Planet of the Apes with a feeling of cold devastation, accented visually by a harsh white and blue palette provided by cinematographer Michael Seresin. It’s a landscape of winter suffering and often does Caesar and his friends’ journey end up with a checkpoint where they have to kill or watch somebody be killed from afar, abandoned to die in the uncaring landscape, a matter that begins to does not mix with Caesar’s desire for vengeance for the better and informs the character study that War for the Planet of the Apes becomes for most of its first half.

Aye, there is indeed a clear difference between the first and second half and that comes when they find the base of the Alpha-Omega faction that the Colonel leads (with the help of a sadly traumatized talking chimpanzee named Bad Ape played by the comedic Steve Zahn to try to translate as much of that character into levity without undercutting the sobriety of the film) and the movie becomes much better than the sometimes meandering preceding hour for it. The movie turns into a prisoner of war escape drama of the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle wrote the source novels for both Bridge and the original Planet of the Apes so that connection had to come eventually – and a battle of wills and motivations in the face of violent conflict and war, most especially aided by Harrelson giving the exact sort of performance I WISH with all my heart Marlon Brando had given in Apocalypse Now, espousing all his fatalistic attitudes on war and mercy in an attempt to psychologically breakdown Caesar and his role as a leader. It’s a frighteningly present embodiment of soldier psychology put on Circus Maximus and also a deft ability to turn an exposition dump of a role to a formidable antagonist.

But the second half’s also where Michael Giacchino shines in his orchestrations, gleefully evoking all the epicness of this grand finale to Caesar’s fateful journey. And before then, Giacchino is a boon to reminding us that this is bombastic effects heavy popcorn drama, not bogging us down in its misery. Giacchino’s presence helps make a dark movie so palatable and coaxes Reeves and all by earning the very optimistic final note that War for the Planet of the Apes leaves us on with all the finality that the movie already implied. Because sometimes the most entertaining movie can be the one that treats its characters and their efforts with dignity and that dignity that translates to the Planet of the Apes preboot trilogy is only its own reward.

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Fireworks Under Your Ass

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So, first things first to financially doom the imminent sequel of Independence Day – 20 years passed between its release and its sequel. Not only is 20 years enough for everyone to forget or dismiss the staple of any effects extravaganza (I like to hope most of the movie-watching world looked back and gave it a “OK, it’s junk food at best, but not a good movie” attitude), it’s also enough time for director/co-writer Roland Emmerich and producer/co-writer Dean Devlin – by then having broken up for a bit before returning in 2016 for the production of this sequel – to lose all the possible goodwill they’ve gained from their earlier hits. Emmerich did not have a single positive critical reception to his films since the mild admiration of The Patriot and not a commercial one either since 2012 (in particular, he was coming out of the huge battering of controversy Stonewall received). Devlin himself didn’t have an commercial hits since their break-up either and apparently the crash of Flyboys burned him enough to not produce movies for a whole decade. So, I can understand why Emmerich and Devlin wanted to go back to the good ol’ days of when they made the biggest movie of the year, but I can’t imagine how they didn’t figure themselves so forgotten as a household name that it would fall on its face. And this is while forgiving how utterly lackluster 2016 was a movie summer.

Although, to be fair to Independence Day: Resurgence, it puts that passage of time to almost ingenious use.

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It IS 20 years later. 2016, it tries to claim with the term “War of 1996” to describe the events of the original and the mathematical disarray that causes irks the hell outta me, but I’ll allow it. And it teases, for a brief snippet of its runtime, to be a sort of speculative science fiction picture – 2016 in the world where we fought and beat the aliens is a utopia for the Western world (there’s clearly a fear towards Africa for the sudden warlord atmosphere post-invasion). We’ve harvested the alien technology from our invaders and applied to our own infrastructure and livelihood that it gives us flying ships and bigger damner buildings and stations on the moon and Saturn and WORLD PEACE (still ignoring the fact that Africa has had to literally fight off the aliens tooth and nail up to this point in the film). The potential social and scientific complexities of this premise are endless and would have been interesting to see if it were that kind of film.

Independence Day: Resurgence is not that kind of film*. It’s the kind of film where instead we watch Asia get literally scraped the fuck off the crust of the Earth and landed on Europe like a good ol’ ham sandwich. The complications come instead from trying to conflate the return of our invaders with a new race of species we hadn’t known and the global ramifications of it.

For it turns out, there are more of those violent invaders on their way with a much bigger ship, but the United Nations of the World used up all their good firepower on the most peaceful looking Heart of Gold-looking A.I. ever and so are helpless when the gigantic mothership shows up and causes heavy destruction to Earth (but not enough to destroy somehow, thanks be to their mercy!) while extinguishing both their Saturn station (off-screen) and their nice ol’ moon station. Unfortunately, even if you try to arbitrarily make it bigger than before, doing the same thing twice just knocks off the luster from your former work and makes it look embarrassing.

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So, no, while it’s all fine CGI spectacle with no mind towards physics whatsoever, it’s not as awe-inspiring as it was back when Emmerich and Devlin were trying to show Spielberg how it was done back in ’96 and since that’s the only thing the original Independence Day had going for it, you can expect not that much more for Resurgence to offer. Though it tries, oh lord it tries.

It tries to promise once again more compelling human drama (even though the last film had none of that) in the form of its gigantic cast of stereotypes and non-entities, but of course there’s no Will Smith. Obviously, there’s no Will Smith. He and Mae Whitman (who was atrociously ignored) dodged a damn bullet with not coming back. Returning is Bill Pullman now letting his stunted delivery be a trait to his ex-President Whitmore’s trauma, Jeff Goldblum still around with whatever knowing irony he can add to his role (yet clearly tired at having to do this again), Judd Hirsch as his “needs to be anywhere else” father, Brent Spiner back from the dead in desperation for familiar faces. And then there’s the new guys, most of them deserving better (namely Maika Monroe, going from It Follows and The Guest to replacing Whitman as the First Daughter, and Charlotte “Daughter of One of the Greatest Songwriters Ever and I’m the Only Woman Willing to Work with Lars von Trier More Than Once” Gainsbourg) and Liam Hemsworth absolutely deserving everything he gets for playing our replacement for Smith’s Captain Hiller – Jake Morrison, a hotshot pilot who’s so hot shit he nearly kills Hiller’s pilot son Dylan (Jessie Usher) in a test flight but we’re supposed to like his entitled cockiness because he’s an orphan.

I will give Resurgence this, its action and destruction porn sequences are not at all broken. This is Michael Bay incoherence here, we clearly know the objective of each dogfight and each battle have no trouble following along the slightly entertaining climax (which feels like Emmerich trying to re-do his terrible Godzilla film and get something decent out of it), so thanks be to editor Adam Wolfe for bringing some kind of adequacy to the film. But it’s not enough when the second verse is less than the first and I’m not gonna pretend that even coming in with low expectations didn’t prevent this from being a disastrous disappointment.

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* But, of course, Starship Troopers IS that kind of film in a sense, so I guess go watch that movie instead of this one.

Girl, You’ll Be a Wonder Woman Soon…

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Let me begin first by saying that it feels so very great to have my faith in the DC Extended Universe’s ambition (something that wasn’t always there – many will testify to how certain I was that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice would turn out to be the worst movie of the decade, but lo and behold it hit me in the right spots) now that Wonder Woman is the first unambiguous critical hit of the franchise and right at the point where it needed that boost most. That it turns out to be a great movie is just the cherry on top.

So, it’s kind of tough to try to square away what makes Wonder Woman stand out so far from the rest of 2010s comic book movies that makes it possibly my favorite out of the bunch. It’s not a particularly unique film in any regard, especially since so much of its aesthetic and setting seems to be the World War I analogue to Captain America: The First Avenger (a movie that would put a valiant fight for the spot Wonder Woman just stole). It’s not a movie that reinvents the wheel by any angle, so I guess the idea is that it just does it… better? Patty Jenkins as a director keeps her eye so many of the genre’s strengths and sticks to the name of the game – iconic moments, charismatic heroes, memorable theme music, a sense of tone and theme – and… like, maybe, one of its weaknesses. It’s a big damn weakness, the final “battle around a beam of light” CGI rampage that is so very much a bane of the genre. But even that moment has its silver lining: a surprisingly colorful villainous turn by an actor who already knows how to provide robust villain turns.

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Anyway, before we reach that stretch, we have some efficient standalone non-universe-building breath of fresh air storytelling by Allan Heinberg: Diana (Gal Gadot) is the princess of the hidden island Themyscira, where Amazonian women train in anticipation of the banished God of War, Ares. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on Themyscira in chase from German forces, the devastating firepower they bring and the sobering description Trevor has on the Great War’s severity convinces Diana that Ares himself has landed on Earth. Defying the orders of her Queen and Mother, Diana journeys with Trevor back to Europe to find a way to definitively end war, finding herself on the front lines of one of the most devastating events in world history.

Being set in World War I promises that Wonder Woman will not end up abandoning the solemnity from Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman and indeed once Jenkins leaves the gorgeous mountain and beaches landscape of Themyscira filled with sun gold, forest green, and sea blue, we are suddenly pulled into the dying ember greys of the trenches, suffocated by dust and smoke with an amount of grounded dimension that never undercuts the suffering of the soldiers or the Belgian residents whose lands are being destroyed by warfare. In fact, just prior to the famous “No Man’s Land” scene that incorporated itself in superhero movie canon just as instantly as the Upside Down kiss from Spider-Man, we’re witnessing a long rush through a miserable trench watching the casualties and destruction with the sound of warfare afar and it builds us up parallel to Diana’s resolve before she reveals her costume and steps right into the war zone herself.

And yet it’s not a miserable film. One that treats the war seriously but it searches for inspiration within the ruins. It’s exactly the sort of popcorn movie sensibility you would not expect from somebody who made a movie about the depressing tale of Aileen Wuornos but all of the careful treatment of the subject matter you would. Jenkins treats this delicate subject with such awareness that the “promise of ending war” can come to a human and satisfying but indefinite conclusion, like the Watchmen conclusion without any nihilism attached.

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Still POPCORN MOVIE FUN! That “No Man’s Land” first appearance of full-costume Wonder Woman happens halfway through the movie and yet it’s oh too breezy for us to notice the time has passed (I mean spending half your time in the Mediterranean Coast will do that). Gadot and Pine are incredible together with chemistry for days, even beyond the benefit of their individual performances (and surrounded by just as bouncy supporting actors – I’m most happy to see Said Taghmaoui in a Hollywood film and delivering a humane and forgiving monologue on the fear of war). I don’t know what happened between 2016’s Hell or High WaterStar Trek Beyond, and this, but Chris Pine has been imbuing more sincerity into his performances and it works wonders especially within his third act developments, giving his statements and actions more humanity. As for Wonder Woman herself, the naive female outsider trope is tiresome but Gadot turns it endearing and transforms Diana’s discovery of the world outside of her land into daring and confidence that makes Diana such a pillar of charisma, defying officials and attempting to illustrate the simplicity of solutions.

Sometimes, solutions ARE that simple. Wonder Woman isn’t trying to build a universe (beyond its bookend scenes that surprisingly don’t seem divorced from the film, though it ends on a notably confusing shot), it’s not trying to make a deep comment beyond “war is bad”, it’s just attempting to provide a watchable and weighty superhero movie experience. And beyond a dependency on slow-motion and a Dragonball Z mess of a final battle that’s expected anyway of the genre, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and company have given a superhero work so enjoyable that it alone allows it to be distinguished amongst the rest of the decade’s lineup.

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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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Aces High

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William Wellman’s silent dogfighting film Wings has two big distinctions within the annals of war fiction and another within the annals of cinema history and I beg your patience as I focus largely on the former before I start to discuss the latter for reasons that will be obvious soon. The first distinction is usually not very much discussed to begin with and it’s probably because it requires quite a bit of historical context.

Wings was released in 1927, just right in the middle between World War I and World War II. And that’s kind of an interesting place for war fiction. Most of war literature and war films around that time have a pretty clear attitude towards warfare as being an unfair and costly trauma to the world that we all prayed would have occurred when we dubbed World War I “The War to End All Wars”. In the 1930s leading up to World War II, fiction began to be filled with frightened and arch works that implied how WWII would just be reopening wounds we had just spent decades trying to close and began upping the nightmare quality of World War I as a tragedy for us. The Big Parade itself was one of the big WWI films prior to Wings‘ production that illustrates that, while the most famous example is probably the subtle trench-based imagery of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien (himself a jaded WWI veteran)’s The Lord of the Rings books. In these days where we do have several movies that touch on the human cost of war, it may be hard to recall that pre-WWII propaganda era had some pretty heavy stuff in the genre.

Wings, which was directed by the only WWI veteran directing in Hollywood at the time, probably didn’t stand alone on being a pretty romantic look at war in that era, but it did stand on that side of the line between pro-war and anti-war pictures. Its attitude on WWI was less concerned with the damage it made to the people of the world and more concerned with portraying the idea of war as just one of the many places where boys could heartily become men or meet with the glory that comes with giving your life for your country. In general, conflict is shown to be a source of honor and camaraderie amongst men (strictly men, this is a male-skewed flick) from the very get-go. German planes refuse to shoot down planes with jammed machine guns. Our two male leads start off with contempt for each other before they get a moment to punch out their feelings with each other and suddenly become the fastest of friends. Wings is even heavily apologetic about its final tragic beats in portraying the war, turning it into a moment of forgiveness for a character and a validation of one of the central romances.

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My attitude on the subject of war aside (which is not similar to Wings‘), this sort of optimism is probably part of why a silent film going for a little under 2 1/2 hours is probably able to get away with that stretch of time. It’s excited about the things it means to show us as more than just spectacle, but grounded myth of heroics and action. And I think it has a real good reason to be excited about that when its focus is on the daring field of dogfighting – aerial combat – in the war. What is already a pretty thrilling concept of warfare to me (aviation and aeronautics in general) is only made extraordinary by the craft of those very same scenes, mixing between as many possible techniques one could throw at real-life shots of planes zooming around each other in the sky, leading up to one of two Oscars that the movie earned at the very first ceremony the Academy had – Best Engineering Effects. Save for the painting in of flames (which has mixed results with me), every single one of the movie’s flying firefights has spared no expense in trying to gain urgency and pleasant perils out of a visual presentation of that. It’s easily the biggest reason to watch Wings and yet its storytelling between those battles is not extraordinary but still digestible to act as interludes.

That story is more-or-less a bromance between two men, small-town man Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). This is no different than the kind of men in war relationship we’ve seen many times, particularly between flyboy flicks like Top Gun and Pearl Harbor – started over the affections of a pretty woman, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), grown into a masculine bond over their great work in the skies together. Sylvia’s affections belong strictly to David, despite leading Jack to believe otherwise, while Jack is the object of long-time friend Mary Preston’s (the iconic Clara Bow, in a performance that is limited in screentime yet eagerly uses all her strengths as tomboy, sex object, and dramatic actress) affections. Mary herself is so devoted to Jack and his patriotism that she herself enlists in the war as an ambulance driver. Obviously a large scale soap opera within itself and one that eventually gets tiring, especially when it tries to go darker with its ironic final dogfight scene (set after an amazing setpiece recreating the Battle of Saint-Mihiel), but nevertheless Wellman’s eagerness to go big on the melodrama helps such a long film feel like it keeps moving. And when I say big, I mean camera shots and tricks that are used for casual scenes one doesn’t really need unless he just wants to play around. My personal favorite touch is bubbles flooding a scene when Jack himself is drunk. I can hardly tell how this story I’ve seen many times before might have been perceived in 1927 as fresh or not. It certainly wasn’t when I first saw this movie in 2012. But it nevertheless was the best sort of digestible dramatics that leads to being loved by a large audience and so it’s easy to see how it won the first Best Picture Oscar.

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Which is where I rewind all the way back to my very first statement on this review, where I stated there are two big distinctions for Wings and address that second distinction for Wings. The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place in May 1929 and had presented one of its two highest honors The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture to Wings. The award would go on through different names over the years until 1962 when it would finally take its current form of The Academy Award for Best Picture (Wings is also the only silent film to have won Best Picture until The Artist, which still has two lines of dialogue). History has led this to be a point of contention as Wings was seen to have adopted the honor of being the very first Best Picture winner away from another more well-regarded film, which had been awarded that second highest honor from the very first ceremony – The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, which would only be given that one year before it was dropped. An unfair circumstance I intend to address as I continue from here into a retrospective of the Best Picture Oscar winners, if only to make a detour for one of my favorite movies of all time…

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