Doctor Strange(11/14/2016)

11-14-2016DoctorStrange

I’m no expert on comic books but I know more than your average person and one thing I’ve always noticed about the Marvel universe is that it’s filled with characters who are ostensibly stars in their own right and have their own books but who mostly exist by making cameos in other more popular superheroes books.  These are characters like The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Black Widow who probably have their fanbases and which any Marvel fan will be able to recognize and know the general background of but who generally aren’t the marquee characters who sell tons of comic books.  Doctor Strange is definitely one of these characters.  He’s had titles over the years where he was the star but they have not been published consistently over the decades like, say, The X-Men have.  Instead most people will know him from his tendency to pop up in other heroes titles.  Say that Spider-Man were to find a magical trinket of some kind on one of his adventures, more than likely there would be a scene where he seeks out Doctor Strange to explain what this trinket was, thus both giving us a bit of exposition without having to involve some random boring scientist of occult expert.  Consequently, he’s a hero I don’t know a lot about given that most of my exposure to him involves single page cameos, but Marvel Studios is nothing if not adept at making obscure properties into box office hits and that’s exactly what they intend to do with the new feature length adaptation Doctor Strange.

The film focuses on a man named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly skilled and well paid surgeon and also something of an arrogant ass.  This hubris does catch up with him however when he starts texting patient dossiers while driving his Lamborghini around a mountain road and ends up in a huge wreck.  He survives the accident but is left with major nerve damage in his hands which leaves him unable to perform precise surgeries and thus unemployed and aimless.  In his desperation he goes to Nepal, where he’s heard that there’s some sort of genius who has caused miraculous recoveries in the past.  There he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an expert of the mystical arts who is thousands of years old and massively powerful.  The Ancient One and her accolade Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) see some potential in Strange and invite him to train in the mystical arts at their sanctum and Strange uses the same photographic memory that made him such a great surgeon to quickly become an expert at mysticism, powers that he desperately needs because The Ancient One’s order is under threat of being destroyed by an apostate mystic named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has joined forces with an evil demon from another realm named Dormammu to cause all sorts of evil and destruction.

If that plot sounds familiar it’s because Strange’s character arc bears a strong resemblance to Tony Stark’s arc from the original Iron Man except with our hero starting as an arrogant doctor (one that rather suspiciously resembles the title character from “House, M.D. in his mannerisms) instead of an arrogant industrialist.  From there the film follows a fairly typical superhero origin pattern, although it is perhaps notable that this hero is learning his skills from a mentor rather than coming to terms with his new powers on his own.  Of course The Ancient One’s reasons for accepting Strange as an accolade in the first place seem rather suspect.  Strange does not make a very good first impression when he arrives at the sanctum though his poor attitude and limited grasp on what the mystic arts are in the first place.  She seems to be persuaded to take him on for no real reason and her decision to take him or anyone else on as an accolade seems rather odd given that Kaecilius is already out and on the run as the film begins, which begs the question of exactly how long of a timeframe the film takes place over and why The Ancient One isn’t doing more to stop him over the course of Strange’s training.

So, clearly Doctor Strange isn’t exactly what you’d call a great work of literature but it makes up for this in a number of ways.  Doctor Strange has long been one of the more visually original superhero comic books what with its crazy interdimensional travel and spells and the movie does a pretty decent job of living up to that.  The various spells look very good onscreen and director Scott Derrickson (who mostly has a background making horror movies) does a pretty good job of adding a sort of logic to the craziness onscreen .  The standout visual is of course the one hinted at in the trailers where urban areas are bend out of shape like an M. C. Escher painting by way of Christopher Nolan.  It should perhaps be noted that this is the first Marvel movie I opted to see in 3D and I think it’s the first movie in general I’ve seen in that format since Gravity.  This isn’t exactly the most vital use of 3D I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty neat and this is probably the way the movie should be seen, especially during the aforementioned city bending sequence.

This is kind of an odd movie to defend.  I’ve spent nearly a decade whining that Marvel movies have an unfortunate cookie-cutter quality and yet here I am just throwing up my hands and saying “whatever, it’s fun” in the face of one of their most derivative efforts yet.  I think part of that is timing.  The last Marvel movie was Captain America: Civil War, which I’m told only came out six months ago but it kind of feels like it’s been an eternity since then.  What’s more we haven’t gotten a solo origin movie from them since last year’s Ant-Man and before that we haven’t gotten one since… geez, since the first Captain America movie.  The movie also has the befit of coming out at a time when we are richly in need of escapism.  I watched the movie the weekend before the presidential election when I was a bundle of nerves and as I write this I now know the outcome and… oh boy, I think we’re going to need Marvel more than ever in the next four years.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

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Moonlight(11/5/2016)

11-5-2016Moonlight

As of late there has been a lot of talk in the critical community about the representation of minorities on screen and while this discussion has definitely done a lot of good, there have been some negative side effects.  This is hard to talk about without sounding like some “anti-political correctness” nut but to put it bluntly: I feel like the zeal to champion works that present the lives of minorities and women has led to a few movies maybe getting extra little boosts they may or may not deserve the lavish praise they get.  That’s not to say critics are going to praise every movie that happens to have minority characters (Tyler Perry, for one, has not benefitted much from the era of the woke critic) but all too often it feels like when a movie about a minority comes along that even comes to feeling like something worth championing certain critics just go over-board and start acting like the film is an instant classic when it may merely be good.  One of the more prominent examples of this recently was when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance amid the #OscarSoWhite controversy to rapturous applause and buzz only to seem a lot more flawed once everybody calmed down and took another look at it.  This is a shame because it’s led to me putting my guard up when critically acclaimed movies about certain subject matters come along.  For instance, last year when the movie Tangerine came out I found myself thinking “hmmm, it this really as good as they say it is, or is a movie about transsexual African Americans just too “relevant” for people not to love,” which unfortunately means I put off watching what was really a boldly made and highly entertaining movie.  Similarly I’ve got to say I was a little skeptical about Moonlight, a film about underprivileged African American homosexuals: was it the real deal or did the zeitgeist get critics to over-reach again.

The film follows a single character named Chiron through three stages of his life where he’s played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively.  In the first segment we watch Chiron as a young child interacting with a guy named Juan (Mahershala Ali), after running into him by chance.  Juan almost accidentally finds himself becoming a father figure to Chiron despite being a rather dubious role model himself.  In the second segment we see Chiron as an awkward teenager whose demeanor makes him an outsider in his school but who forms something of a tenuous friendship with a boy named Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in this segment).  That segment ends with something of a turning point in Chiron’s life and for the third segment we move into the characters’ late twenties where we find out the type of person the two previous segments have wrought.

The three segments of the film are about the same characters and do form a greater whole when taken together, but are surprisingly self-contained in some ways and could probably be recut into separate somewhat self-contained short films if the director had wanted to with each of the segments kind of having the structure and resonance you’d expect out of a literary short story.  The first segment (dubbed “little”) takes the interesting approach of beginning not with the film’s main protagonist but with a side character named Juan who will be absent from the other two sections of the triptych.  While not exclusively told from Juan’s perspective, many of the scenes in this section are told from his point of view, in part because he (being as he’s an adult) he’s easier for the audience to relate to and is aware of things that young Chiron is not.  The segment also serves as something of a sign of things to come as Juan, while well intentioned, is not necessarily the ideal father figure he initially seems.  The middle segment is probably the most conventional of the three, but also probably the strongest and shows the character at something of a turning point.  I’m going to refrain from talking about segment three, as it is the one that most goes in a direction you don’t expect but needless to say it is clear that that’s what the movie is leading up to for a reason.

In preparation for seeing Moonlight I watched Barry Jenkins’ first (and before now only) feature film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, and wasn’t really a fan of it.  That film, like this one, was very interested in depicting a facet of the black community that doesn’t get seen very often but didn’t really succeed at doing much of anything else.  It was a Before Sunrise kind of thing where two fairly affluent African Americans have conversations about gentrification and black identity while having a brief affair.  Emphasis on “conversations.”  That was not a movie that was interested in the “show don’t tell rule” and I could have gotten over that if the characters didn’t seem so mopey and passionless.  Moonlight isn’t devoid of moments that are a little on the nose, but it certainly employs more subtlety than that earlier effort and it’s a lot easier to connect with the characters and their tensions.  Also, I don’t know what Jenkins has been doing in the eight years since he made Medicine for Melancholy but he has definitely improved as a visual stylist.  The film has some very nice looking cinematography by James Laxton that really captures the Florida heat and Jenkins frequently makes some interesting choices in shot length and angle selection.

If I have any major complaint about Moonlight it’s one that’s kind of a backhanded compliment: it could be longer.  The film’s triptych format is interesting, but it leaves a lot of gaps.  The jump between the second and third segments in particular seems leave a whole lot of the character’s growth obscured.  Perhaps instead of three long segments I might have preferred four or five, maybe even six or seven segments following this character through multiple different ages.  This would have made the film resemble Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in many ways, and given how self-contained and quiet this character is that extra time would have been particularly useful in helping the audience understand him.  On the other hand this likely wouldn’t have been filmed over twelve years and switching actors that frequently throughout the movie might have been more than a bit jarring and cause a bigger disconnect.  Maybe it really is better that the film simply lets the audience connect the dots between each story segment, but I do still think there’s something missing here that I can’t quite place my finger on.  Either way this is a very strong effort that deserves the attention of anyone interested in this year’s better cinematic works.

4

Aquarius(10/29/2016)

10-29-2016Aquarius

When it comes to Brazilian film I must admit that my experience is largely limited to the great 2002 film City of God, which I’m on record as saying is one of the best movies of the 21st century but which seemed to be both the start and end of a one film revolution in the country.  Of course that is likely my own ignorance talking: looking through my personal database that may actually be the one and only true Brazilian film that I’ve even seen (the only other films that came close were the foreign produced Black Orpheus and Kiss of the Spider Woman).  I’m not exactly sure why that is given that my intake of films from other South American countries like Argentina and Chile has been, while still limited, at least a bit wider than that.  Among the Brazilian films I’m managed to miss out on was a 2012 film called Neighboring Sounds, which has developed quite a following in the time since then.  That film was the feature debut of a director named Kleber Mendonça Filho, who is becoming one of the most prominent (if domestically controversial) filmmakers from that country.  Given that I neglected to catch up with that earlier film I thought it would be a good idea to catch his latest, and much buzzed about, follow-up Aquarius right out the gate.

Aquarius is a character study of a woman in her 60s named Dona Clara (Sônia Braga), who lives in an old condo building near a beach in the city of Recife and has been living there for well over thirty years.  As the film opens she is the last remaining tenant in the building with everyone else having sold their apartments to a development company who plans to remodel the entire building and re-sell the rooms at a higher price.  They have offered Dona Clara with a very generous offer above market value for her to sell, but she has steadfastly refused to entertain this offer and plans to stay in her apartment until she dies.  From there we get a passive aggressive standoff of sorts between Dona Clara and Diego (Humberto Carrão), the representative of the development company.

Aquarius has generated a lot of controversy in its home country, but seemingly less for its actual content and more from acts of activism on the part of its cast and crew in the wake of recent political turmoil in the country.  This is ironic because there’s not a lot of evidence of turmoil in the movie.  I’m no expert on Brazil but my understanding is that they were looking like they were on a big upswing for a while there only to run into all kinds of strife that rained on their parade right as they were about to host the Olympics (which had seemed like a good idea back when they were on that upswing).  This film seems like it was conceived back when they were still ascending and is a film that is perhaps wondering what the price of all their progress was.  In this sense it shares something of a thematic similarity with another recent film from a BRIC country: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, which is something of a rumination on the drawbacks of China’s turn towards western ways of doing thing.

Then again, if the film’s intent was to suggest that Brazil should think twice before paving over the old in favor of the new it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to drive that message home.  We certainly get a good idea of why Dona Clara would like her apartment and the lifestyle it brings, but it doesn’t really explain in too much detail why she sees it as a landmark worth defending.  Is it perhaps just a matter of sentiment?  That she simply wants to preserve the sentiments of thirty years of living there?  I don’t know, that just seems like quite the first world problem to me.  The film certainly positions Dona Clara as a bit of an underdog against this coldly calculating land developer, but it takes quite a bit of privilege to be able to turn down two million reals just because you like the view and have some nice memories of a place.  Some of the films better scenes are the ones where Dona Clara is passive aggressively sparing with the developers’ representative and I maybe would have liked it if we’d gotten a more nuanced battle between the two where the developer gets a few more words in edgewise about the value of preserving the old vs. making way for the new.

I am perhaps getting a little bit too deep into the assumption that this is meant to be a thematic/political film when it is perhaps better appreciated as a character study, but even then the film only does so much for me.  Dona Clara is certainly interesting in that she’s an older woman who has been largely undefeated by the challenges in her life and has remained a fairly hip 60-something with her record collection and whatnot but she didn’t quite strike me as a wildly unique or fascinating person despite Sônia Braga’s best efforts, at least not to the point where simply watching her live her life would be enough to carry a movie.  Kleber Mendonça Filho visual sensibilities seem to be solid but not quite unique enough to completely hold my attention and this movie is not exactly the most fast paced thing you’re likely to see either.  The movie has been picked up by Netflix and will likely be debuting on that platform soon but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best environment to be watching it on.  I can definitely see myself having lost patience with it a lot faster if I was at home and surrounded by distractions.  I don’t know, I’m wondering if I’m missing something with this one.  The movie certainly walks and talks like a noteworthy movie but I’m not quite seeing the point to it.

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The Handmaiden(10/20/2016)

10-20-2016TheHandmaiden

There are some directors who build long lasting careers by continually topping themselves or at least keeping a pretty consistent turnout over many years, but then there are also a lot of directors who find themselves haunted by an early success and need to work like hell to reach that level again.  Orson Welles is possibly the greatest example of that given that no matter how great his films were it was basically impossible to ever top Citizen Kane.  A more recent example is probably Quentin Tarantino, who certainly made a number of great films that any other filmmaker would be jealous of, but for however good Jackie Brown or the Kill Bill movies were the simple fact was that they didn’t feel like the revolution that Pulp Fiction was and it was only with his recent successes with period pieces like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained that he really stepped out of the shadows of that landmark achievement.  In many ways the Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook has been in a similar situation.  I don’t know that his breakout film Oldboy is exactly a landmark or anything but it’s a damn good twisty little thriller that sits well alongside films like Fight Club and Memento in the pantheon of cool twisty 2000s movies and it did a lot to bring the recent wave of cool Korean movies to the west.  Since then Chan-wook has remained relevant and made a number of pretty cool little movies like Thirst and Lady Vengeance that have certainly had compelling elements but they’ve all been a bit thornier than his breakout and have had odd tonal shifts that never quite worked for me.  My disillusionment probably reached its peak with his first (and so far only) English language work Stoker.  That film has its fans and as usual with his work there were some interesting elements but for me it didn’t really work at all.  However, I’ve continued to follow his career and it seems like my patience has finally been rewarded with Chan-wook’s very promising latest work The Handmaiden.

The Handmaiden is based on a contemporary novel set in Victorian England called “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.  For the adaptation the action has been moved to South Korea during the 1930s Japanese occupation and begins from the point of view of a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who grew up on the streets and knows quite a bit about pickpocketing, forgery, and various other rackets.  One day she’s approached by a fellow con artist / friend of the family (Ha Jung-woo) who has a scheme to pose as a Japanese count named Fujiwara to win the hand of a shut-in Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who has been living her entire life in a mansion in Korea with her strange and slightly domineering uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and then have her committed to a Japanese insane asylum so he can keep her fortune.  In order to do this he employs Sook-hee to be Hideko’s handmaiden and help push her towards him when he arrives at the manor but this plan starts to go awry as Sook-hee’s sympathies start to change and she begins to sympathize with Hideko and even begins to form a Sapphic attraction towards her.

The film is set in an old estate that was built in both the British and Japanese style one should not be misled into believing that Park Chan-wook has compromised his often twisted sensibilities just because of the Masterpiece Theater trappings on the surface.  The movie is not shy in regards to sex and while there isn’t a ton of violence there is one scene that would be right at home in the vengeance trilogy.  The characters in the movie generally speak in unpretentious dialog rather than the formal wording you expect in this sort of thing, in part because two of the main characters are lower class conmen rather than true blue bloods, in in general the movie just moves along rather than bloviating about class and manners.  The fact that the film is set during the era of Japanese occupation is definitely important, but I’m still sort of unpacking why.  The film rarely ever shows actual Japanese soldiers or the more overt atrocities that happened during this era but it’s no coincidence that the film is set during this time and Chan-wook seems to be making some sort of statement about a more insidious cultural imperialism that was also going on during this era.

All three primary characters in the film are bi-lingual and conversations can go from being in Korean to being in Japanese quickly, sometimes within the same sentence (Magnolia Pictures has helpfully subtitled the two languages in different colors to mark this) and you get some sense that the Korean characters are in some ways sort of jealous of the Japanese characters, or at least of their power and wealth, while the Japanese are themselves seemingly trying to emulate the British.  One could perhaps intuit some sort of metaphor between the Koreans who are forced to conceal their own cultural pride and the women characters who are forced both into the closest and away from greater freedom by a patriarchal society.  However, I’m no expert on this moment in Korean history so I’m pretty sure that there’s something there that I’m not fully comprehending on the first watch.  You do not, however, need to be looking too deeply at the themes to enjoy The Handmaiden as it works just fine as a twisty little con artist movie with a great structure and interesting characters mixed in with some of that perverse Park Chan-wook flavor to spice things up.  There’s little doubt in my mind that this is Chan-wook’s best movie since Oldboy and I might even prefer it to that movie.

4.5