Parasite(10/25/2019)

Bong Joon-Ho has, over the course of the last two decades, become a pretty major voice in world cinema whose reputation seems to grow with each film he puts out… and I’m not the biggest fan.  Among modern Korean auteurs I much prefer Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-dong.  Joon-Ho instead reminds me a bit of Guillermo del Toro in that I think he’s a cool guy and I like what he represents for cinema and he seldom makes a movie I outright dislike but I’ve found him uneven in his output and think that even the best of his films come up a little short of greatness for me.  I kind of hated his last movie, Okja, which was a muddle of bad CGI and weird over-the-top acting.  I did enjoy his previous effort Snowpiercer a bit more but I still found it a bit silly in places and The Host never really did much for me either.  All three of those movies seemed to get an inordinate amount for general wackiness combined with a dose of sophomoric on-the-nose political metaphors.  In general I’ve preferred the director more when he steps away from overt genre cinema to make more character oriented thrillers like his breakthrough film Memories of Murder or his 2009 film Mother, but even those movies only did so much for me.  Still there’s a reason why I’ve kept watching these movies and given that his latest movie, Parasite, has been widely acclaimed and looked a lot more like the Joon-Ho movies I’ve preferred I was still pretty excited to see it.

 The film focuses in on a lower class family in Seoul who live in a dingy garden level apartment and getting by on various scams and grifts.  Things start to look up for the family’s college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) when one of his more wealthy friends tips him off about a job he might be good for.  The job involves tutoring an extremely wealthy family’s high school daughter and while Ki-woo isn’t actually a college student his friend knows that the mother in the rich family (Cho Yeo-jeong) is really gullible and will be fooled if Ki-Woo’s sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges some fake credentials.  Once there he sees that this family will indeed be easy to grift and hatches a scheme to have his sister pose as a tutor for their younger son and after that works they conspire to have the family’s driver and maid fired and then replaced with their father (Song Kang-ho) and mother (Jang Hye-jin).  So they’ve infiltrated the family and are living on them parasitically if you will, but soon the fallout of their actions will catch up with them in unexpected ways that will have life altering consequences for all involved.

So, as you read that summery the question whether or not we’re really supposed to be on the side of this family given that they are plainly committing fraud and don’t seem terribly guilty about disrupting other people’s lives to get what they want, and the answer to that is complicated.  The short version is that these grifters are just generally more likable people despite their rather amoral actions than their wealthy victims, but the movie finds very interesting ways to set up this dynamic.  For one thing, it very carefully avoids painting the rich family as being actively malicious in its behavior and doesn’t treat them as being devoid of virtue.  They seem to genuinely have love and affection for their children and they don’t intentionally mistreat their employees to their face.  Rather their great sin is that they just have kind of a shitty attitude about people.  They speak with incredible condescension about their employees when they aren’t listening and while the grifters did conspire to screw over some of the previous domestic workers at the house their plans only worked because they knew the wealthy family would be selfish and uncaring enough to judge and dispose of them the second they became inconvenient.  Meanwhile, the family of grifters have a certain salt of the earth charm through most of the movie and while the movie never excuses them for their crimes it does show that they were motivated by legitimate need and seemed like relatively victimless crimes when they set out to do them.

This element of class warfare is embedded in Parasite but does not entirely define it.  This is not an “issue” movie, at least not on the surface.  In a way it’s trying to do the same thing that Snowpiercer was doing, comment on wealth inequality within the context of an entertaining film, except this one is more entertaining and isn’t making its point through a blunt as hell metaphor.  You don’t, however, need to really care that much about the issues of class at the center of the film to enjoy it.  Aside from the fact that it’s not in English and that it gets kind of crazy toward the end this is actually made with some clear commercial sensibilities and will be quite accessible to most audiences.  In that sense I’m almost kind of surprised that it’s managed to be so widely loved by institutions like Cannes who generally tend to reward more formally unconventional fare.  But that is in some ways the film’s great strength, it knows exactly what compromises to make in order to work for both highbrow and lowbrow audience and it achieves a movie that is going to be very widely enjoyed for what it is.

****1/2 out of Five

October 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

Marriage Story(10/19/2019)

I’m not really the world’s biggest Noah Baumbach fan.  More often than not his movies either leave me cold (Frances Ha) or just sort of end up not being that memorable to me (While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories), but when he hits he hits and some of his films like The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America have impressed me, enough that I keep checking out his work but not enough that I really look forward to it.  Still, his latest movie Marriage Story promised to be one of his most probing and personal works and having seen it I can confirm that it is indeed shooting for something bigger and more memorable than a lot of his recent output and more often than not it succeeds.  The film concerns the marriage, or more specifically the divorce, of a New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his wife, an actress who stars in most of his plays (Scarlett Johansson).  The two have a young son and the wife has plans to move to Los Angeles with the son and could be staying there a while if the pilot she just shot becomes a series.  This bi-coastal setup will become a major point of contention but the bigger conflict here is deeper than that and is focused more on the differences that drew them apart in the first place.

The film is hardly the first movie to take a deep dive into the pain of the divorce process and it’s easy to make comparisons to the likes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, Scenes from a Marriage, and especially A Seperation but there is a particularly modern and Baumbachian spin to this one.  Like most of Baumbach’s films the focus here is on particular type of upper class urbanite and it’s hard not to imagine that he didn’t draw some inspiration from his own divorce with Jennifer Jason Lee, but the characters here do like distinct fictional creations rather than just thinly veiled versions of the writer and his ex.  The focus of the film is by and large on the Adam Driver character, who likely has the most screen time, but the film is definitely interested in the Johansson character’s perspective and sympathizes with her reasons for wanting the divorce.  If anything is vilified here it’s the legal system, or at least the way that the legal aspects of divorce (and high paid divorce attorneys) end up aggravating the separating couple and making things worse, but it also wisely points out here and there why the system works the way it does and isn’t naïve enough to believe there’s much of a way around it.

The film really does a great job of making you understand these two people and how they came apart without completely dumping exposition on you.  Occasionally the film indulges in having the characters monologue in a slightly theatrical way, but these moments largely fit in and the while the film is a bit more serious in tone than some of Baumbach’s other movies it’s not humorless at all and actually throws in some rather comical moments here and there.  Unfortunately I do think the movie stumbles a bit with its ending.  There’s a big heated argument between the main principles at something like the 100 minute mark which feels like something of a climax but then the movie just keeps on going after that and starts losing steam as it includes scenes and sequences that feel a bit indulgent and almost give it a bit of a Return of the King false endings problem.  This is what holds the movie back from greatness but it really is something special up to that point; an excellently written character study with keen insights into a common human experience today featuring two actors at close to the height of their careers.
**** out of Five

 

Pain and Glory(10/22/2019)

Pain and Glory has been heralded as a comeback film for the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, which is odd because he never really left.  His last film, Julieta, was quite strong so really this notion that he was going through a rough spot was only really derived from one poorly received film (I’m So Excited) in what is otherwise a pretty long streak of solid work.  This newest film is (to my knowledge) the first film in his career to be overtly autobiographical.  It stars frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas as a film director Salvador Mallo who is almost certainly a stand in for Almodóvar himself.  Like Almodóvar, Mallo is a successful filmmaker and he has had a roughly equivalent biography, but there are also definite differences between the two.  The character of Mallo is depicted as being rather lonely, unlike the real Almodóvar who has had a boyfriend since 2002 if Wikipedia is to be believed, and there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent character to his brother and business partner Agustín (unless that’s who his secretary in the film is supposed to be).  There’s also no mention of Almodóvar’s tangential involvement in the Panama Papers scandal and I certainly hope that all the health problems and drug addictions that Mallo is involved with are inventions as well.  Still I do think the film’s ruminations about the character’s childhood are legitimately drawn from his memories.

Almodóvar’s films have long rested on a certain brand of nuttiness and he’s at his best when he dilutes that nuttiness and mixes it with a bit of melodrama and some strong characters.  Occasionally he gets the formula a bit off and adds too much nuttiness but sometimes he doesn’t add enough nuttiness and plays things a little too straight and that is kind of what happened here.  Antonio Banderas certainly gives a strong performance and the spectacle of seeing Almodóvar creating an style alter-ego is interesting but I wish he had adopted a bit more of that movie’s energy and flair along the way.  In many ways I think Almodóvar’s heart was more in this movie’s flashbacks than it was in the modern scenes, but the modern scenes take up a lot more of the film’s runtime and are oddly episodic in nature leading up to a slightly abrupt ending.  Part of the problem may be that I’m not terribly familiar with Almodóvar’s personality outside of his films, he usually seems pretty down to earth in interviews despite his sometimes wild cinematic visions and seeing Banderas do an imitation of him only does so much.  But I don’t want to over-emphasize the negative here, there is plenty to like about the movie, I just don’t see it as this top-tier Almodóvar product that people are claiming it to be.
*** out of Five 

 

Terminator: Dark Fate(10/31/2019)

Few major franchises have been as mismanaged as the Terminator series, which came out of the gate like gangbusters with two straight classics of the action and sci-fi genres, but since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, but three different attempts at more or less rebooting the series that have either underwhelmed or completely and humiliatingly failed.  I didn’t even bother seeing the last two reboot attempts, so why did I find myself giving this one a chance?  I don’t know, maybe it was that James Cameron was on board as a producer (which didn’t help the forgettable Terminator 3) or maybe it was that it had serious money behind it (which didn’t help Terminator: Salvation) or maybe it was because I thought that if they had the audacity to try again so soon after the widely hated Terminator Genisys that they must have had something interesting up their sleeve.  Well, I’m not really sure that they did, because even though this is easily the most respectable Terminator film since 1991 it never quite manages to be anything overly inspired either.

There are a key handful of reasons why no one has managed to bring that Terminator magic back.  For one, Terminator 2 tied itself up way more than the second installment of any action movie ever would.  Cameron almost seemed to have intentionally written the series into a corner in an attempt to keep anyone else from following him.  On that front this reboot seems to have done a better job than some of its predecessors in that its script does a reasonably good job of explaining why the machines still rose even though Judgement Day was averted, it has to contrive a little (well, a lot really) to do it, but it does the best it probably could.  The second reason no one was able to follow up the first two movies is that that T-1000 was a hell of a villain and it was hard to come up with another machine that would be an even bigger threat than a bullet-proof morphing liquid metal guy.  For Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines they had the idea of having the liquid metal surround a more traditional robot endo-skeleton, but it was never exactly clear why that was supposed to be more intimidating, if you could just be pure liquid metal why would you want a crushable endoskeleton?  For the new movie’s villain they do more or less recycle that idea but do at least do a little more to establish why that might be an advantage.  It kind of lets him be in two places at once and can act as a bit of a backup plan.  It’s still not quite the inspired upgrade that the T-800 to T-1000 transition was but it does at least mostly work for the movie.

However, the film does run right into the third obstacle that’s been holding these Terminator sequels back: the hiring of second-rate jobber directors.  The last three Terminator sequels were directed by Jonathan Mostow, McG, and Alan Taylor who were respectively: a nobody who had just made a bad submarine movie, an infamous hack, and a TV director who had just made what is widely believed to be the worst MCU movie.  The guy they got to direct this one is Tim Miller, who to his credit does have a hit on his resume with Deadpool, but his hiring here seems to suggest a slight misunderstanding of why that movie was a hit.  Deadpool was popular for its comedy and general attitude but it most certainly wasn’t popular for its actions sequences, which were quite weak.  It is not a coincidence that they dumped Miller and got one of the John Wick creators to make the sequel.  The set-pieces here are reasonably well conceived but I don’t Miller shoots them particularly well.  He zooms in too close and the editing isn’t quite right.  That undermines the movie quite a bit but the bigger problem here is just the absence of interesting new ideas.  James Cameron may have retroactively hurt the film’s long term prospects by making two straight chase movies that kind of followed the same formula.  He was able to get away with that for Terminator 2 because he got his hands on some revolutionary special effects but there hasn’t been a comparable leap since, or at least not one that a Terminator movie is going to effectively show off.  So we keep getting movies like this which try to do that same thing but with ever so slightly different characters taking the place of the people who were there before.  There are a couple of neat ideas thrown into this one (I like what they did with Schwarzenegger’s character for example), and there are certainly worse movies out there but overall this still just feels like an imitation of a master’s work by a plainly inferior disciple.
*** out of Five

The Lighthouse(10/24/2019)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies.  Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same.  2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it.  We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves).  Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised.  Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t.  But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.

After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse.  That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century.  On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space.  As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).  Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light.  Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him.  Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.

The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking.  These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality.  You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away.  I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better.  This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level.  Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in.  Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.”  Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite.  The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.

But what does all of this mean?  I don’t know… does it need to mean something?  My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character.  Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about.  This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare.  Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway.  Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five

A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)


The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five

September/October 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Hustlers(9/16/2019)

I’m generally used to knowing months in advance what movies are worth looking forward to but every once in a while something will come out of nowhere and surprise you, and that’s more or less what happened with Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who form a gang of sorts which starts drugging and robbing various customers in order to “get theirs.”  In some quarters the film was being sold as a sort of economic revenge romp with women nobly fighting back against their opressors, which is not necessarily something I would have gotten behind, but the actual movie exists in a more morally nuanced place than that.  In essence the film is another entry in the much imitated formula established by Goodfellas in which we sort of watch a criminal enterprise as it rises and then falls, and while this is familiar I do think this movie iterates on the format enough to avoid simply being derivative.  Where it loses points is in the aesthetics.  The movie’s never quite sure whether it wants to be straight-up gritty or whether it wants to go for more of a flashy style in keeping with the Scorsese films that inspired it.  Some of the reviews for this thing have been a bit over the top, I think it’s been the beneficiary of lowered expectations, but it is a quality film that will connect with certain audiences very strongly.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Monos(10/6/2019)

There’s been some quality cinema coming out of Columbia as of late and their submission for this year’s iteration of the Best International Feature category at the Academy Awards suggest that Ciro Guerra is far from the country’s only filmmaking talent.  Monos is set in a remote region of the country and follows a group of teenagers who are enlisted in a paramilitary group called only “The Organization” who I assume are meant as a fictionalization of real life groups like FARC.  This band of The Organization is largely left to its own devices with only one adult commanding officer who only visits them every once in a while to deliver orders.  These kids carry around assault rifles and occasionally engage in drills but do not seem to be very involved in frontline combat, instead their main duty is to guard an American woman that The Organization has kidnapped and is holding hostage, presumably until a ransom is paid.  Much of the tension of the film is in seeing these young people reacting to this extreme situation while still very much being teenagers who are prone to the same kind of irresponsibility as teenagers who live less stressful lives.  The film sports some really nifty cinematography and has a lot of great scenery and environments and things do get rather exciting towards the end when tensions boil over and “Lord of the Flies” is directly invoked but the film meanders a bit in the middle.  The cast is generally quite good but the size of the film’s ensemble sometimes works against it as we never manage to really know any one of these kids all that well and the film never gets into how they found themselves in this situation or what keeps them there.  It’s an interesting piece of world cinema, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see.”

*** out of Five

 

Gemini Man(10/10/2019)

I was not expecting much from Gemini Man, which is an odd thing to say from a movie directed by Ang Lee and featuring a major star like Will Smith, but the trailer really looked awful and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is very low.  I had pegged Lee’s continued obsession with high frame rate presentation as the thing that was probably going to torpedo the movie, which was by all accounts the thing that killed his last film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  My first (and until now only) experience with high frame rate presentation was from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 60 fps back in 2012 which, ironically enough, was a film I saw on the very same day I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi which is likely the movie which convinced Ang Lee that he should be a technological innovator in the first place.  That viewing of that Hobbit movie was, in many ways, one of the worst theatrical experiences I can remember and I spent most of the movie wishing I’d just seen it in a regular theater (or not seen it at all, frankly).  If any movie was going to be a terrible showcase for the technology it was going to be that one since it invited an apples-to-apples comparison to the previous Lord of the Rings movies and because its medieval fantasy setting invited a certain traditionalist approach.  I could tell that the 3D was a little smoother than usual but that was a movie that probably shouldn’t have been in 3D at all and the drawbacks to the format like the fact that it makes everyone on screen look like they’re moving at something like 1.25x speed at times and that it gives the whole film a sort of sterile look like you’re watching a British soap opera or something.

So it was with some surprise that the thing I dreaded most about the film, the tech, was the thing I ended up being most interested by.  I don’t know if the difference between 60 and 120 frames was the difference or if the technology has just gotten better in the last seven years or if the movie was just significantly more suited to it, but the presentation was way more intriguing this time around.  I say “intriguing” and “interesting” rather than “good” because for me the jury is still very much out on this and there are only a limited number of movies I’d actually want it used for, but this time around I did finally kind of see why filmmakers like Lee, Jackson, and Cameron were chasing this technology.  The 3D in the movie seems a lot deeper than what you usually see from 3D movies and you really seem to see the characters and a lot of detail right down to every pore on their face.  It almost looked less like a movie and more like some kind of VR video game experience, which is both a good and a bad thing.  The movements of the characters is still unusual, you don’t notice it this the whole way through but every once in a while some of the onscreen movement will just seem unnaturally faster than what you expect in movies, but during certain action scenes this actually ramps things up.

Now I’ve talked almost exclusively about this film’s presentation technology to this point because it is frankly the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a painfully mediocre Bourne Identity ripoff movie.  As I’m sure most are aware, the big high concept here is that it’s a movie where Will Smith is an assassin who has to face off against a younger version of himself who is presumably a clone.  That is of course its own technological challenge as they’re using de-aging technology to bring this younger Will Smith to life, and the do a reasonably acceptable job of doing it.  You do see the seams there and you certainly sense that you’re looking at a special effect while he’s on screen (Captain Marvel remains the gold standard for this technology, at least until I get a look at The Irishman), but technologically it’s acceptable.  What’s less acceptable is Will Smith’s performance in these scenes. As the older version of the character Smith is basically doing a variation on what he usually does when he’s in relatively somber movies and he’s fine at it, but he really doesn’t seem to know what to do when playing the younger version and never finds the right voice or find an interesting way to turn down his usual confidence.  The movie also doesn’t do anything wildly interesting thematically with this setup beyond what giving older Will Smith some really under-developed “regrets” and giving younger Will Smith some lame daddy issues with his creator.  Otherwise the whole thing is totally cookie cutter.  Some of the action scenes are impressive, in part because they’re being given a lot of extra punch by the 3D, but some of them are a lot less effective than others.

On some level I’m glad that Ang Lee is using this nothing of a film in order to act as a guinea pig for his technological experimentation rather than applying it to a movie with real potential for which it would largely be a distraction, but what I really want is for him to stop pretending he’s James Cameron and get back to making small movies about emotions.  That or maybe make an action movie with more of a human touch like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because with or without technical wizardry Gemini Man is plainly beneath him.  Actually it’s beneath a lot of people; the screenplay has apparently been bouncing around Hollywood since the late 90s and it does feel kind of dated as a result.  It’s one of a lot of spy movies from the 2000s that used rogue fictional spy agencies as the villains because they couldn’t find an international enemy of interest at the time and also didn’t quite have the balls to suggest that the actual CIA might be evil.  In general its conception of how espionage works is idiosyncratic; too ridiculous to claim any sort of realism but not fantastical enough to be particularly fun.  It’s also got some really bad on-the-nose dialogue and boring characters.  I’d normally implore people to not waste their time on such a movie until it’s on HBO or something, but I can’t this time because the only real reason to see this thing at all is because of the visuals and how they play out in 120 FPS 3D and I suspect from the trailer that the movie’s going to kind of look like crap in any other format.  So if and only if you’re curious about the tech give the movie a look if you can do so cheaply, otherwise just skip it.

** out of Five

Jojo Rabbit(10/16/2019)

For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis.  Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines.  Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil.  The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games.  So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.

The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War.  Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).  Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree.  This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”  Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg.  Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.

Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end.  I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way.  Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong.  The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may.  As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.

That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable.  I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book.  I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns.  At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit.  This isn’t to say the two movies are identical.  For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot.  But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility.  On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.

If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway.  The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan.  He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans.  The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight.  The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche.  In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.

Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized.  This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions.  But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result.  That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough.  Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.

**1/2 out of Five