Suspiria(11/3/2018)

The fall of 2018 has been notable for a lot of reasons to a lot of people.  One of the things it might be remembered for a bit less than others is that it was the year when two remakes/reboots of classic horror movies from the late 70s went head to head against each other.  One, Halloween (2018) was a remake of an American slasher classic that had become a household name after several sequels and numerous imitators.  That reboot (technically sequel) was made with the backing of horror super producer Jason Blum and has now made more a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office.   The other film I’m thinking of is a bit of a different beast.  That film would be the movie Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name.  The original Suspiria is very well known among horror aficionados but to most average movie goers it’s a pretty deep cut and even if it was more well-known I’m not sure that Luca Guadagnino’s new interpretation of it is probably not made for the masses, which is probably part of why it’s looking like it will leave theaters without so much as making two million dollars.  For film/horror fans Guadagino’s film may be the bigger must-see of the two films given that it’s coming hot off the heels of Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name and it seems to be doing some pretty radical and interesting things with Dario Argento’s original film.

Like Argento’s original film this remake is set in West Germany in 1977 and focuses in on an American teenager named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who has been accepted into a prestigious German ballet academy called the Markos Dance Academy.  As she arrives the school is in a bit of tumult because of the disappearance of a student named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz).  As an audience we know a bit more about Hingle than Bannion does as we saw her confiding to her psychologist Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) prior to her disappearance that she has seen a whole lot of really strange things happening at this academy.  Bannion, oblivious to all this, begins trying to impress her teacher Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton).  Meanwhile, she meets other students named Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) who are suspicious about what happened to Hingle and begin looking into their teachers who we increasingly come to realize are part of a coven of witches that are in the midst of some sort of internal power struggle that their unsuspecting students are in the middle of.

When you think of the original Suspiria the first thing that will come to just about anyone’s mind is Luciano Tovoli’s gorgeous cinematography, which used a very wide frame and some rather extreme colored lighting to create a sort of dream like (or rather nightmare like) vision.  For his remake Guadagino has opted not to even try to match that look and has instead gone for more naturalistic cinematography.  He also isn’t using Goblin’s famous score and has instead tapped Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to do a distinctly different though certainly interesting in its own right score.  So we basically have a remake of a movie that is largely known for the way it looks and sounds which doesn’t retain either the look or the sound.  Instead the main thing the movie seems to retain is actually the story and concept, which is a pretty bold choice given that the script was easily the weakest element of that original film… or from another perspective it was the element most in need of improvement.

The plot of the new Suspiria is told in a more straightforward way than that of the original, which was rife with strange character motivations and at times felt like little more than an excuse to show people being murdered in elaborate ways, but it adds to the mix a certain amount of its own brand of convolution.  While watching it I found myself a bit lost as there are a lot of characters here and a lot of names that you need to attach faces to.  By the film’s finale I was pretty actively confused by what was going on in the plot, though reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia after the fact did clarify a few things.  I also found that some of the thematic additions that Guadagino added did not really add up.  Guadagino for example seems to be way more interested in the fact that this story is set in Germany than Argento was.  Guadagino goes to great lengths to point out that the film’s events were happening at the same time as the “German Autumn” in which the Baader-Meinhof group had hijacked a plane resulting in a great deal of political tumult and the film also deals with the German generational guilt over the events of the second world war through the Klemperer character… which is all plenty interesting but I haven’t the slightest clue how any of it really ties into the film’s main plot about a witches coven killing running a demonic ballet school.  In fact I’m not terribly clear why the Klemperer character is in the movie at all.  He ultimately has basically no effect on the plot and I haven’t the slightest clue why it was decided to have him be played by Tilda Swinton.

So, this new Suspiria is a rather curious piece of work.  Few people who are unfamiliar with the original movie will find themselves interested in this one, and it’s also so different from that movie that it may very well also alienate the hardcore Argento fans.  It also manages to be a too gory for the arthouse crowd and too artsy for the grindhouse crowd.  So there’s already a pretty limited audience for the thing, and even someone like me who sort of fits into that small audience still found myself kind of confounded by a lot of it so it’s sort of apparent why this thing is more or less tanking at the box office.  And yet, there’s a certain something to it.  It’s various ambitions and over-reaches make it kind of fascinating and there are certain elements of the production that are kind of amazing.  Swinton certainly does some impressive work in her triple role and if there’s any justice the movie will earn itself at least a nomination for best makeup effects at the Academy Awards.  It’s also got some really well staged set pieces like a dance/murder scene early in the film and its gory finale is an amazing piece of filmmaking even though I kind of didn’t understand what the hell was going on.  I can see this thing getting a bit of a devoted cult following in the years to come and I may well warm up to it myself over time, but for now I’m not quite ready to commit to any sort of strong support for it.

***1/2 out of Five

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If Beale Street Could Talk(10/27/2018)

The great writer James Baldwin died about thirty years ago but it’s not hard to see that here in the late 2010s the guy is having a bit of “a moment.”  I think this started with the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a thinker and public intellectual.  Coates, with his intellectual demeanor, roots in the literary world, and uncompromising politics in many ways felt like Baldwin’s intellectual descendant and he more or less invited the comparisons when he wrote his 2015 essay collection “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his teenage son, a literary device that was not dissimilar from one that Baldwin used in his 1963 book “The Fire Next Time.”  Baldwin’s next re-emergence happened with the release of Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was adapted from Baldwin’s final manuscript and looked at his views of the civil rights movement and of larger American culture.   That was a great documentary but it was a limited one insomuch as it was largely concerned with Baldwin’s work as an essayist and as a public intellectual and was not really focusing on his work as a novelist, which is what made him famous in the first place.  Enter Barry Jenkins, red hot from his amazing Oscar winning film Moonlight, who has decided to bring attention to that said of Baldwin’s career by making as his next film an adaptation of Bladwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Despite the tile the film actually isn’t set in Memphis and is instead set in Harlem during the early 70s.  The film is told from the perspective of Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne), a nineteen year old who has fallen deeply in love with her longtime friend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James).  Unfortunately, as the movie begins Fonny is in Rikers Island awaiting trial for an alleged rape, one that Tish knows he didn’t commit because she was with him when it was alleged to have happened, an alibi the police do not believe because of her relationship to Fonny.  Complicating matters further, Tish is apparently pregnant with Fonny’s baby.  From here we get a number of flashbacks about Tish and Fonny’s courtship and attempts at building a life interspersed with material about the family’s attempts to find a way to help get him out of jail.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” was not one of James Baldwin’s more famous novels either in its day or in modern times before Barry Jenkins decided to adapt it.  It was written after Baldwin was at the height of his fame and at a time when America was a bit weary of the topic of race, believing falsely that the Civil Rights Movement had already accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished and that everything else would just sort itself out eventually.  Baldwin’s novel certainly doesn’t labor under any delusions that that is true but it’s not a book about the macro-politics of civil rights so much as a portrait of the small and not so small indignities that interrupt black life and prevent greater prosperity for the African American family.  In particular the story looks at the effects of the criminal justice system on black life, which I think is a big part of why Jenkins believed the film would be particularly relevant today.  The story is very much designed to make you root for the couple at the center of it and to be extremely frustrated by the fact that they’re being kept apart by circumstance.  In this sense the film is a very traditional romance plot, but one where society is keeping its characters apart rather than parents or misunderstandings within the relationship.

As a case study in the criminal justice system Fonny’s is perhaps an extreme case as it seems that the police involved have gone through a lot of trouble to frame him for a fairly serious crime for rather petty reasons, something that is probably not unprecedented in the history of American policing but which remains a something of a worst case scenario.  Another character played by Brian Tyree Henry comes into the film at a certain point and tells a story about getting a rather brutal prison sentence for carrying weed on his person, which is probably a bit more representative of the kind of cases that are overfilling American prisons in a post-“War on Drugs” era than Fonny’s predicament.  There is also, in this climate, something just a little queasy about having a film center around trying to get a rape victim to recant her accusation even if that accusation appears to have been influenced by biased police officers, but the film does manage to portray that woman’s story with sensitivity as well.  Still, the bigger point here is about how disruptive arrests like this are on the black family and the ways in which they cannot count on a fair trial or treatment.

Really though, the story’s relevance to modern political debates are not what makes this movie special, what really stands out is simply how well it renders the lives of its characters.  The film certainly brings early 70s New York to life in an interesting way, endowing it with some of the romance of something like Manhattan when necessary while also showing some of the grit and hardship that living there could entail.  The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s set during a particular period, the characters seem to have appropriate hairstyles and have a habit of referring to people as “cats,” but it avoids emphasizing the kitchier elements of that decade.  Most of the music the characters listen to seems to be the jazz and blues of an earlier time rather than the chart hits of 1973 and the movie doesn’t give anyone an oversized afro or anything.  In general the movie uses a lot of the same cinematic tricks that made Moonlight such a revelation but applies them to what is structurally a very different movie that operates in very different ways.  Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have once again managed to create the perfect color scheme for the film and Nicholas Britell has contributed another fine score for this film, and the cast is absolutely killer.   KiKi Layne, who as far as I can tell from IMDB has done almost nothing onscreen except for a couple of guest starring roles on TV, manages to anchor the film perfectly and Stephan James brings just the right mix of sensitivity and masculinity to Fonny.  Regina King is also a standout as Tish’s mother, who comes to have a key sequence late in the film.

In terms of adaption the book skews very close to Bladwin’s novel, to the point where it acts as an almost word for word adaptation at times, which mostly works for the movie as it encourages Jenkins to leave in little bits of character that other movies might have cut out as superfluous.  Little bits like Tish’s discomfort with her job at a department story perfume counter add a lot to the movie and easily could have been left out of a screenplay that were less reverent to the adaptation source, but this reverence can be a bit of a hindrance as well. For instance there is a lengthy scene at the beginning of the book and movie in which Tish’s family is at odds with Fonny’s self-righteous mother, which is in and of itself an excellent scene, but the conflict it establishes basically never comes up again in the movie and it feels like a bit of a dangling thread at the end.  That and another subplot about the two lovers’ fathers conspiring to raise funds for Fonny’s defense are both left unresolved in the movie, in part because of the one aspect of the novel that Jenkins chose to alter in a significant way: its ending.  I will not go into detail about this except to say that the ending of the novel is a bit abrupt and probably did need a change of some kind, his solution is to omit some of the material that would have slightly resolved the above plot threads in favor of an epilog he’s added which I don’t think fits exactly with what the rest of the film is setting up.

That was kind of an odd decision but I see what Jenkins was going for and aside from that one misstep I think this is basically another triumph for Jenkins.  I’m not sure whether or not I’d consider this to be the better movie than Moonlight, truth be told they aren’t as easy to compare side to side as you would think given that they were more or less made by the same filmmaking team.  If Beale Street Could Talk’s literary nature and general talkativeness differentiate it from Moonlight’s unique triptych narrative and enigmatic lead character, but what the two movies have in common is that they are both trying to apply a level of artistry to stories that the cinema and culture as a whole often renders as sensationalistic stereotypes.  In the eyes of society Moonlight’s Chiron is merely a drug dealer, but Jenkins managed to show him as a lot more than that, and he is similarly able to show through this movie that Tish is far more than a mere “baby mama” and he effectively both explains why her life is the way it is while also endowing it with a clear degree of dignity.  By the film’s end you feel like you’ve made a connection with its characters and that you’ve gone on something of a journey with them, which is theoretically what all movies are supposed to do but it’s kind of rare for one to really deliver on that and this one does.

****1/2 out of Five

Halloween(10/31/2018)

I’ve long been called something of a film snob, a title I somewhat resent given that I consider myself to be about as well versed in low brow genre cinema as highbrow art films.  Take the slasher movie for example, the disreputable horror sub-genre that Roger Ebert once dismissively called the “dead teenager movie.”  It’s not exactly my favorite type of cinema either but I’ve seen a whole lot of it, and of my own free will to boot.  Most notably I’ve seen every damn movie in the big three slasher franchises.  That’s all nine Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all twelve Friday the 13th movies, and most pertinently all ten Halloween movies.  Did I love all thirty of those movies?  Not at all, in fact I’d say well over half of them are outright bad movies but it was interesting watching the trajectory the three long standing series went in.  For example, the The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were pretty consistently decent but pretty much never great and the Friday the 13th movies were pretty consistently crappy though occasionally fun.  The Halloween franchise, by contrast, is all over the place in terms of quality.  The original Halloween is a stone cold classic, a way better movie than any of those other movies and almost entirely because of John Carpenter’s sheer skill behind the camera.  But the franchise also has some real oddities like Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which ignores the series continuity entirely to tell a weird story about evil masks, as well as some real stinkers like Halloween: Resurrection in which Busta Rhymes repeatedly calls Michael Myers “Mikey.”  The franchise was last seen being rebooted in the late 2000s by Rob Zombie with generally poor results, but they are now taking another stab (no pun intended) at bringing “The Shape” back to the screen with another sequel/reboot simply titled Halloween.

This new Halloween film is not a remake is instead a new sequel, one that ignores every other film in the franchise except for that 1978 original.  It is set in the present day and alleges that shortly after the events of that first movie Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) was captured and placed into a mental asylum where he has been for the last forty years.  Myers’ surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now pushing sixty and her experiences escaping from Myers have driven her to become something of a reclusive survivalist, a fact that has estranged her from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) but she does have more of a working relationship with her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  As the film begins the story of Michael Myer’s rampage is getting brought back up again by a pair of true crime reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who try rather unsuccessfully to interview Myers, who has remained mute and unresponsive after all these years.  Their visit does reveal one thing though; the state is planning to transport Myers to a different prison by bus on October 30th… that couldn’t possibly go wrong could it?

To longtime fans of the Halloween series this “ignore all the sequels besides the original and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis” approach will be a familiar one.  The same basic thing was done in 1998 for the series’ 20th anniversary sequel Halloween H20, which had Laurie as a college professor in hiding after faking her death forced to contend once again with Myers.  That movie was better than most of the Halloween sequels but it was made in the wake of Scream and while it wasn’t overly meta or snarky like that movie was it did follow the conventions of that late 90s slasher movie wave otherwise, and those conventions have not aged well.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake came around about ten years later and it two is something of a product of its era.  It was clearly greenlit after the success of 70s horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes and it had a certain “torture porn” edge to it.  I remember having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to that movie and wrote a really nasty review of it but I must say looking back on it I think I might have over-reacted a little.  That movie had problems but there were certainly elements of it that I liked and they stand out a bit more in my memory, but I digress.

The 2018 Halloween is interesting in that unlike the last two iterations of the series (and their respective lame-ass sequels) this is not really coming out amidst a wave of other slasher movies.  The horror movies that are most in vogue right now are bad haunted house movies where ghosts jump out at the screen and go “boo!” after a few minutes of buildup, and that’s pretty far removed from the slasher genre that Michael Myers would become associated with.  As such this movie seems to have doubled down on ties to the original movie.  John Carpenter actually has some credits on it (though I’m not exactly sure how hands on he was) and they even brought back original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle back to reprise his role in a couple of scenes despite him being a 70 year old who was never a real actor to begin with.  And yet, the film oddly doesn’t really play out like the original film when it comes to the actual horror scenes.  In that first movie Michael Myers was a rather spectral presence; he would slowly stalk his victims and Carpenter would try to build maximum suspense before each kill.  Here Michael Myers is more of a blunt instrument.  He basically just walks up to random people and kills them in brutal fashion.  The film is significantly more gory the first movie and actually reminded me a lot of Rob Zombie’s take on the series.

The movie certainly has elements that work.  Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis go full Sarah Connor is interesting and Curtis certainly seems to have taken the part on with gusto.  As a whole though I wasn’t very impressed by this reboot/sequel.  Maybe I was expecting too much from it.  Between its clear interest in righting the wrongs of past sequels and it’s immense popularity I guess I was expecting something really creative and special out of the movie and instead what I got just kind of felt like another slasher movie sequel in the series which made a lot of the same mistakes as the other ones.  There may in fact prove to be no way to successfully follow up the 1978 film, which achieved a certain perfection through its simplicity and that any attempt to revisit the Michael Myers character is just going to diminish his mystique.  Still if you’re going to try to do that I feel like you’re going to need to do a little more than this movie does to recreate that magic.

**1/2 out of Five        

Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 out of Five

A Star is Born(10/6/2018)

There are not many movies that weren’t already literary adaptations that can be said to have been remade three times.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one, King Kong is another (sort of), and now it looks like after eighty years A Star is Born has joined the club and is perhaps the least likely member: it can’t serve as a convenient metaphor for various political climates like Invasion and it doesn’t serve as a barometer of special effects progress like Kong but it does have the benefit of being a sort of fable woven into the entertainment industry, Hollywood’s original sin story if you will.  It’s a story that shows both the positive and negative sides of celebrity, the joy of getting recognition and the fame and fortune this brings you but it also shows how that kind of attention can break someone, about how the public can be fickle and how the attention and pampering can lead to substance abuse and self-destruction.

The original 1937 A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is the least flashy take on the story but it is to my mind clearly the best of the first three versions, in part because it simply had the weight of originality behind it.  It was one of the first really major movies to have Hollywood take a hard look at itself in the mirror and question the glitz and glamour of the industry.  The 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason is to my mind rather over-rated; it changes almost nothing from the original film and adds very little except to give it a larger budget and add a bunch of not overly memorable musical sequences.  The 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand did change things, it moved the story from the film industry to the music industry and was also the first adaptation to have to deal with more modern gender norms, but not all of its changes really worked.  That movie’s biggest problem is that by 1976 the industry self-reflection of the original film was less a revelation and more of a cliché, especially in the context of the music industry.  It wasn’t exactly a shocker that musical tastes changed with the times or that rock stars were sometimes prone to addiction, and on top of that the music in that movie did not age particularly well.  That last movie is not particularly well remembered, which is probably a big part of why we didn’t get another remake on the usual twenty year interval and are not just getting the fourth version with Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga which seems to actually be following the cues of that last version by being set in the music industry but is looking to do it right this time.

In broad strokes this is still very much the same A Star is Born story that David O. Selznick produced back in 1937.  The aging male star this time around is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a rock veteran that maybe isn’t at the height of his fame but is certainly still able to draw arena sized crowds to play to despite being a raging alcoholic who’s just barely managed by his much older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott).  The young ingénue this time around goes by the name Ally (Lady Gaga) and as the movie starts she is working as a waitress while playing some gigs at various bars including a drag bar that she is invited to perform at despite being a cis female.  One day Maine drunkenly stumbles into that drag bar looking for a drink and lays eyes on Ally while she’s performing a cover of “La Vie en rose” and is instantly smitten by both her and her talent.  The next day he invites her to one of his concerts and surprises her by inviting her on stage to sing a composition she’d told him about the night before with him.  Video of that moment goes viral and, well, you know what the title of the movie is.

The first obstacle in trying to adapt A Star is Born in 2018 is that the romance at the center of that first movie is one that’s fairly rooted in dated patterns of courtship in which younger women marry older men seemingly on the spur of the moment as a sort of business transaction.  If you go back and do the math there actually isn’t as big of an age gap between the actors in the previous adaptations as you might think, but they certainly read as having a pretty big gap between them.  Watching the movies you certainly would not have thought that Kris Kristofferson was only six years older than Barbra Streisand or that Frederic March was only nine years older than Janet Gaynor.  By contrast Bradly Cooper being a full eleven years older than Lady Gaga is one of the wider age gaps in the history of this cinematic tradition but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.  Lady Gaga actually had hit songs on the radio before Bradley Cooper had his breakout role in The Hangover so they seem to be very much of the same pop culture generation.  This plays out a bit awkwardly on screen as Gaga is most definitely playing someone a lot younger than her actual age of thirty two and Cooper seems to be playing someone older than his actual forty three years both in terms of performance and musical genre.

Cooper’s place in popular music in particular is rather curious.  At one point it’s mentioned that he started his career around 1994 and broke big around 2004, meaning he would largely be a creature of the late 90s and yet the music he plays doesn’t sound anything like the sound of popular music in the late 90s and early 2000s.  He walks around in cowboy hats and speaks in an unnaturally deep voice, both suggesting a sort of country music milieu but the music he plays is heavy on electronic guitars and essentially boils down to a sort of Allman Brothers style Southern rock, but who playing that genre of music during that era would be a gigantic star today to the point where they would be instantly recognized walking into a bar?  There were a couple of people playing music like that back then like The Black Crows or maybe even Kings of Leon but they were never really that level of mainstream.  Truthfully very few rock bands of any kind were really that level of mainstream except for shitty bands like Nickleback and Maroon 5 of bands from very different milieus like Green Day.  The idea of this guy having been in the Hot 100 at the same time as 50 Cent and Usher is kind laughable, the character is so clearly meant to be like someone who got big in the 70s or something that he feels a bit out of place in a film set in 2018.  Of course this all may very well have been deliberate.  A big part of the problem with the 1976 version was that the music in it was so tied in with the sound of the era (very Jackson Brown and Linda Ronstadt) that it dated itself very quickly, so maybe going for a bit of a “timeless” sound was more important than lining up the pop music timeline.

The Lady Gaga character makes more sense emerging in the modern pop landscape, and yeah that’s by design.  I’ve always been a bit agnostic about the musical exploits of the real Lady Gaga.  I certainly wasn’t immune from the catchiness of “Poker Face” or “Just Dance” but I always had a sinking suspicion that her avant-garde music videos and elaborate costumes were all a smokescreen to make what was essentially glorified Brittney Spears music seem more interesting than it really was.  In the last couple of years she’s been moving away from her earlier Madonna inspired pop persona and into more of a rootsy style that would showcase her vocal abilities rather than her presentational flair and it’s been kind of a bumpy road commercially.  Her role in this A Star is Born remake can easily be seen as a furtherance of that career move as a big part of the film is a sort of tug o’ war between the sort of raw vaguely country-ish music she makes with Cooper’s character and her eventual solo career where she’s playing what is arguably sellout pop music (though the film is a bit ambivalent about how bad we’re supposed to consider these tunes) which is kind of a reversal of the direction her own career has taken.

However this is supposed to fit into her wider career it is pretty clear that Lady Gaga is the right choice for the role here.  She does a pretty good job of overcoming the fact that she probably is older than what the part calls for and does feel like an experienced actress rather than a pop singer who was cast after having only done a little bit of TV work.  Her singing is also quite strong, possibly stronger than it’s been on a lot of the pop music that made her famous, and she manages to make the film’s songs work better than they otherwise might have.  Take what is turning out to be the film’s signature song “Shallow,” which features heavily in the film’s advertising.  There’s some kind of suspect songwriting in “Shallow,” it’s diving metaphor doesn’t entirely come together and its chorus consists of the two singers turning the word “shallow” into something like seven syllables to fill a bar, but you’re certainly not thinking about that given the way Gaga belts it out and certainly not in the context of the scenes where the two are together.  I could say that about a lot of the music here, it’s certainly not the kind of music I would generally choose to listen to and there’s a sort of streamlined genre-less feel to a lot of it, but the movie manages to make most of them come alive in their performance and you also pick up on how the lyrics are influenced by the story in a way that real artists might obliquely reference their own lives in the writing.

Bradley Cooper also does a very good job of performing his own songs, a skill I had not necessarily expected from him.  He also does a very good job of acting in the film despite having possibly been miscast by himself.  He is indeed a little too young and for this part and the voice deepening he does is a little odd, but again you don’t necessarily dwell on this while you’re watching the movie.  Cooper also impresses as a director and films the movie with incredible confidence for someone who hasn’t directed before and you can tell he picked up some lessons from working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood (who was at one point trying to direct his own version of A Star is Born with Beyonce of all people starring).  He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique make the movie look great and Cooper has a clear knack for capturing shots in ways that looks appropriately iconic and gives the story a sort of bigness it might not otherwise have.  The film also manages to get access to a lot of authentic music industry locations like the Grammy Awards and the Saturday Night Live set and when it wants to reflect modern pop music elements it does it well.

So, it’s a very well-acted and well directed movie with a lot of solid music and interesting insights into stardom, so I must have truly loved the movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  Don’t get me wrong I certainly liked the movie and admired its craft but there are things about it that bug me, most notably the fact that it’s a remake of a remake of a remake.  I’m not inherently anti-remake at all, there have certainly been some great ones over a year but it does make it harder for something to really feel special when it’s the fourth of its kind, especially when it’s a character drama like this rather than King Kong or something.  Watching it I had something of a feeling of an old story going through its motions: you see the courtship, you see the good years, you see the award show breakdown, you see the inevitable conclusion.  It’s all done very well, probably a lot better than its predecessors even, but at the end of the day it’s not really bringing much truly new to the table except for superior execution and that just kind of means it’s never going to blow me away with any kind of true greatness or give me the kind of transcendent movie going experience.  Of course that is very likely something of a “me” problem that other movie-goers who don’t have all these other versions of the movie floating around in their heads are not going to have.

**** out of Five