A Ghost Story(7/30/2017)

I went to see David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story not at the local arthouse but at a multiplex at a mall, the kind with so many screens that it occasionally finds space for something a bit more unusual than the normal fare that usually plays at such places.  The general aggressiveness of the distributor A24 probably has something to do with why this decidedly uncommercial film managed to get into a theater like that, but I digress.  Funny thing happened when I went; as I entered the theater the usher who took my ticket asked me “what is that movie about.”  That was a tricky thing to answer, firstly because I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet (obviously) and secondly because what I had heard about the movie was not really something that could be easily described in the twenty seconds I had to have this conversation.  Were I less of an anti-social curmudgeon I might have tried to form a more coherent description, but instead all I could muster was “it’s a meditation on grief,” a description that’s annoyingly cryptic and in retrospect not entirely accurate.  Anyway, her response was to say “oh” and I proceeded to see this indescribably idiosyncratic movie in a theater with about five other people (which was more than I expected).

Truth be told even with a decent amount of time and space I’m not exactly sure how to describe this movie without making it sound weird and stupid.  It begins by looking in at a couple who are living together in a small house located in what seems to be some distant suburb which is practically a rural area.  These two are played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and the characters are never really given names (I’ll be referring to them by actor names for simplicity), they appear to be fairly happy and are living fairly uneventful lives.  Then one day the Casey Affleck character dies in a car accident.  Rooney Mara’s character begins to mourn but we as the audience start things from a seemingly different perspective.  We see Affleck rise from the morgue and begin walking back to his house completely covered in a sheet with two holes in it, like the children’s ghost costume of yore.  From there we begin to watch Affleck’s invisible ghost watch Mara as she grieves him and it begins to feel like it will primarily be a movie about her grief as witnessed by the ghost, but in the film’s second half things go in yet another direction.

A Ghost Story is absolutely not going to be a movie for everyone.   In fact I was pretty strongly suspecting that it wasn’t going to be for me during its first third or so when we were treated to a couple of extended shots that went on for something like a minute and a half each including a largely unbroken shot where we watch Ghost Casey Affleck watch Rooney Mara eat half of a pie in one grief fueled binge.  After about a half hour of that I was thinking “yeah, I get it, is that it?” but then the movie does take something of a left turn and reveals that it has more up its sleeve.  Of course the very concept of a movie where a ghost is literally represented by a guy wearing a sheet over his head sounds ridiculous on its surface but within the language of the film that isn’t some kind of snarky joke, it actually looks kind of cool the way this costume drapes over him and he makes these slow and deliberate motions.  Director David Lowery shoots the film in the Academy Ratio, but with the corners of the screen curved so as to remind audiences of 8mm home movies rather than Golden Age Hollywood and goes long stretches without dialog and sometimes without cuts.

This is, at the end of the day very much an art film that just so happens to feature celebrity actors.  That makes sense but what’s really weird is that it’s director, David Lowery, is actually someone who’s had some mainstream success.  Last year he was at the helm of Disney’s $65 million dollar remake of Pete’s Dragon and the fact that he’s followed that up with this idiosyncratic little thing is a bit strange.  Usually you’d suspect something like this either from someone with no commercial aspirations whatsoever or from someone who wants to make a name for themselves by making something that really stands out rather than someone who’s been dipping their toe in the mainstream and would seemingly want to ride that wave.  However, I do think that this experience making a movie like that has helped rather than hindered his abilities hear as you can see a lot more formal talent in the film than you might expect from something this experimental.  The resulting film is an interesting little exploration of the tropes of the haunting story and of the concept of legacy… just make sure you go in with some patience.

Dunkirk(7/22/2017)

Christopher Nolan.  That has become one of the most strangely controversial names in certain film circles.   In many ways he’s the guy who’s been doing everything we’ve been asking our Hollywood blockbuster filmmakers to do: he doesn’t abuse CGI, he takes his craft seriously, and he makes original self-contained stories (at least when he’s not making Batman movies).  This has led Nolan to be greatly praised and has given him a very loyal fanbase but as with most nice things there’s also been something of a backlash to him.  There are a lot of people who resent Nolan’s role as Hollywood’s savior and they’ve come to lash out at his (admittedly sometimes hyperbolic) fans.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit on the internet pushing back against that backlash as a defender of Nolan, but at the same time I’m not a delusional stan for the guy.  I don’t necessarily think The Prestige is quite as good as some people say it is and I outright disliked his last movie Interstellar.  I was also skeptical about his latest project, Dunkirk, when I first heard about it and when early trailers were released.  It’s not that there was anything about the project that looked “bad” per se, it’s just, in the nearly twenty years since Saving Private Ryan came out the World War II battle film has gotten pretty un-noteworthy and I hadn’t gotten much indication that Nolan was really bringing something terribly special to this one.  I mean, I was still had every intention of being there on day one, but I had my doubts.

In Nolan’s film the battle is divided into three different theaters each with slightly different casts of characters which intersect occasionally.  The first is labeled “The Mole” and mostly follows a couple of rank and file enlisted men stuck on the beach named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trying to get off of the beach by various means and we also get to meet a couple of officers commanding the evacuation named Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who have certain insights into what’s going on which the desperate men on the beach don’t.  The second theater, labeled “The Sea,” is on board one of the civilian vessels that famously set out to rescue some of the men on the beach.  This one captained by a guy named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) and before they reach France they will need to contend with their first rescue, a soldier found on a wrecked boat (Cillian Murphy) who has been left shell-shocked by his experiences in Dunkirk.  Finally in the third theater we follow a pair of fighter pilots named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who have been sent to protect the men on the beach and the evacuating boats from the Luftwaffe.

One thing I neglected to mention from that description is that, while each of these three stories play out in a linear fashion they aren’t meant to be happening simultaneously and they don’t play out over the same length of time.  We are told through title cards that the beach sequences are set over the course of a week, the “sea” sequences are set over the course of a day, and the “air” sequences are set over the course of a single hour. Occasionally these stories intersect; for example at one point a plane goes down in the “air” segment and then the pilot is rescued later in the movie by the boat in the “sea” segment when that timeline catches up.  That sounds more confusing on paper than it is in the film and when watching it I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much brainpower trying to piece it all together as it really isn’t essential to enjoying the movie.   In fact, I feel like whatever confusion that this format does cause actually kind of improves the movie in a roundabout way because it sort of places you in the mind of these characters that have been thrown into this confusing and chaotic situation.

Dunkirk is a film that is more experiential than narrative in its nature.  One could perhaps liken it to an extended version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its intensity but it lacks that film’s graphic violence and really doesn’t focus on actual combat at all really.  We rarely actually see German soldiers in the movie outside of the aerial dogfights, but there presence and the terror they elicit is omnipresent.  If asked to liken it to another war movie I might actually point to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which also looked at a number of soldiers trying to live through a chaotic military situation that went wrong in a major way.  But really I’d more easily liken it to something like United 93 or Gravity which really just place you into a situation and have you just watch as people try to get through it.  There isn’t even much dialogue in the movie, so people who’ve criticized Nolan for his exposition in the past should see this as an improvement but that’s not to say that the film is a non-stop action scene as there are some quieter moments.  The scenes with Mark Rylance on the boat aren’t entirely action packed and these sections gain a lot of gravitas from Rylance’s quiet strength and there are also moments of relative calm on the beach, but even when things aren’t actively popping off in these segments there’s still a constant threat and no one ever fully feels safe.  The section that is pretty much nonstop action are the aerial sequences, which are some of the most intense World War II dogfights I’ve seen.  When actual combat with the Nazi fighter pilots is occurring Nolan often opts to focus in on the inside of the cockpit and it can be very suspenseful to watch as Hardy lines enemy planes up in his sights and he prepares to shoot.

Now let’s talk about the presentation options.  Christopher Nolan has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate for shooting and presenting movies on film rather than digitally and has made it known that the ideal format to watch the movie in is IMAX 70mm, which is the format I watched it in.  In the past I’ve tended to avoid IMAX, in part because the only true IMAX theater (as opposed to the “lie-MAX” theaters that you can find in multiplexes) in my area is at this zoo that’s kind of a pain to get to and the smell from the zoo kind of carries over to it.  I’ve also resisted the IMAX presentation for Nolan’s previous movies because none of them have ever been fully shot in IMAX because of both the costs involved and the fact that IMAX cameras are big and unwieldly, and have instead opted to be primarily shot on standard 35mm and broaden out during certain action scenes resulting in aspect ratio changes throughout.  That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  I feel like a movie’s framing should be consistent unless there’s some artistic reason for the frame to be changing and to have it just arbitrarily re-frame itself simply because one scene is more expensive than another seems problematic to me.  Dunkirk is a little different than some of Nolan’s other films in that the IMAX is now the primary format and conventional 70mm shots are the exception but there are more non-IMAX shots than I expected and their insertion is noticeable both in terms of aspect ratio shifts and the noticeable uptick in film grain during these sections and it was a bit jarring to me.

There are of course upsides to the IMAX presentation though.  The screen is obviously huge and the clarity that the 70mm film provides is kind of amazing.  There’s also something kind of interesting about seeing a modern blockbuster of this size and scope which is essentially being presented in the old Academy ratio and on a screen that’s actually set up to accommodate it (as opposed to the smaller movies of today in that ratio which look even tinier when presented on multiplex screens).  This is especially impactful in the airplane sequences, which are really immersive and use the full height of the screen to really give you a sense of the space between these airplanes.  Interestingly enough I almost found the extra oomph of the IMAX sound system to be as impactful as the giant screen.  There are moments in the movie where shots suddenly ring out and really shock you with their intensity.  A lot of people will tell you that IMAX is the “only” way to see this movie, and while that is a worthwhile experience I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it in a regular theater either, in fact I’m thinking about seeing it again in a more conventional setting (one that doesn’t smell a bit like animal shit) just to see for sure how it plays out in that format.

Really what stands out to me most about the film isn’t its technical acumen but the emotion it leaves you with.  Though I’m sure the movie has been in production for longer, I think Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently made the perfect movie for the mood of (non-deplorable) people in the wake of Brexit and the Donald Trump election.  The Dunkirk evacuation was after all less of a victory than it was a loss mitigation.  It was a save that kept a defeat from being a total decimation, and the soldiers who lived through it knew this and didn’t have the benefit of knowing that years later the world would rally to defeat fascism.  The film captures that feeling of realizing you’ve been utterly defeated while still being left with a desire to regroup and fight back.  That’s a feeling that a lot of people were left with when they heard the bad news on those election days and carry with them into the “resistance.”  But you don’t need to be building connections to modern politics to see value in Dunkirk.  On a simply visceral level it’s a very exciting movie and it leaves you with some interesting glimpses into what people do in a crisis whether they rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure and makes both of these reactions seem organic and believable but also understandable.

Crash Course: Postwar Kurosawa

A while back I picked up my copy of Criterion’s Eclipse boxed set of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa and went through and analyzed each of those four films: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II, and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.  These movies were… interesting.  None of them were great films by any means, in fact I’d hesitate to call most of them “good,” but considering the circumstances under which they were made it was pretty remarkable that they got made at all.  In addition to Kurosawa’s own inexperience, the films had to contend with a wartime economy, military censorship, and demands for propagandistic content.  Overall, those four movies showed a young filmmaker in his early stages honing his skills and developing into a professional if not an artist.  However, my work was not done.  There’s another Kurosawa boxed set that had been sitting on my shelf unwatched: an earlier Eclipse set called Postwar Kurosawa which included five films made by Kurosawa shortly after the war, including three films made before his international breakthrough with Rashomon.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Kurosawa’s first post-war effort was a topical drama called No Regrets for Our Youth, which was about a group of young people who resisted the patriotic fervor of their surroundings through the war years.  The film focuses on a woman named Yukie (that she’s a woman is noteworthy as this and The Most Beautiful are the only Kurosawa movie with a female protagonist) over the course of a rather tumultuous decade and the fallout she encounters for holding liberal views in the wake of nationalist militarism.  In these early postwar years Kurosawa had to answer to a new censorship regime, that of the Allied Occupation Force, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of guessing to see why this story would appeal to their interests.  I do not, however, get the impression that Kurosawa was ordered to make this as propaganda.  I’m sure that if he had wanted to make an innocuous entertainment he could have, instead he was tackling the politics of the day head on in a way that he mostly wouldn’t later on in his career.  If the censors had any negative effect on the production it was probably to force Kurosawa to sand out a few of the story’s nuances and make him lay his message on a little thick in order to make it abundantly clear whose side he was on.

From a merely technical level this is clearly a step up from what Kurosawa was able to do during the war years.  The movie runs a full 110 minutes long, which is short by the standard of the director’s later films, but which is still a good half hour longer than his previous works.  The sets and costumes are also clearly a little more expensive, but more important is that this is a story with a lot more scope and ambition than anything he had attempted before.  I would like to say that the end of the war was all it took to turn Kurosawa into a master filmmaker and that this marked the beginning of his “classic” period, but that’s just not the case.  Instead what we see here is a pretty standard evolution of what we saw in the last boxed set.  Still, this is a good film set in an interesting time period and its box office success (it apparently sparked something of a catchphrase in postwar Japan where people were saying “no regrets for…” all sorts of things) almost certainly helped his career along as well.

*** out of Four

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Kurosawa’s second post-war effort (unless you count a collaborative oddity called Those Who Make Tomorrow, which Kurosawa would later shun) was One Wonderful Sunday, a smaller scale and more intimate work than No Regrets for Our Youth. The film focuses on Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), a couple of young lovers who want to get married once they have a little more money but can’t at the moment because of the post-war economy. The film follows them over the course of a single day, a not so wonderful Sunday, which is their only day off. From here the film sort of takes on the “two lovers talk for a day while walking through a city” formula that Richard Linklater would use to such great effect in his “Before” trilogy, but there the focus is less on the couple and more on their surroundings. Post-war Tokyo is still bombed out, filled with orphans, and in some ways run by black-market gangsters who make things even more difficult than they have to be. As the couple goes through the movie they discuss their hopes and dreams and you do get the feeling that they can “make it” even as they constantly have the carpet pulled out from under them.

The focus the film has on the struggles of life in a post-war Axis city immediately recalls the neo-realist films that were being made in Italy around the same time as this, and I do think this was intentional. However, there are some clear stylistic differences. The film is not using non-actors for one thing, and its message is less overtly socialistic. What really sets it apart from those films is its finale, which breaks the fourth wall in a way that I don’t believe Kurosawa ever tried to do again. In this scene Kurosawa does something unusual with music and ends with one of the characters making an earnest plea directly to camera, a move that is somewhat reminiscent to a similar moment in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Kurosawa had intended this to be a moment where audiences would sort of interact with the screen, but this didn’t really happen and Kurosawa ultimately viewed the experiment as a failure. The rest of the film isn’t necessarily great, Kurosawa lays the pathos on a bit too thick and doesn’t really let you get to know much about the characters aside from the fact that they’re ordinary and likable, but it is still worth seeing if only for the glimpses of post-war Tokyo and to see Kurosawa’s skills continue to bud.

*** out of Four

Scandal (1950)

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa made two movies: Rashomon and Scandal. One of those movies became an international sensation, solidified Kurosawa as a world-class talent, and is considered an all-time classic today. The other one is Scandal. Scandal certainly isn’t a bad movie but it’s definitely not a film of the caliber one would expect from such an accomplished director. The film is largely about a painter who is falsely reported to be having an affair with a popular singer by a tabloid after he’s photographed visiting her in a hotel room. Angry about the ensuing scandal he decides to sue the tabloid and hires a down on his luck lawyer to represent him. I would say that the idea of an expose of tabloid culture was a fresher idea in 1950 than it is today but it really isn’t. We saw similar subject matter covered in Hollywood movies in the 30s… actually, come to think about it a lot of the beats in this movie are straight out of the Frank Capera playbook in a number of ways. When the down on his luck lawyer shows up the movie really plays into the melodrama in ways that will not be to everyone’s taste. Still, this is interesting as a sort of odd departure within Kurosawa’s filmography. It’s a movie that’s so odd that it has a subdued performance from Toshiro Mifune and a super broad performance from Takashi Shimura.

*** out of Four

The Idiot (1951)

Akira Kurosawa was on top of the world when Rashomon opened and all eyes were on his next project.  I’m not exactly sure when Kurosawa went into production on his follow-up film The Idiot or how much that film’s success in the West influenced Shochiku Studio’s decision to let him make his dream project of adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a modern Japanese context, but the final film reeks of over-ambitious sophomore slump.  Before I get too deep into calling this movie a failure I should probably note that the movie as it was released and as it exists now is heavily compromised.  Kurosawa initially envisioned the film would be released in two parts with a collective running time of 265 minutes but after this cut was poorly received by a test audience the studio panicked and demanded that the film be cut down to a single 166 minute project.  The missing footage has been lost and there are hints here that if this missing hour and forty minutes could be found it may well be a relevatory discovery on a par with finding the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.  As it stands The Idiot is not without its merits but it is definitely flawed.

In the first fifteen minutes or so I suspected that the way the film was cut down was going to be really choppy because the film was using a surprising number of title cards to forward the story, but they quit doing that after a little while the film does at least look fairly coherent.  I suspect (and this is sheer conjecture, I haven’t done any research on this or anything) that a lot of what’s missing in this cut of the movie are sub-plots which may not have directly influenced the primary story but which may have fleshed out the themes and put the story into a different context.  This seems like a mistake because the love triangle that the film chooses to focus on, when removed from that context, doesn’t really feel like it needs 166 minutes to play out.  By being shorter the film feels longer and the film’s psychology never really feels fully formed.  Visually the film holds up a lot better.  Kurosawa keenly decided to set the film at winter and make snow a major part of its backdrop, which makes sense given the Russian source material and the performances also hold up pretty well too.  I guess this is just one of those scarred projects that you don’t really feel is fair to judge.  I wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Kurosawa completest, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a student of his work.

**1/2 out of Four

I Live in Fear (1955)

The last film in this eclipse set was a movie made in a very different period of Kurosawa’s career.  By 1955 Kurosawa’s reputation as a master filmmaker was already pretty firmly in place and he was just coming off making his most famous film Seven Samurai.  It is perhaps fitting that the last movie of the “Post-War Kurosawa” box would be a film that was made towards the end of what would be made about ten years after the end of the war and deal with the most impactful moment of the war on the Japanese mindset: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  The film concerns an old man who has become fixated on the threat of nuclear holocaust and is trying to sell off his factory and move his entire family to Brazil because he believes that will be the only safe place on Earth for some reason.  His grown children are not so fond of this idea and are suing to have him declared incompetent to run the family’s money.  The old man is actually played by a nearly unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune under quite a bit of makeup and Kurosawa’s other regular Takashi Shimura is also present as the arbitrator assigned to his case but that sub-plot is probably the weakest element of the film, as it’s a framing story that loses its usefulness as the movie goes on.  This is perhaps a movie that’s more interesting now than it would have been at the time.  What was once perhaps easy to see as a slightly on the nose exploration of a psychological undercurrent now seems like a fascinating insight into a culture’s psyche.  It is, however, certainly second tier Kurosawa and given that it was made later into his career than some of the other movies in the box it’s harder to simply write this off as a mere stepping stone.

***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

This is indeed a fascinating box set both historically and thematically.  The five films here not only show Kurosawa as he develops into the world-class filmmaker but also focuses in on the way he chose to look at the struggles Japan was going through in the wake of their post-war reconstruction.  Over the course of the set we see Kurosawa go from being a young upstart making his own riffs on Italian Neo-Realism to trying on certain Hollywood styles and finally trying to find ways to address domestic social problems while being a director the whole world was watching.  Granted, there is a reason why these particular movies are relegated to an Eclipse box rather than getting Criterion releases of their own.  Thematically and chronologically Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru could have easily fit in with these movies, but they are better works and have individual releases for a reason.  Still, they’re definitely must-sees for hard core Kurosawa fans, and all have their interesting moments for the more casual fans as well.

The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five

War for the Planet of the Apes(7/14/2017)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little.  When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes.  However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.”  This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole.  It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus.  Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are.  This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone.  Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead.  Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted.  As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place.  These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.

As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper.  I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them.  I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys.  Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren.  There’s almost none of that here.  I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human.  With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain.  To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.

On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better.  This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point.  Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera.  This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths.  So the film is great visually but what about the substance?  Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception.  The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.

For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end.  I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea.  That’s not a huge deal though really.  My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t.  Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say.  Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow.  Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.

Spider-Man: Homecoming(7/8/2017)

It’s easy to forget just how important Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man was to the development of the superhero genre.  When talking about the first superhero boom in the 2000s a lot of people point to Blade and X-Men as the beginning of the trend, and technically that’s true insomuch as they were the first two Marvel movies of the era but their impact wasn’t nearly as momentous.  Adjusted for inflation that is to this date the second highest grossing movie based on a Marvel property behind only the first Avengers movie and in 2002 it managed to beat a Star Wars movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Harry Potter movie to be the highest grossing movie of that year and it did it by a lot.  It wasn’t just the fact that it made all that money either, it had to do with how it made all that money.  Earlier superhero movies like the 1989 Batman had almost played out more like action movies than entrants in a genre unto themselves and movies like X-Men changed their look and tone in order to reach a wider audience that may be put off by something that looks too much like a comic book.  Spider-Man looked and felt more like the 1978 Superman but it had modern special effects which would make its success a lot more replicable.  I don’t love that movie, I think there are things about it that don’t hold up, but it was an event and it set the stage for an entire generation of blockbusters.  That’s why it felt so incredibly wrong for Sony to have just rebooted that whole series exactly ten years later and just do the whole thing over again but worse.  Had the Amazing Spider-Man series gone in some radical new direction it might have justified itself but it was just a blatant cash grab and by the second movie audiences rightly rejected the series.  Now there’s a new Spider-Man and you’d think I’d be similarly annoyed by this third iteration of the franchise in fifteen years, but unlike that goofy first reboot this one adds something to the equation: Sony has managed to cut a deal with Marvel studios to bring their web-slinger into the red hot Marvel Cinematic Universe and they more than proved that they had a unique take on the character when he appeared in Captain America: Civil War.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up almost immediately after the end of Captain America: Civil War with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) arriving home from Germany where he had just fought Captain America on Iron Man’s behalf.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) lets Parker keep the high tech spandex suit he’d made for him and tells him to use Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his main contact.  From there we begin with the classic Spider-Man set of challenges: Parker must find a balance between living a high schooler’s life with his crime fighting side job all while keeping his secret identity intact.  We’re introduced to his peers like his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), the school bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the girl Parker has a crush on named Liz (Laura Harrier).  Parker is going through the usual teenage stuff with all these people but constantly finds himself abandoning social situations and flaking on obligations because he’s tracking down a gang that’s been selling high tech weapons to criminals.  Parker doesn’t know yet that this will put him on a collision course with a man named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who got his hands on a bunch of alien technology after the invasion depicted in the finale of The Avengers and has been combining them with human technology to make these weapons and to steal more alien technology he’s created a wing suit to take on the persona called “The Vulture.”

It is perhaps fitting that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a Sony production made in affiliation with Marvel rather than a more conventional entrant in the Marvel cannon because Spider-Man has always been a different kind of hero than the Avenger types that we’ve mostly seen populate the MCU.  He’s more of a street level costumed vigilante than a flashy world savior.  He has a secret identity (something that, curiously, almost none of the previous MCU characters have had), he has to make ends meet, and of course he’s young.  The first thing you notice about the new Spider-Man is that he actually looks like a real teenager.  Tom Holland would have been about 19 or 20 when he made this movie but compared to Toby Maguire and Andre Garfield, who were 27 and 29 when their first Spider-Man movies came out, he seems practically cherubic.  Ignoring all the superhero material this is actually a very solid high school, one that occasionally references John Hughs but isn’t married to some of the dated elements and nostalgia that often drags down movies from this genre.  The film has a very post-21 Jump Street view of modern high schools and doesn’t feel bounded to ancient teenage stereotypes like “jocks” and “goths.”  Parker is still a “nerd” of sorts but he’s not ostracized for enjoying science and isn’t routinely stuffed in lockers or whatever, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that he’s simply not very popular and isn’t a savant in social situations.

These coming of age elements are extended to the film’s superhero elements and particularly to his relationship to Tony Stark, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn was actually an important part of the film rather than a marketing gimmick.  Stark acts as a father figure within the superhero portion of Peter Parker’s life and it quickly becomes apparent that their interactions are an allegory for the struggles between young people who think they’re prepared for greater independence than their parents believe they’re ready for.  This time around Spider-Man’s suit has been provided to him by Stark and it comes with an Iron-Man style talking A.I. and various other neat perks and features to assist him in crime fighting, but many of these features have been locked out by Stark’s “training wheels” initiative and he’s also being tracked and coached during many of his superhero outings.  Cautious Sokovia Accords advocate Tony Stark clearly wants to make sure that Parker sticks to fighting within his weight class and wants him to stick to being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” during his youth rather than get himself in battles with super villains and the like, but when Parker believes he’s needed he subverts this surveillance and defies his metaphorical father with mixed results.

The villain that Stark doesn’t want Parker to be messing with is The Vulture, who in his own modest way is probably the best villain to ever grace an MCU film.  This is likely a function of the film’s more down to earth nature.  To tangle with The Avengers a villain basically needs to be out to destroy the entire world and the kind of people who want to destroy the world tend not to have a lot of nuance; they lack personality and are basically just pure evil.  The Vulture AKA Adrian Toomes on the other hand is a guy whose decent into criminality actually makes sense and is rooted in some understandable grievances.  It’s explained in the prolog that Toomes’ was financially hit when a contract to salvage the alien wreckage from the battle in The Avengers was snatched from him by Tony Stark and the federal government after he’d already purchased a bunch of equipment for the job.  Essentially he’s a representative of the resentful white working class that have been such a fixture of concern in the media since the rise of Trump, a parallel that likely wasn’t intentional when the movie was being produced but which is nonetheless interesting.  On top of that The Vulture is just a cool looking and well-conceived villain.  The film comes up with a believable-ish costume for him and finds interesting ways to conduct his various heists.  There is of course a bit of irony in the idea that Michael Keaton, star of the Hollywood satire Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is now playing an avian themed masked character in a superhero movie but that dissipates when you realize that Keaton really is kind of perfect for this role and does a good job of making his character relatable and believable.

If there’s anything that holds back Spider-Man: Homecoming from greatness it’s probably the filmmaking.  Jon Watts is a newcomer to the world of big budget filmmaking and while he certainly proves himself to be a serviceable filmmaker here he doesn’t really seem to be bringing a unique vision to the table, or perhaps the Marvel machine isn’t letting him.  The action scenes here are almost universally good, but few of them really stand out as being truly memorable cinematic moments that rise above what you’d get out of a typical superhero movie.  If this movie had come in with the kind auteur prowess that someone like Christopher Nolan was able to bring to The Dark Knight or that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man 2 it may well have become a true classic of the genre but as it is it has to settle for merely being one of the best MCU movies, which is kind of like being the best burger at McDonalds.  But let’s not overlook how much of an accomplishment it is to bring a noteworthy superhero movie to an oversaturated market like this.  Watts has managed to make a movie that should feel overstuffed and bloated, yet movies along at a crisp pace and which fits all the usual expectations of the superhero genre point for point while somehow not feeling formulaic at all.  It’s great summer fun and it extends a pretty clear win streak that Marvel has been having the last two years.