Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse(12/30/2018)

2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man.  The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them.  With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out.  Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with?  Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids?  Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things?  Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.

This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in.  In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective.  Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations.  One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider.  Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down.  Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process.  He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good.  Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed.  Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.

This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman.  In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way.  The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to.  I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything.  I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count.  The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.

So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place.  In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag.  Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film.  That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape.  That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them.  It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game.  The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look.  Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.

On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting.  I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t.   On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show.  Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished.  I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains.  The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.

That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this.  Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it.  The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them.  All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it.  Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.

***1/2 out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 12/8/2018

Crazy Rich Asians (11/29/2018)

 

Crazy Rich Asians was an absolute sensation when it came out this summer.  Critics loved it, many a think piece was written, and it became a $170 million smash at the box office.  Given that big wave of hype I must say that now that I catch up with it on Blu-ray all I can really do is think: “is that it?”  Don’t get me wrong, I sort of get the appeal.  The cast is great with nearly every notable name in Asian American comedy showing up and there’s fun to be had with all the decadence and wealth on the screen. Director Jon Chu also manages to give the film a pretty ambitious look as far as romantic comedies go.  So what’s the problem?  I think the film is trying so hard to bring the comedy that it never really makes the romance work.  Henry Golding is the weak link here, or at least his character is, he makes something of a bland screen presence and since we don’t really see the beginning of his and Constance Wu’s relationship I don’t know that I really understood or believed their connection.  What’s more his behavior in the movie is rather suspect.  The way he just kind of springs his family wealth on his girlfriend and tosses her into the deep end without preparation is kind of a dick move and it feels like it should be more of a source of conflict in the movie than it is.  Beyond that, I don’t know, there felt like a few too many characters to keep track of and it also has a slightly strange ending where a character makes a logical decision and then just kind of throws it out ten minutes later out of sheer convention.  Admittedly this generally isn’t my kind of movie so it was going to be an uphill battle to get me on board, and this didn’t really manage it, which is disappointing because all the buzz really had me thinking this would be something a bit… more.

**1/2 out of Five

Free Solo (10/28/2018)

Ernest Hemmingway was once quoted as saying “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”  Of course what he meant by that was that those were the only sports where the athletes risked their lives to participate.  I’m perhaps not man enough to see quite the same valor in these life risking pursuits as Hemingway did I did sort of see where he was coming from while watching the incredibly tense mountaineering documentary Free Solo, which follows climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to climb up the El Capitan cliff in Yosemite without ropes or other safety equipment, a feat which no one before has achieved or even attempted.  Going in I had kind of expected the majority of the film to consist of footage of his fateful climb but there’s less of that in terms of runtime than I expected and more of the film is about the run-up to that attempt including a portrait of Honnold’s personality and history along with the various preparatory climbs he did in training.  The film also doubles as a sort of making of for itself as it shows how the filmmakers were able to get their footage and also how they weighed the ethics of filming and in some ways encouraging Honnold’s risky venture.  While watching the film I was curious why so much of the runtime was spent on the preparation but when they finally get to the big moment you start to understand what they were doing because on his big climb Honnold kind of makes what he’s doing look easier than it is.  It’s only from seeing all those dry runs that you realize the full extent of how amazingly difficult what he’s doing is.  It’s plainly one of the greatest athletic achievements put to film and the film surrounding it really puts that into perspective.

**** out of Five 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (7/3/2018)

The original Jurassic World was totally lame so I will say I was going into its sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with pretty low expectations.  I will give it this: it’s a little more cinematicly creative than the first movie and generally forges more of an identity of its own for the series.  Still there’s a lot wrong here.  For one thing the premise is that a volcano is going to erupt and kill all the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar… and the characters in the movie seem to think this is a bad thing.  These are genetically created monsters that cause deadly disasters in every movie and our principal protagonists should know better than anyone that they should plainly be exterminated.  However Universal knows how much money these movies make so they need to have them try to save them from the island for some reason.  Then in the film’s third act it becomes a fight between the bad guys, who want to profit from saving the dinosaurs from the island and potentially unleashing them on the world, and the good guys who… also want to save the dinosaurs from the island and potentially unleash them on the world.  The final decision made by these “good guys” is positively psychotic, but there are some semi-interesting set pieces along the way and new director J. A. Bayona does at least have a little more of a vision than Colin Trevorrow for whatever that’s worth.

** out of Five

Dark Money (12/4/2019)

As I write this we have just gotten through a very long and at times rather frustrating mid-term election cycle.  The democrats ultimately did pretty well but they had to fight for every inch because the republicans were playing as dirty as ever in places like Georgia and Wisconsin.  In some ways the new documentary Dark Money almost seems quaint at this point.  Special interest groups illegally funneling money into campaigns and sending misleading mailers… yeah, that almost seems like small potatoes, but there is something to seeing the details of one of these things happening on the ground.  The film follows an investigation into shenanigans happening in republican primary campaigns in Montana in which moderate republicans were being pushed out in favor of more extremist republicans, seemingly because of illegal campaigning being done by a well-funded “right to work” group.  The film takes on an investigative “All the President’s Men” type approach by following a journalist named John S. Adams as he uncovers all this.  His achievements are laudable, but the overwhelming amount of nonsense going on in the world this small victory feels so minimal as to barely matter, but I guess I’m glad someone’s trying to keep an eye on things.

*** out of Five

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (12/8/2018)

When this Sicario sequel was announced I was not on board for a variety of reasons.  For one, I didn’t think that the original Sicario was all that great to begin with and the sequel if anything seemed to be leaning into all the stupidest elements of the original.  Also the title they went with after several changes sucked.  Anyway, I think my first instinct was right.  The things that made Sicario sort of work were Denis Villeneuve’s skillful direction and Emily Blunt making for an interesting protagonist.  With both of those things gone we’re really just left with an action movie that takes itself way too seriously and some really unlikable protagonists whose actions the movie is no longer really challenging very well.  The plot rests on the very politically touchy notion that terrorists are known to cross the Mexican border, which is stupid, and the film’s solution to this of sparking a drug war through some borderline fascistic tactics is kind of cringe inducing.  The movie does challenge a couple of the toxic ideas it brings up by the end, but not really strongly enough and the story is generally kind of dull and hard to follow.  I had very little use for this movie.

*1/2 out of Five

Creed II(12/29/2018)

Making yet another Rocky movie in 2015 certainly seemed like a crazy idea at the time, in no small part because I thought that trying to bring it back in 2006 was also kind of silly, and for that matter the decision to make the very first Rocky sequel back in 1979 was kind of suspect.  And yet, the movie Creed pretty effectively proved me wrong.  That spinoff about the son of Apollo Creed seeking out Rocky to be his trainer was a clear critical and financial hit and I think its success probably says less about how much life was still in the series than it does about what bringing in new talent can do to revitalize a franchise.  That new talent was Ryan Coogler, a director who was plainly a better visual stylist than Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen ever were but who did maintain an understanding of the series and why people loved it.  There were limits to my personal enthusiasm for it, I thought it was a very solid movie that achieved what it set out to do very well, but I wasn’t one of the people claiming it was some kind of outrage when it wasn’t a Best Picture nominee.  Still, the movie was a clear win and given that this franchise pretty much can’t be stopped it seemed inevitable that it would keep on going from there.  Unfortunately for the sequel, Ryan Coogler was too busy making Black Panther and generally taking over Hollywood to direct the sequel, so a relatively untested young filmmaker named Steven Caple Jr. has taken his place.  Can he continue to elevate the franchise with Creed II?

This sequel begins a few years after Creed and in that time Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has come into his own as a fighter and as the film is opening he’s winning a championship fight bout without too much trouble against a complacent champion who’s past his prime.  After the fight he proposes to Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and the two begin planning for their future.  However, on the other side of the world in the Ukraine another fighter named Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been training with his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the same Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV, and they have been waiting for Adonis to become the champion so they can challenge him and use the likelihood that he would accept such a fight in order to find their way into the boxing spotlight.  Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who feels a great deal of guilt over what happened to Apollo in that fight thirty years earlier, believes that accepting this fight would be a major mistake and that stirring up this old emotions is not worth whatever sense of family redemption this fight would offer.  Adonis, however, does not heed this advice and accepts the fight.

When I first heard that they were planning to incorporate Ivan Drago’s son into this sequel I thought it was a terrible idea, in part because Rocky IV is a very stupid movie rooted in empty Cold War era patriotism and going out of its way to acknowledge its existence within the series continuity seemed like trouble.  To the movies credit they do manage to make the Dragos feel relatively grounded and do a pretty good job of just ignoring the part where that movie implied that Rocky singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union through his inspiring performance in the ring.  That said, its occasional attempts to humanize the Dragos and make them into characters unto themselves do fall flat for the most part.  The film tries to establish that the two of them have a well-earned chip on their shoulder because of the way Ivan was abandoned by the Soviet propaganda machine after his loss to Rocky, but they depict this in rather broad ways and I kind of hated a device they used involving Drago’s ex-wife.  It also doesn’t help that Dolph Lundgren has proven to be a much less interesting and resilient actor than Sylvester Stallone and that the dude they found to play Viktor was an athlete chosen for his physical prowess rather than his acting abilities.

Despite all the invocations of Rocky IV, the film actually more closely follows the formula of Rocky III.  After Creed accepts the fight and tries to train without Rocky the big fight begins before we’re even at the half-way point and you’d pretty much have to be an idiot not to guess that this first fight isn’t going to go very well for Adonis.  So, much like when Rocky went up against Clubber Lang before him Adonis finds himself as the pampered champion underestimating his foe and having to find a way to regain the eye of the tiger after an embarrassing defeat. That is generally the problem with this movie, it’s undeniably formulaic and feels like a retread.  Of course the first Creed also mirrored a lot of stuff from the original Rocky but it felt like it was adding a bit more of its own flavor, in part because Adonis Creed felt like more of a distinct character in that film.  Here Adonis straight up just feels like nothing more than a younger and slightly more articulate Rocky Balboa.  The film does rub up against a slightly original idea of having Rocky question whether Adonis really “needs” to fight this guy and Adonis does seem to be swayed by this and mature out of all this toxic masculinity trap… but this is a Rocky movie so we can’t actually have our hero back down from a final fight so they just sort of throw all that out at a certain point and go along with the formula.

All that having been said the boxing scenes kind of save the movie.  Actually there’s plenty to criticize there as well.  Michael B. Jordan looks way more like a light heavyweight (the weight class he was fighting in in the first movie) than a heavyweight and I have my doubts about any state athletics commissions allowing a fight between him and the plainly much larger Drago.  Also things happen in the ring which are just kind of nuts (the final round in particular has to be the longest three minutes in temporal history) and nothing is as strong as the fights from the first Creed, but despite all that the film’s close up and impactful pugilism is still pretty enjoyable.  That’s the thing about this movie, it kind of works in spite of itself.  I maintain that it feels way more like the old Rocky sequels than Creed (something that probably has a lot to do with that fact that Stallone is once again writing), but… as dumb as those movies got most of them were kind of fun in spite of themselves as well.  Still, I don’t have a very good feeling about this series going forward.  I’m sure there will be a third film but I do hope they don’t get it in their heads to make five Creed movies like they did five (well, six) Rocky movies and that they heed this film’s lessons about avoiding the mistakes of the past more than Adonis does.

*** out of Five

Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion.  Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason.  That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works.  For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood.  Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling.  I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional.  His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg.  I thought that movie was… alright.  It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me.  I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters.  But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters.  I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.

Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores.  Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband.  These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside.  They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.

I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation.  It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting.  This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections.  Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son.  The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue.  The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.

That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me.  The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that.  The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.”  Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made.  The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain.  Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.

Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters.  I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph.  Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child.  Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout.  It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large.  I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.

***1/2 out of Five

Burning(12/16/2018)

Let’s talk about platform distribution.  In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide.  It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out.  However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one.  When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque.  My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense.  The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit.   And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will.  Color me pissed.  Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.

Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul.  One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids.  The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa.  When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic.  From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.

Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film.  Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism.  That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.

There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech.  Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t.  Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile.  He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life.  He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her.  His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment.  This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.

Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them.  That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout.  As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either.  That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises.  Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style?  We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.

****1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 12 – Hook (1991)


Much as “the 60s” didn’t really start until something like 1967 “the 80s” also didn’t truly end at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1989.  I might go so far as to argue that culturally the 90s didn’t truly start until Bill Clinton entered office in 1992.  Or maybe it just feels like that to me.  I was around four or five in 1992 so those first couple years of the decade are just as much ancient history to me as the 80s were.  Is all that a stretch?  Maybe, but it’s enough for me to justify finishing off my retrospective of 80s movies with a movie that came out in 1991: Steven Spielberg’s Hook.  The thing is, Hook is one of the main movies that made me want to embark on this little project in the first place.  It’s a movie with what you might call a “mixed legacy.”  On one hand the critics pretty much hated it; it wasn’t panned to the point where it got multiple razzie nominations or anything but it was pretty widely viewed as a one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest stumble after a pretty long win streak.  Spielberg himself also seems to have agreed with the critics, saying in an interview decades later that he “so [doesn’t] like that movie, and [that he’s] hoping someday [he’ll] see it again and perhaps like some of it.”  But it made a lot of money and a lot of the kids who grew up with it still have pretty fond memories of it, or at least they have fond memories of the character of Ruffio, who I seem to hear about all the time.  Between the film’s bad reputation and the fact that it’s a Peter Pan adaptation it has managed to be the one and only Steven Spielberg movie I hadn’t seen, until now anyway.

In interviews about what went wrong with Hook Spielberg has said “I didn’t have confidence in the script. I had confidence in the first act and I had confidence in the epilogue. I didn’t have confidence in the body of it… and I tried to paint over my insecurity with production value.”  Indeed, that production value is clearly the most prominent and strongest aspect of the film.  The film is like a swan song to practical set design before Spielberg formally embraced CGI with Jurassic Park and slowly let it take over blockbuster cinema until we reached the point where he was making movies like Ready Player One which are almost entirely computerized.  However, the part of that quote that really jumps out at me is that he had the most confidence in the opening act and epilogue, which makes no sense to me because the scenes outside of Neverland are irredeemably awful.  I don’t know what it is about family movies in the 90s but for whatever reason they were absolutely obsessed with guilt-tripping fathers for having jobs and not spending every waking moment with their children and boy oh boy does this movie fall into that trend.  You’d think that the adults who are almost certainly “neglecting” their children to make these movies would have some perspective about how providing children with an upper-middle-class lifestyle is its own kind of support, but instead we get movie after movie about how awful it is that people are too busy to show up to school plays and little league games.

The Neverland sections are at least visually interesting but Robin Williams’ Pan character remains really annoying through most of it.  This is a guy who gets transported to another realm by a literal fairy and finds himself surrounded by straight-up pirates and lost boys and yet still seems to act clueless and non-believing for the longest time.  From there he goes through something of a reverse training montage in which he becomes less mature the more he “learns” because for whatever reason being childish in Neverland makes you a better sword fighter.  Not that this ends up helping Ruffio much as he gets killed off with minimal fanfare by Captain Hook right before the shenanigans start right back up again.  Also, why the hell is this thing named after Captain Hook?  Dustin Hoffman brings him to life well enough but the film isn’t emphasizing the Captain Hook character here anymore than usual, he’s just a villain.  That was just one more in a series of strange decisions that went into this movie, and between all of that it’s pretty easy to see why this thing has become a pretty big black mark on Steven Spielberg’s resume… however, it should be noted that even a bad Spielberg movie is going to be better than a lot of directors’ misfires.  The sets do still look pretty cool and the movie is fairly well paced for a two and a half hour movie with no real substance.  It wasn’t a movie that I actively hated watching, but by the standards it was shooting for it is a failure.

To the Scorecard:
Yeah, this is a loss for Gen X, and that means that the skeptic is going to win this one by a clear decision.  The final score has been pretty clear for a while not and Gen X was never really able to regroup and get some kind of knockout.

In Conclusion:

In retrospect, I think I waited a little too long to do this.  I envisioned some version of this years ago and at the time a lot of these Gen X types were sort of in control of a lot of movie sites and podcasts and I was pretty annoyed by the fact that they’d be citing movies like The Goonies as cinematic classics and really letting their nostalgia get in the way of certain conversations.  At the time this disgusted me, and I do still think that’s kind of a stupid way to look at cinema.  However, in the time since then there’s been a bit of a generational changing of the guards.  The Gen Xers who used to run these things have either gone on to other things than talking about movies professionally or they’ve grown up and are looking at movies a little more objectively.  Now it’s my fellow millennials who have taken over a lot of these online outlets and their 90s nostalgia is a lot more prevalent.  I’m sure over time I’m still going to run into people who think Short Circuit is some kind of masterpiece, and I’m still going to roll my eyes at that, but I’ve come to realize I have a couple of my own nostalgic blind spots and I better understand how people can come to think like that.