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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***1/2 out of Five

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Creed II(12/29/2018)

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

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

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

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

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

*** out of Five

Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

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

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

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

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

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

***1/2 out of Five

Burning(12/16/2018)

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

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

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

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

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

****1/2 out of Five

Roma(12/8/2018)

I’ve had a hard and fast rule when it comes to Netflix movies on this site: they don’t get full reviews unless they get released theatrically in my city before they start streaming.  This is largely because I believe in theatrical exhibition as being central to film culture and that theatrical windows should be preserved because of that.  Premiering movies on the small screen is contrary to my vision of what “real” movies are and frankly it annoys me that movies like the latest Coen brothers movie and the latest Paul Greengrass movie have been denied all but the most token of releases just because Netflix wants to disrupt the theatrical distribution model.  Amazon has long found ways to provide a win-win for everyone by giving their movies real theatrical releases before debuting them on their streaming platform and I see no reason that Netflix can’t do the same.  Obviously I’m not deluded enough to think that my amateurish little blog with minimal readership is going to sway industry trends at all, but there are principles at play and I’m not going to play ball with this company if I don’t have to.  Enter Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the most high profile Netflix acquisition to date and the movie that led to a widely publicized standoff between the streaming giant and the Cannes Film Festival.  I debated whether or not I’d break my rule if I had to for this movie but fortunately it came in under the wire and opened at a local theater all of seven days before its Netflix debut.  That’s far from a real release window but it’s better than the day and date nonsense they’ve been doing so I’ll play along for the time being.

The title “Roma” refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, which is one of the more upscale sections of the city.  Set in 1970 and 1971, the film focuses in on a single house in this neighborhood and specifically on a woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works in this house as a live in maid/nanny.  The lady of the house is named Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist and mother of four, who is becoming increasingly estranged from her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  One summer day Cleo and the house’s other maid named Adela (Nancy García) go on a double date with Adela’s boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) and his cousin Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  One thing leads to another and next thing you know Cleo finds herself pregnant with Fermin’s baby.  Fermin is not terribly enthusiastic about this and it becomes clear almost immediately that he’ll be a deadbeat.  As such the film follows Cleo as she starts to navigate her role in this family in crisis and her own impending motherhood.

Roma is plainly autobiographical insomuch as Alfonso Cuarón was a child would have been a child of about ten when this is set and lived in a similar domestic situation, but film is not told from the perspective of the kids at all and really isn’t terribly interested in them.  Instead he seems to be looking back and re-considering through fiction the lives of the people who raised him, particularly his nanny, who I’m assuming is the “Libo” that the film is dedicated to at the end. The film is certainly interested in class differences but not necessarily “class warfare.”  The family at the film’s center have their blindspots and moments of insensitivity around Cleo but they almost never completely let her down and often surprise both her and the audience in being understanding about certain developments and helping her in certain ways.  The movie also isn’t terribly interested in highlighting the various societal ills that have led to the wealth inequality on display and while it does show some of the challenges that Cleo faces it isn’t a “poverty porn” movie that’s going out of its way to show street life or overt lower class misery.  Cleo’s problems are perhaps a bit more existential; she has limited options in life and is in certain ways giving up a life of her own in order to live with more or less raise someone else’s kids.

Roma was filmed on a budget of about fifteen million dollars.  Not a large amount really in the grand scheme of things but certainly a large amount for a movie about Mexican class divisions starring a bunch of non-actors and utilizing a somewhat episodic structure and without an abundance of traditional expository dialog.  As such Cuarón has opted to film this film with a certain glossy richness rather than the gritty documentary look that is often used to depict the lives of people like Cleo.  The film is shot in black and white and in widescreen and Cuarón has taken great pains to really impress with almost every composition in the movie and pulls off some really impressive shots.  He’s also taken full advantage of modern surround sound technology to capture a lot of small details that most other movies wouldn’t bother with, combined with the fact that the movie has no score really makes you feel like you’re in the same world as these characters.

So Roma is clearly a very well-crafted movie, and there is something unique about that given that these movies with non-actors are generally made in a looser fashion and the visual grammar that Cuarón has built is impressive.  I also think there are some interesting ideas behind the film and that watching Cuarón use the tools at his disposal to bring his memories to life is interesting to watch.  And yet, I still feel like there’s something missing here because I kind of ended up respecting the movie more than I really liked it.  Part of this might simply be that while the movie certainly gave me an idea of its main character’s life and aspects of her personality I never quite felt like I truly knew her on any deeper level, which is a problem given that this is essentially a character study.  I’m not exactly sure how this would have been accomplished without resorting to expository dialogue that would have clashed with the style, maybe just adding in another aspect to her life.  The other thing that might have hurt this for me a little might simply have been expectations.  Ever since it screened in Venice this thing has been so heavily praised that anything short of the second coming of Citizen Kane would have probably disappointed me a little, and indeed this small-in-spirit little movie about life in 1970s Mexico maybe doesn’t have quite the oomph of something that would really scream greatness to me.  That, I suspect, is probably going to be a problem it’s going to have more generally and there may well be a lot of people who wouldn’t normally inclined to give a black and white Spanish movie a chance who will try to watch it on Netflix and turn it off after 30 minutes when “nothing happens.”  That’s unfortunate because this is a movie that generally does reward your patience, but be ready to take it on its own terms.

**** out of Five   

Beautiful Boy(11/29/2018)/Boy Erased(12/1/2018)

At the 2018 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals two movies premiered that will likely be forever linked: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased or the “white boys in trouble” movies, as they were dubbed by certain personalities on Twitter.  Are these movies really comparable?  Well, in essence one is about drug abuse and the other is about gay conversion therepy, those are fairly unrelated topics.  One wonders if they’re both simply being linked because they came out around the same time and have the word “boy” in the title.  Maybe, but then again there are some other similarities.  Both films are set in the early 2000s, both are based on memoirs written by journalists, both end with title cards giving statistics about their respective issues, and both ultimately end up being more about the relationships between their respective white boys and their families.  Whether or not the connection is ultimately forced and whether or not it’s fair to either film I think I’m going to run with it anyway, partly because I’d rather not write full reviews of both films, and partly because this link has been pretty well forged in my head whether it’s fair or not.

Beautiful Boy is based on the memoir of the same name by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and another memoir written by his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and focuses in on the elder Sheff as well as his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) as they try to help the younger Sheff through a debilitating addiction to crystal meth that he has fallen into.  Boy Erased on the other hand is told more from the perspective of its titular boy, an eighteen year old named Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who lives in a particularly conservative area of Arkansas and is the son of a Baptist preacher named Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman).  Shortly after Eamons goes to some sort of Christian college events transpire which result in him admitting to his parents that he might be gay, which they do not respond to well and enroll him with an organization called Love in Action run by a guy named Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) which seems to want to pray away the gay.

Let’s start with Beautiful Boy, which is probably the film of the two I was anticipating more in part because it was directed by Felix Van Groeningen, who made the 2012 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown which managed to really bring a lot of pathos to the lives of a pair of really interesting people.  I certainly wouldn’t call his latest film poorly directed but I’m not really sure he was able to bring the same magic to this movie.  What he does do well here is give a pretty good sense of what these characters lives have been like over the years.  Little touches like the way he decorates Nic’s room and the way he picks locations do paint a bit of a picture and the occasional flashback scenes are done pretty effectively.  He also does a pretty good job of directing his ensemble.  Timothée Chalamet gives a fairly strong follow-up performance to his work in last year’s Call Me By Your Name and his general cherubic demeanor makes for an interesting contrast to the rather gritty situation he finds himself in.  Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also quite good as his maternal figures.  I’d say the weak link is actually probably the star, Steve Carell, who is an actor who I’m frankly starting to wonder might not have range to be a dramatic actor.  His casting makes perfect sense on paper but something about the guy’s voice just makes it very hard for him to blend into a roll and I just really didn’t care for his presence here.

The bigger problem with this movie is just that it tells a very very familiar story.  There isn’t really much of a novel hook to Nic Sheff’s addiction narrative, its patterns of recovery and relapse and recovery and relapse is more or less the same one you hear from most stories like this both in movies and in real life.  The one and only reason why Nic’s story is being brought to the screen and not the several other stories like it is that Nic’s father is a freelance journalist who’s in a position to write a book about his experiences trying to get him help.  That point of view is perhaps something that sets the movie apart just a little given that most movies about his subject matter would be told primarily from the point of view of the addict rather than the parent, but it’s still fundamentally the same story.  Frankly I probably would have liked to see a bit more from Nic’s point of view, particularly early on because the movie never really delves into what drove him to start using meth in the first place.  The film does suggest that David was a little too tolerant when he first found out that Nic was “experimenting” and that treating Kurt Cobain like a hero might not have been in Nic’s best interest, but outside of some vague talk about “filling a void” the movie really sidesteps that aspect of his journey.

Boy Erased is another case where the story being told might not be the ideal test case.  There was a movie earlier this year about gay conversion therapy called The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which certainly had its merits but which I thought was sort of fundamentally flawed because it was being told from the perspective of a girl who was kind of aloof and never really believed in the ideas behind the camp she was sent to and that made her immune from the worst of what this kind of therapy had to offer.  Boy Erased at least seems to be avoiding the same mistake at first, Eamons does seem to be a lot more at risk of being affected by the toxic philosophy at play, but his stay at this camp ends up being surprisingly brief and he ultimately sees through it all and comes out of the experience relatively unharmed.  The focus seems to be less on the camp’s psychological torture and misguided worldview than on their general incompetence, namely their strange fixation on inherited family traits and at one point on the spelling errors in their manuals.  Where The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes gay conversion therapy seem like little more than a rather lame summer camp, this makes it look like a poorly run night school.  I wouldn’t have expected it at the time but somehow Deadpool 2 has managed to be the angriest movie about this subject despite only tackling the topic allegorically.

One of the commonalities between the two films is that both seem to be about as interested in the respective boys’ relationship to their family as much as they are in the boys’ actual problems.  In the case of Boy Erased this sort of makes sense insomuch as being forced into a situation like this would almost certainly strain familial relations, but the movie is also a little unfocused on this front.  The real Jared Eamons (whose real name is Garrard Conley) clearly has fairly mixed feelings about his parents and vice versa but the film might have benefited if it had taken a stronger stance on the subject on his behalf because you’re really not feeling a whole lot by the end.  It doesn’t help that neither Russell Crowe nor Nicole Kidman seem to really understand the characters they’re playing, frankly neither actor has felt more Australian than they do here trying to play Arkansas Baptists.  The focus on familial relationships is even more central to Beautiful Boy and is perhaps more problematic.  The decision to have the whole story minus a handful of scenes be told from the father’s point of view rather than the son’s seems like a bold idea on paper but I don’t think it really leads to any overly unique insights and it also kind of just means the more passive character is given the stage for most of the movie.  Parents love to think they’re more important to their grown children than they really are and there’s a certain narcissism in taking a story about someone else’s pain and making it all about yourself, which is kind of what happened with Beautiful Boy.

So were these movies really all that comparable in the end?  Well when I started this I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, and in some ways it was, but ultimately I don’t think it was to off-base.  The fact that they’re both based on memoirs is probably the bigger link than the fact that they’re both about “white boys with problems.”  So if they are comparable which one is better?  Well, that’s a little trickier.  On a fundamental level I think Beautiful Boy is the better made movie.  It has a cleaner narrative and overall it probably develops its characters better and is generally more competently made.  Boy Erased by contrast is a lot messier and is less effective in bringing you on its central journey, but it’s also less familiar and brings up issues that feel less like total clichés.  That movie is trying to say something even if it’s saying it clumsily while Beautiful Boy just feels like a sort of glorified after-school special without much to really say beyond “drug addiction really sucks for all involved.”  That having been said I find both of these movies to be pretty inessential and I wouldn’t recommend either.  These aren’t offensively bad movies but they also don’t really do anything to really set themselves apart and really work.

Beautiful Boy: ** out of Five
Boy Erased: ** out of Five