The Birth of a Nation(10/7/2016)

It doesn’t happen too often but every once in a while there’s a situation where two movies that aren’t remakes of one another or anything will share a title for one reason or another.  For example, there are two movies called Twilight, not so much because one movie was leeching off another but more likely because Stephenie Meyer just hadn’t seen or heard of that 1998 Paul Newman/Gene Hackman thriller when she named her YA series.  Other times it’s less a matter of not knowing about a previous work so much as it’s a matter of not caring.  For instance, when Ridley Scott is making a mega-budgeted movie about Roman gladiators he’s probably not going to give up on his preferred title just because there was already a somewhat obscure boxing movie called Gladiator just eight years earlier.  Occasionally I’m sure this practice leads to some video store confusion (god help the people who got more than they bargained for when they tried to rent the Oscar winning race relations drama and went home with a David Cronenberg movie about car crash fetishists) but for the most part only the most anal of people tend to even notice this sort of thing.  Of course every once in a while the reuse of a title isn’t an accident and isn’t meant to be something people aren’t going to notice, sometimes it’s a deliberate comment on the previous work and that very much seems to be what’s going on with the new film The Birth of a Nation, which appears to be a rather intentional attempt to “take back” the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist / highly innovative 1915 epic of the same name.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a retelling of that now one hundred year old film and is actually set a good thirty years before the events of that film (which starts with the Civil War and goes through reconstruction).  Rather, this new The Birth of a Nation is set more or less from the beginning on the 19th century up through 1831 and focuses in on the life of the famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself).  The film begins with a young Nat Turner learning how to read, despite his owner’s reservations, and having this buoyed on by his owner’s wife/future owner’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) who has Turner study the bible extensively.  Twenty years later an Adult Nat Turner now acts as a preacher for the slaves on the plantation while working on the cotton fields otherwise, and eventually his current owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) devises a scheme where he’d have Nat “tour” other plantations and preach subservience to the various slaves on each of them.  As he sees plantation after plantation and witnesses more and more suffering on his own plantation Turner becomes increasingly angry about the constant suffering that he’s surrounded by and begins to plan for a violent rebellion for freedom.

Making a movie about someone like Nat Turner certainly takes balls.  Turner was not a figure like Martin Luther King who managed to achieve great change through something as noble as passive resistance, but then again he was also completely cut off from all the “civilized” channels resistance.  He couldn’t pass around a petition, he couldn’t write a letter to his congressperson, he couldn’t boycott anything, and he couldn’t march on Washington.  Parker however seems less interested in wrestling with the gray areas of this situation than in viewing Turner’s rebellion into an act of heroic martyrdom.  In its structure and outlook the film has been compared to Braveheart but the closer analogue may actually be Kubrick’s Spartacus which actually was about a failed slave rebellion, albeit in a very different time and place.  Parker’s film lacks the epic scope and substantial production values of those two movies but it’s similar to both in the way it builds up its protagonist as this uniquely strong and noble figure whose very passion for freedom propels the people he leads into the fray of battle.

For all the film’s passion, I don’t know that it makes a particularly ironclad argument for Nat Turner’s heroism or for the importance on the rebellion he started.  It’s not that I have any qualms about the fact that this slave army killed white slave owners (fuck those people, they can burn in hell) or even that his rebellion killed women and children along the way (war is messy, what are you going to do), but I do think he bears some responsibility for the fact that his actions got a lot of innocent slaves and freemen killed both in the rebellion itself and by the white retaliations that occurred after the fact, all in service of a rebellion that failed within 48 hours and didn’t really accomplish much of anything directly other than an immediate sense of cathartic vengeance and maybe a little bit of “died with their boots on” bombast from the rebellion’s participants.  Perhaps that makes him the perfect hero for the Jill Stein/Bernie or Bust fringe of this political moment but is this really a victory in the grand scheme of things?  The ending of the movie would suggest that Turner’s ultimate victory was in his legacy, in the way he inspired future generations of black men to fight for their freedom, but that argument strikes me as a bit tenuous.  Parker would perhaps have been better served arguing that Turner was fighting less out of a belief that his rebellion would succeed and more out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of slaveholders and show that there’s a price for holding people in bondage… but that combined with Turner’s religious fervor would arguably make him a terrorist, and that is a level of complication that the film probably isn’t too interested in exploring.

Of course when I watch the aforementioned Braveheart and Spartacus I certainly don’t spend this much time pondering whether or not the failed rebellions in either were “worth it,” why is that?  Well part of it may simply be that those rebellions lasted well over 48 hours and in the movies didn’t feel like such doomed enterprises from the beginning.  Also, those movies didn’t really claim to be smart social commentary so much as they were excuses to stage epic battle scenes.  On that point I’d also point out that both of those movies are well made enough to distract from such inconveniences and while The Birth of a Nation isn’t badly made per se it certainly isn’t the work of a master filmmaker.  Elliot Davis’ cinematography is functional, but looks a bit cheap and not overly confident, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be stylistic or natural and I really couldn’t stand the movie’s score by Henry Jackman, which overplays the movie’s uplift in all the most cliché ways possible. The performances are also all fine but unexceptional.  I feel like everyone in the cast is being asked to play a lot of their roles with rather broad strokes, none the least Parker himself who is never quite able to capture his character’s gradual transformation from “loyal servant” to violent rebel and seems generally unwilling to explore some of the less noble aspects of the character’s religious fervor.

Having finally seen the movie I kind of think the critics at Sundance maybe did the movie a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much.  The movie is certainly a fairly noble effort but it’s hardly the first or the best movie about slavery and I don’t think it holds a candle to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  That movie was the real deal and deserved every bit of the praise it got in 2013, I think it’s a lot more mature than this and also just generally a better made in every way.  Then again I can also see why this would have stood out amongst all the movies about mumbley Brooklynites that were likely circulating in Park City and it also stands out among the action movies and comedies that are getting wide releases more often than not.  It’s a movie that’s worth seeing both to be part of the conversation and to see a lot of the clear passion on the screen, but the Oscar buzz was premature.

*** out of Five

Crash Course: Misguided Horror Sequels

For Halloween I decided I wanted to do a special horror movie crash course, but rather than seek out movies that are like, good, this seemed like a decent opportunity to indulge in some crap that I’m perversely curious about.  Even more than most genres horror movies seem to be astonishingly sequel prone.  Hell, outside of the occasional Stephen King adaptation I can hardly think of a moderately successful horror movie in the last forty or fifty years that hasn’t been wrung dry by multiple sequels and/or remakes.  Even horror movies that didn’t seem to do that great in the first place somehow end up with numerous direct to video sequels.  What I intend to look at here are the sequels that seem particularly egregious either because they were sequels to movies that seem like should be above such treatment or they seem like movies that really left very little room for the story to continue.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

If ever there was a horror movie that probably never should have been revisited it was probably The Exorcist both because it was an Oscar nominated classic and also because its ending was very specifically supposed to have this aura of ambiguity.  However, the fact remains that the movie was a huge box office hit and the franchise was a potential source of revenue that was not going to go untapped even if William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty wanted nothing to do with it.  To their credit, they didn’t just rush out a cheap sequel; they brought in John Boorman, a director who was pretty close to being on William Friedkin’s level and also managed to hire Richard Burton to star and Ennio Morricone to compose the score and also brought back Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow to reprise their roles (the later in a couple of flashbacks).  Someone really wanted this to be a worthy follow-up, unfortunately they really had no idea where to steer the story and the resulting movie is both kind of insane and also rather boring.

The movie starts off somewhat promisingly with a moderately interesting scene where Burton uses a hypnosis device to get into Regan’s head and watch a sort of flashback to the first movie that’s shot in an interesting way.  From there though the whole thing just gets really weird and the rules of demonic possession get increasingly confused.  The mere fact that the demon Pazuzu (whose name is said out loud a lot in the movie) is still buried somewhere deep down in Regan kind of contradicts the ending of the original movie and seems to suggest that Father Karras’ death was in vain.  Then there’s the finale which involves doppelgangers coming out of nowhere, magical car accidents, and a whole lot of locusts for some reason.  I guess the movie’s biggest sin though is that it seems bizarrely unconcerned with being scary at all and spends more time trying to tell Father Merrin’s backstory than build actual suspense.  I’ve heard that The Exorcist 3, which was made by William Peter Blatty and ignores this movie, is actually pretty decent so maybe the very concept of making a sequel to The Exorcist wasn’t completely DOA from the get go, but this movie certainly does it wrong.

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II is a little different from the other misguided horror sequels I’m looking at this month, in part because it didn’t come out hot on the heels of the success of its predecessor and in part because the movie it was following up was already seen as stone cold classic by a titan of filmmaking when someone dared to continue the story of Norman Bates.  Made about 23 years after the Hitchcock classic and directed by a guy named Richard Franklin (who had earlier directed the Quentin Tarantino approved Ozploitation film Patrick) and seemed to be an attempt to use the newly popular language of the slasher horror film to revisit the film that some would say helped to invent that genre.  This version was of course in color and had more graphic violence and nudity, but the film did maintain some ties to the original, namely that it was shot on some of the same sets (the Bates house apparently still sits on the Universal lot to this day) and most importantly the producers were able to get Anthony Perkins to reprise his most iconic role.

From the outside everything about this project seemed to be a rather ridiculous cash grab, but I will say the actual movie does feel a little more respectful than I expected.  The recreated sets are cool to see and the actual murder scenes are fairly inventive at times and do maintain a sort of Hitchcockian ingenuity at times.  However, where the original film is in many ways timeless the sequel feels very much like a product of its time, especially when it comes to most of the supporting performances.  The bigger problem though is the script.  The story here is that Bates has been released from the psychiatric institution after twenty years and has returned to his original home/motel (which is kind of ridiculous given that this home would be all kinds of triggering) only to see people suddenly getting murdered and the movie plays with the question of whether Bates has returned to his murderous ways or if he’s being gaslighted by someone else.  I’ll give the filmmakers credit for actually coming up with a new story rather than simply doing a retread of the first film, but what they’ve given us is rather convoluted and messy.  Still, I must say, if you’re going to make a sequel to Psycho you can probably do a whole lot worse than this.  Maybe it’s ridiculously low expectations at work but the mere fact that this is a fairly watchable movie that more or less works seems like quite the achievement given everything working against it.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

The original Poltergeist is one of those movies that was a pretty big hit from the get-go but which has only become bigger and bigger in the years since, especially now that it is clearly one of the top five movies that influenced Super 8 and “Stranger Things.”  Its sequels on the other hand… are movies that a sizable number of the original film’s fans might not even know exist.  Poltergeist II actually made decent money when it came out, or at least it made back double its budget and was considered successful enough to warrant a second sequel but I feel like very few people remember or care about this movie.  While the movie has close to double the budget of its predecessor it definitely has the feel of a cash in.  Most of the cast has returned with the obvious exception of Dominique Dunne (who had already become the first victim of the supposed “Poltergeist Curse”) but the talent behind the camera was much different.  The original Poltergeist was very much the product of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (despite the many efforts to deemphasize the contributions of the latter) and it’s that tension between family movie uplift and hardcore horror that made it so special.

For the sequel neither Spielberg not Hooper have credits either as directors or as producers.  In their place is some guy named Brian Gibson.  If you’ve never heard of that guy it’s because you have little reason to.  He directed What’s Love Got to Do With It and about a half dozen other movies that no one cares about and as far as I can tell none of them are horror movies and none of them have very high production values.  You can tell the drop in talent because this sequel clearly seems to know the elements that people liked in the original but has none of the skill and rhythm necessary to make those elements work.  The family has managed to become a whole lot less interesting this time around, in part because their character arcs were all resolved in the last movie and they had nowhere to go.  There are two new characters (played by people who would be victims two and three of the supposed Poltergeist curse) who at least seem promising at first but are both kind of wasted as the film goes on.  One is a creepy reverend guy who sort disappears half way through and the other is a Native American shaman and the depiction of him is… I’m not going to use the “R” word and I’m not even going to drop “problematic” because I do think everyone involved had good intentions but there’s definitely some “noble savage” stuff going on and the whole thing just seems inaccurate and weird.  Then of course there’s the finale which consists of some very bad green screen effects and really an abundance of bad visual effects combined with no grasp of tone or atmosphere can be blamed for a lot of what makes the whole movie decidedly not scary.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Out of all the movies I’m looking at for this series The Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably makes the most sense as a film to make a sequel of given that it was essentially a slasher film (the horror sub-genre most prone to sequels) and also because the original film ended with its iconic killer alive and well and ready to cause more chaos.  What’s more this is the one sequel I’m looking at which has the privilege of having been made by the original film’s director: Tobe Hooper.  And yet, this still seems like a rather crazy film to be making a good decade after the fact, in part because that original film seemed to almost be a happy accident born of a production so cheap that it almost had to have a certain gonzo realism to it.  It’s the kind of thing you just can’t recreate.  Tobe Hooper seemed to understand this as well, so in many ways he actually didn’t try to make another film like the original and instead went in something of a different direction.  Where the original film was grim the sequel is darkly comedic, where the original was made on a shoestring the sequel is actually a decent sized production (as these things go), and where the original film wasn’t nearly as gory as its title would imply, this sequel is a total gorefest that needed to be released unrated when it came out in 1986.

The film picks up some time after the ending of the original movie with the cannibalistic family from the first movie having escaped police investigation and having relocated elsewhere.  The heroine of the first movie is nowhere to be seen and in her place we follow a radio DJ who has gotten involved in one of their murders and become a target of their wrath.  One of the major ways in which this sequel differ from the original is that it has a movie star in it in the form of one Dennis Hopper as a former Texas Ranger hunting down the cannibals and he seems even more unhinged than usual.  1986 was a big year for Hopper, it saw him earn an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers and earn a lot of cinematic street cred for his prominent appearance in Blue Velvet, and this performance is somehow even bigger and crazier than his work in that movie.  The film also features Bill Mosley playing a character not unlike the hitchhiker from the first movie via a performance that almost certainly inspired the general tone and attitude of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, in fact this movie may well have had more of an influence on Zombie than the original.  Whether or not you consider this movie to be “good” will probably depend in what you’re looking for in it.  If you want a credible horror film likely to actually scare anyone, maybe stick with the original, the sequel by contrast is meant to be this insane romp filled with ridiculous images and ideas and for what it is it’s actually pretty well made.  Put it this is a movie that has Dennis Hopper pulling out a chainsaw and using it to fight Leatherface as if the two are swordfighting with chainsaws, then lodges said chainsaw in Leatherface’s stomach and pulls out two smaller chainsaws which he proceeds to dual wield… if that sentence sounds appealing to you give this movie a watch… possibly while a little drunk.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

This deservedly ignored and forgotten sequel to The Blair Witch Project was made over a decade after all the other “misguided horror sequels” I’m looking at for this series, which probably reflects how devoid the 90s were of horror movies that were special enough to seem like they shouldn’t be crassly exploited.  It is of course a uniquely insane movie for someone to try to make a sequel to given how minimalist and unique the first film was: to try to make something bigger and better would go against everything that made the first film work.  Original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were reluctant to rush out a sequel, so Artisan Entertainment instead hired Joe Berlinger a documentarian best known at the time for the “Paradise Lost” films, which is an interesting choice except that this sequel completely eschews the mockumentary style of the original film.  Instead the filmmakers here have decided to take a rather meta approach.   In the reality of the events of the original film did not happen and The Blair Witch Project exists as the fictional movie that it was and the film deals with a group of fans of the film who travel out to the woods where it was filmed when weird stuff starts happening to them.

I had held out some hope that this sequel would have been some sort of misunderstood gem that was unfairly criticized for trying to do something different… but no, this really is a debacle.  If I squint hard enough I can maybe envision a scenario in which the basic premise of this movie could work, but it’s clear that in the studio’s rush to get the movie out before the buzz around the original wore off they did not give it anywhere near enough time to cook and we’re left with a rather muddled movie.  Beyond that, this is just poorly made in all the usual ways that half-assed horror movies are bad.  The movie has approximately 250 times the budget of the original movie and yet still looks incredibly cheap and unlike the first movie it doesn’t have a good reason to look cheap.  It’s also got an incredibly unlikable cast of stock horror victims played by a bunch of nobodies who give generally terrible performances.  Honestly I’m shocked that this thing even got a theatrical release.  Everything about it screams “direct-to-video” and the whole thing suggests that Artisan Entertainment (who reportedly took the film away from Berlinger and made it worse than it probably would have been) had no idea what made the original thing such a special phenomenon.


Every so often Hollywood will manage to put out a pair of movies so close to one another that one can’t help but look at them side by side.  One such instance seemed to happen this month when two film’s went into wide release within a week of one another that are so different and yet so very similar.  Both films are ostensible biopics about ordinary-ish people who became news stories within the last ten year for actions they took more or less over the course of a single night.  Both films were directed by veteran filmmakers who have become associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum and both films have the challenge of expanding what are ostensibly brief “moments of truth” into feature length films.  Hell, both films are named after surnames that start with “S.”  And yet, what links the two films on a deeper level is that both films more or less exist to ask one simple question: “was this guy a hero?”  The two movies I am of course talking about are Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic Snowden and Clint Eastwood’s Chesley Sullenberger biopic Sully.

To summarize these movies would almost be to simply recite the news headlines of a couple years ago, but I’ll do it just the same.  Snowden depicts the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levit) leading up to his decision to leak multiple government surveillance program to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).  We see his time working in the CIA in both a direct capacity and as a contractor as well as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  While Scully chronicles the day airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was forced to land an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River after losing two engines and the immediate aftermath of this incident including his time he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) spent defending his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both of these movies come with their share of baggage; Sully needs to make a feature length film out of an incident that took something like thirty minutes in real life and Snowden has similar issues while also having to contend with the legacy of the critically adored documentary Citizenfour, which covers a lot of the same material.  Both movies address these weaknesses by adopting non-chronological structures.  Snowden probably does this in a more traditional way by making Snowden’s Hong Kong meeting with Greenwald and Poitras (the centerpiece of Citizenfour) into a framing story from which we flash back to most of Snowden’s adult life leading up to that moment.  That’s not terribly original but it does serve to solve one of the bigger problems with Citizenfour: the fact that that documentary did not really have an ending.  Where Citizenfour set up this Hong Kong meeting as the beginning of something (namely a vigorous public debate), Stone’s Snowden instead sets this meeting up as the end of something (namely its main character’s arc).  Sully by contrast begins after “the incident” and spends a majority of its runtime focusing on Sullenberger as he reacts to his sudden fame, experiences post-crash jitters, and defends his actions to the investigators.  It does of course eventually flash back to the crash, but the post-crash material is more the main story than a mere framing narrative.

The post-crash material in Sully showed some real promise in its early sections, in part because it seemed to be interested in getting into the head of its protagonist and exploring his self-doubt.  At times it almost felt like a sort of companion-piece to American Sniper in that Sullenberger almost seemed to be going through a sort of post-traumatic stress as he contemplated what happened.  I was especially interested in this notion that maybe Sullenberger had spent so much time considering worst case scenarios that once he finally found himself in an actual crisis he maybe, just maybe, over-reacted and tried to pull a hero move that may not have been necessary.  The movie seems somewhat interested in tackling these issues during the first act but it quickly becomes clear that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are less interested in these nuances than maybe they should have been.  Once the inquisitors from the NTSB come into the picture they feel less like professionals trying to do their jobs and more like smarmy villains who seem dead set in hurting our hero.  I get the impression that these NTSB hearings have been condensed to the point of ridiculousness, all the parts where the questioners are being fair and professional is cut out and the few spots where they ask questions that prove baseless are emphasized.  All the interesting self-doubt and second guessing of the first half is completely thrown out in favor of this bizarrely abrupt ending where the movie hits and incredibly smug note and then just cuts to credits rather than even bothering with the obligatory coda where our hero is reunited with his wife or something.

Given that Sully brings this controversy up just to drop it, I can’t help but feel like the movie was creating complexity where there may not have been any in the first place.  Most people going into the movie already think Sullenberger was an unambiguous hero and the movie perhaps only sows doubt about this in order to give the film something do with its runtime.  With Snowden Oliver Stone does not really have this luxury as his subject was a highly controversial figure from the moment he entered the public consciousness and in many ways Stone’s movie is interested in mounting a defense of his actions.  As such there isn’t a whole lot of nuance in his movie either, but at least it doesn’t bring up the specter of nuance just to take it back and say “never mind.”  The movie does do a pretty good job of showing exactly how the invasive government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on worked and how extensive their operations were.  That’s something that Citizenfour was never really able to do and the movie also gives the viewer a better idea of how extensive Snowden’s CIA/NSA career was.  On the other hand the fact still remains that the life of Edward Snowden, computer nerd extraordinaire, was never exactly the world’s most exciting person outside of his eventual whistle blowing and while seeing him slowly grow his convictions does have some interest it does not exactly make for the world’s most thrilling movie.

Both movies have at their centers a pretty strong performance.  Tom Hanks is solid as Sullenberger as you’d expect given that playing likable everymen is his specialty.  It’s hardly his best work but maybe it’s not that fair to dock points from the guy for his consistency.  Joseph Gordon Levitt could also be said to be a pretty obvious casting choice for Edward Snowden but we’re slightly less used to seeing him play these kind of roles.  Both movies sort of suffer a little just because their stars feel like movie stars playing dress up as commoners, but to some extent that’s just something you need to accept in Hollywood movies like this.  Sully is probably the more obviously cinematic of the two movies given that it has a special effects scene at its center and that crash re-enactment definitely delivers on what its audience is expecting form it and I particularly liked the way it was able to successfully depict this crisis as a perfect fusion of different people working together to pull off a really unlikely save.

Beyond that the movie is tonally more or less what you’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood movie, albeit with a slightly lighter center given that the subject matter is fairly uplifting and Tom Hanks’ general presence adds a touch of levity as well.  Of course Oliver Stone is also a pretty skilled filmmaker and while he’s been floundering as a filmmaker for the last couple decades he has always maintained a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking.  There’s nothing in Snowden that’s as adventurous as what Stone was doing in something like JFK or Natural Born Killers but there are at least a couple of neat touches like a scene where Snowden is having a Skype call with his CIA mentor and rather than filming a computer screen Stone superimposes the image of this guy in the entire background of the screen with Snowden looking on in the foreground as if the CIA guy were Big Brother giving orders to one of his subjects.  Stuff like that is relatively rare in the movie though and Stone generally plays things really safe, possibly to the movie’s detriment, and while this is better than most of the stuff Stone has made recently it still isn’t really the return to form that we’ve been waiting for from the guy.

So, in a direct contest between the two movies I’m not entirely sure which I’d choose.  The actual plane crash scene in Sully is probably better than anything in Snowden but then again Snowden leave you with a little bit more to chew on and nothing in Snowden pissed me off as much as the way Sully ended.  Really though I’m not sure I can say either of these movies rose above the level of “average.”  Of the two Snowden is probably the bigger lost opportunity as I feel like something a lot better could have been made either by a younger and more adventurous Oliver Stone or someone else who just had a more creative approach.  Sully on the other hand probably wouldn’t have benefited from a less conventional approach so much as it could have used a few more re-writes, possibly by someone with a slightly more thoughtful approach.  Ultimately I think both movies probably do justify their existences, but just barely and while I would say both will work well enough for people who are already interested I’m not sure I’d recommend either as movies which people who are on the fence should go ahead and take the plunge on but I’m sure both would satisfy if caught on HBO or Netflix some day.



Our Little Sister(9/17/2016)

Japan, what happened to you?  During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s.  As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect.  One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years.  Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families.  In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style.  I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.

The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman.  Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs.  All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other.  They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture.  The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.

Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless.  In many ways it shouldn’t work.  It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable.  This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly.  Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well.  Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child.  Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.

Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious.  It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness.  It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy.  Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless.  I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career.  Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.

Home Video Round-Up: 9/27/2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (9/15/2016)

I’ve always enjoyed the Lonely Island “digital shorts” and in general I’ve always enjoyed the comedic stylings of Andy Samberg both on SNL and on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” so I was a little disappointed when his recent film project failed pretty badly at the box office, a parody of modern pop music in the form of a “Spinal Tap” style mockumentary called Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.  This is the kind of comedy that values laughs over all else, and one of the things that sometimes gets sacrificed is internal logic.  For example, the film takes the form of a glossy self-serving popstar documentary of the Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or One Direction: This Is Us variety, yet it still airs a lot of dirty laundry that an image conscious celebrity would almost certainly try to keep under wraps.  Additionally, it’s kind of a major plot-point that this character’s biggest mistake was trying to go solo when he’s better off with the group he started in, but we’re given little to no indication that the music he did was any less stupid than his solo stuff.  Still, the movie does make some decent jabs at the current moment in celebrity culture and has some enjoyably loopy moments along the way.  I’m not sure that the mockumentary format was the best approach to take but it does make it stand out a little more.  Overall I’d say the movie is a mixed bag and I don’t really regret skipping it in theaters, but it’s worth watching on HBO or Netflix or something when you want your fix of this sort of thing.

*** out of Five

The Fits (9/17/2016)

When the first Paranormal Activity movie was out there was a theory going around (one which the sequels contradict) which suggested that the central couple actually weren’t the victims of a ghost or a demon and that the strange happenings were actually caused by the female lead having telekinetic powers she doesn’t understand or know how to control.  Under that theory everything was happening was caused by her subconscious frustration with her boyfriend and got more extreme as he continued to act like an aggressive dick.  As best as I can tell there’s something similar going on in the micro-budgeted and decidedly not horror tinged indie The Fits, about a girl whose dance troupe is suddenly plagued by violent fainting spells.  At least that’s my best guess because this movie does not really have what you’d call a conventional narrative.  There isn’t a ton of dialog here, it’s generally not very plot heavy, and the characters aren’t really introduced in a whole lot of detail.  The movie is certainly very well shot and I’m excited to see what its director, Anna Rose Holmer, does next but I’ve got to say I don’t really get what she’s going for with this one.  The story telling is quite oblique and its ending after a very brief 72 minutes seemed really abrupt.  There’s certainly some thematic resonance in there, perhaps about gender roles or about adolescence but I’m not sure what exactly that message is supposed to be.  It’s certainly an interesting movie, but I think not a fully formed one despite the confidence of its production, and it didn’t really speak to me.

*** out of Five

The Nice Guys (9/21/2015)

When you look back at the height of Shane Black’s tenure as a Hollywood screenwriter you think about movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout which probably did have an irreverence that set them apart from some of the competition, but in many ways they also basically blend in with a lot of the other action movies of the time at least from afar.  Yet now we’ve come to a point where a Shane Black buddy action movie is seen not as another spin on a well-represented genre so much as it’s seen as mana from the heavens in a world filled with CGI driven blockbusters.  As such I think the reaction some people had to The Nice Guys when it came out earlier this year was a little over the top, but I did think it was a pretty witty and enjoyable little movie.  I do think that Shane Black can be a little snarky and annoying when he’s allowed to run wild but he’s a bit more restrained here than he was in his directorial debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which I found a bit over-rated) and the cast and crew largely seems to be pretty game.  I guess what really holds the movie back for me was that it all just seems more than a little bit like a pointless romp, and there’s a place for pointless romps in cinema but I can really only get so excited for them.

*** out of Five

April and the Extraordinary World (9/23/2015)

I’ve been meaning to get better grasp on some of these foreign animated movies that show up on Oscar night in the animated film category and thought a good place to start catching up was with the latest film from the GKids distributor (the company that releases most of those movies) called April and the Extraordinary World.  The film is a sort of steampunk adventure movie about a teenage girl who comes into possession of a super-serum and must contend with a five-generation old Napoleonic Empire and a race of super-smart lizard people and somehow feels more coherent than that last sentence makes him sound.  I wouldn’t exactly call this an animated film for adults as it isn’t particularly profane or nasty but it doesn’t really play like a “kids” movie either.  Rather I think it’s fairly comparable to what I’d expect from a Japanese anime film in content if not style.  This is exactly the kind or world building science fiction that you get from some of the better OVAs and has the kind of simple adventure narratives and simple character developments you tend to get from that genre.  The art style seems to be influenced by Fraco-Belgian comic strips of the Hergé, Tardi, and Salverius variety and while the look isn’t mind-blowing it is certainly interesting.  Generally speaking I though the “extraordinary world” here was a lot more interesting than April and the basic plot through-line is nothing too special.  In many ways I feel like this would have been better serves as a TV series or limited series that could more fully explore this world because that backdrop is a lot more interesting than the story playing out in the foreground.

*** out of Five

The Jungle Book (9/27/2016)

Making a live action remake of the 1967 Disney animated movie The Jungle Book certainly seemed like a terrible idea before this came out, but the joke was probably on the doubters given that the movie turned out to be a critical success and a sizable financial hit when the movie came out this spring.  The biggest reason that the whole enterprise seemed dubious was that most of the characters were animals, meaning that the special effects team needed to not only make believable creatures but also believably make said animals talk.  The fact that the film comes pretty close to pulling this off is probably enough to make this thing a win.  I say “pretty close” because it did take some time from me to warm up to these effects as at times I thought they kind of entered into “uncanny valley” territory.  Beyond the technical achievements the movie does have some stuff going for it.  For one, the movie’s voice casting is pretty immaculate with just the right celebrities voicing each one of the characters.  However, I do feel like the movie could have stood to make an even cleaner break from the 1967 movie.  The film’s plot is pretty episodic at times and certain segments seem to be included more out of an obligation to that earlier movie than because they’re really necessary to the story at hand and one attempt to incorporate one of that movie’s songs really falls flat.  This also just felt like another kids movie that doesn’t really feel like it earns its life lesson at the end.

***1/2 out of Five

Kubo and the Two Strings(9/11/2016)

What the hell is happening to me?  The sheer number of animated and family movies I’ve found myself watching this year is really off the charts, at least for someone like me.  I saw Finding Dory in theaters (first time I’ve done that for a Pixar movie), I caught up with Zootopia relatively quickly, I’m going to be caught up with the remake of The Jungle Book pretty soon and before the year’s up I also plan to catch up with The BFG, and will probably be pressured into seeing Moana when that comes out.  To a lot of people this would not be out of the ordinary and if someone has kids they are probably suck watching this stuff whether they want to or not but until very recently I’ve steadfastly refused to see family movies and until pretty much this year have at least waited until well after the year of release to catch up with even the most popular of children’s’ animated movies.  This is largely a matter of finally feeling relatively caught up to the latest trends in the genre because of my last essay series and generally feeling knowledgeable to really judge these movies outside of the walled off confines of “skeptical journeys” but it also has to do with Hollywood’s recent output, which has been better than usual.  In fact it may be the best year for respectable family fare since 2009, a banner year which gave us Up, Where the Wild Thing Are, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and most relevantly a movie called Coraline which was the breakout film for a stop-motion animation studio called Laika, which would go on to produce the latest family movie I’ve seen this year: Kubo and the Two Strings.

Set in a mythical ancient Japan, the film follows a boy of about ten named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who seems to have inherited magical powers from his mother, who has been slightly out of it since hitting her head when Kubo was an infant as she escaped from a malevolent deity called The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).  Kubo uses these powers to act as a street performer at the village where they’ve settled but is under strict orders to return home before nightfall because his location would be revealed to The Moon King if he’s touched by moonlight.  As tends to happens with rules established like that, he does indeed find himself stuck out at night eventually and soon his mother’s sisters (Rooney Mara) appear and start to chase him.  His mother perishes in the attack but she uses the last of her magic to bring a baboon charm (Charlize Theron) to life who decides to guide Kubo on a quest for magical armor and weaponry that may save him from the wrath of the Moon King.

Laika is, to my knowledge, the only studio that has managed to regularly put out stop-motion movies and they’ve established a house style that is melancholy and a little dark, but still well within the expectations of the mainstream family film.  I think they lightened up a bit with their second and third films, but for their latest they seem to have upped their ambition a little and returned to the melancholy of Coraline.  That is not to say that Kubo and the Two Strings is depressing by any normal metric, in fact it’s something of a fun adventure movie in many ways, but it is a little more serious in tone than what we usually get from Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, etc.  Of course the other thing that sets them apart is the stop motion format they use, which is a cheaper format than CGI animation and has allowed them to take some risks that other studios can’t and which gives their movies a unique look.  In some ways they’ve almost become too good at this form of animation because at times you could almost mistake this for a CGI movie, which is maybe a problem if you’re looking for that lo-fi charm that stop-motion generally grants a movie.  There is, however, very little doubt that this is a beautiful movie in its design and general vision.

So, from an execution standpoint I have very few complaints about the movie, but I must say that beneath the style I found the film’s basic story structure to be rather… inorganic.  The movie has a really linier approach: it sets up its world, hits its main character with a catalyst almost immediately after establishing that such a thing could happen, introduces us to two sidekicks, and then has the character go through exactly three fetch-quests before having him confront the villain at the end and declare that he’s learned a lesson.  If I were being charitable I’d say that the movie was drawing from age old story structures, if I were being less charitable I’d say that it was a dressed up Legend of Zelda story.  It’s perhaps a testament to skill of the movie that a lot of this is not on the forefront of your mind when you’re actually watching it.  Like, for example, the film’s ending where Kubo shows that he’s matured and uses everything he’s learned to prevail at the end.  While watching this felt pretty impactful but when I looked back on it it felt unearned; I don’t feel like there was really anything that happened over the course of this adventure that would have led Kubo to take in the lofty life lessons he claims to have learned.

I feel like this is one of many movies that could have stood to have taken place over a longer period of time rather than over the course of a seemingly three day road trip… but again, this isn’t necessarily something that was bothering me while I was watching the beautiful stop-motion animation on screen.  Really, compared to most of the movies Hollywood tries to pawn off on children this is definitely a lot better, it’s only by rather high standards that it falls short and I don’t want to come off as too negative.  Laika remains a pretty awesome studio and they need whatever support they can get because I have a bit of a hunch that they make the kind of family movies that parents insist their kids go to rather than the kind that kids actually ask to see.  In my review of The Hunt For the Wilderpeople I called these “Family Movies for Kids With Cool Parents” or FMFKWCPs, which is an acronym I’m going to have to work on because I do think it’s an interesting phenomenon.  Amongst FMFKWCPs this is no Spirited Away and for that matter it’s no Coraline, but one must consider the bigger picture.  Before watching the movie I was treated to trailers to the likes of Sing, Storks, and Trolls… so it’s safe to say that this is way better than the competition even if it’s a little less deep and more formulaic than it first appears.