Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(5/6/2017)

On my Letterboxd page I have this running list ranking every Marvel/DC superhero movie I’ve seen including almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s got almost 50 movies on it at this point but one movie I haven’t included on it is the original The Guardians of the Galaxy for the simple reason that, despite have the Marvel logo in front of it, that movie is not a superhero film.  None of the characters really have “superpowers” with the possible exception of Groot, they don’t have secret identities, they aren’t really vigilantes, in fact they’re barely even heroic.  They really don’t fit any definition of “superhero,” rather the movie was a straight-up space opera.  With the possible exception of Groot none of the characters really had any superpowers beyond some science fictiony gear, they didn’t have secret identities, and they also weren’t really all that heroic.  If these are superheroes then so are the crews of the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity, and Moya.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it was pretty refreshing.  Marvel has more than enough superhero stories under its belt and being away from the web of cameos that characterize the Avengers theater of the Marvel world gave the filmmakers freedom to sort of do their own thing.  Sure they were still chasing around and infinity stone and the film’s irreverent tone maybe wasn’t as unique as some people made it out to be but for the most part it did sort of seem like its own thing and the film’s entertainment value was there.  Audiences seemed to agree and made what was thought to be a relatively risky venture into one of Marvel’s biggest hits.  Now the crew is back for a sequel and one with much higher expectations to boot.

Set shortly after the events of the original film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our roguish heroes on a mercenary gig on behalf of an alien race called the Sovereigns in exchange for the custody of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who they have apparently captured after the events of the first film.  The mission is a success but soon they find themselves on the outs with the Sovereign when its revealed that Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has stolen from them.  Soon they’re chased across the galaxy and crash land on a random planet.  Fortunately they soon find themselves saved by a stange guy named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains that he is Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long lost father and the two of them along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to go off to Ego’s homeworld while Rocket and Groot (who’s taken the form of an infant after the events of the first film but is still voiced by Vin Diesel) stay back and repair the ship while guarding Nebula.  While staying back Rocket and Groot encounter Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang, who capture them after Yondu himself finds himself the victim of a mutiny.  Meanwhile back on Ego’s planet the rest of the crew start making some disturbing discoveries of their own.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like a lot of Marvel movies recently, is one of those movies which in many ways doesn’t really feel like it needs to be reviewed.  I feel like I could save a lot of time and effort by just saying “Did you like the first movie?  Yes?  Then you’ll probably like this one too.”  I guess that hasn’t always been true about Marvel movies.  In fact in most of Marvel’s franchises the second movie has been the big stumbling block.  The second Iron Man movie was pretty widely disliked and for my money the second Thor is the worst movie that the studio has ever put out, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron also kind of sucked if you want to view that as a second movie.  I think the issue with these first sequels is that they want to be as breezy as the original films but they don’t have origin stories to hang on like their predecessors and they can just seem kind of like aimless movies treading water.  It’s no coincidence that the one sub-franchise to really avoid that sophomore slump was Captain America, in part because the original in that case was set during World War II and by shifting time periods the first sequel had to kind of re-invent the series rather than rest on its laurels.  In a number of ways Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does have the same problem as some of those other marvel sequels but silly aimlessness is almost the point of the GoG series so that doesn’t seem as egregious.

If there’s a real problem here it’s probably that some of the crew, particularly Peter Quill, is kind of starting to buy into the notion that they’re heroes rather than scoundrels.  In the first movie Quill famously described himself as “an ‘a-hole’ but not one hundred percent a dick” but here he seems to be at most 10% a dick and not really much of an “a-hole” at all outside of a few quarrels with Rocket.  You’d hardly know he was raised by pirates at all despite the film revisiting that aspect of his life in more detail than you’d expect.  Rocket still has some of his original edge to him but the rest of the crew seems to be rapidly moving away from the notion that they’re thieves and mercenaries at all.  That’s not a huge problem given the particulars of the story that’s being told in this particular installment and it’s not necessarily something you’re going to be noticing while watching the movie, but if you go away from it thinking something was missing it might be that.  On the other hand the movie does start to establish constructed family of the Fast and Furious variety as the running theme of the series, which, is fine I guess.  Not exactly the world’s most original focus for a movie like this but it works I guess even if they start hitting it really really hard toward the end.

Oh, but here I am something like a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even brought up what people actually care about in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie: the soundtrack.  Once again the film has assembled a collection of 60s/70s classic pop songs to populate the film with.  This time around the music selections are pretty much in line with what we saw before except that there are fewer kitschy choices like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” that serve to be enjoyed ironically.  Most of the songs here do seem to be music I can imagine director James Gunn pretty genuinely enjoys and wants to bring to his audience’s attention.  The musical highlights are probably the sequences set to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electronic Light Orchestra and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & The Americans.  However I will note that the conceit from the first film that these songs are all coming from Quill’s Walkman and that he’s sort of imposing them on the aliens around him against their will is increasingly thrown out the window in this movie and there are some slightly off scenes where characters like Rocket and Yondu seem to be digging into Quill’s collection unprompted.

So I guess we’re back to the “if you liked the first movie you’ll probably like this one” stance I took at the beginning.  The movie is basically more of the same with minor tweaks and adjustments, which maybe speaks to how effective that first movie was because there are definitely franchises out there that would not be able to get away with a retread like this as effectively as this one has.  Will they be able to do keep on doing what they’re doing for a volume 3 without shaking things up a little?  I don’t know.  Apparently the Guardians will have a part in the next Avengers movie, not sure how that’s going to work out.  Personally I’d like to see what a Guardians movie where the crew goes to Earth and gets their “Voyage Home” on would look like, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Graduation(4/29/2017)

Every great cinema movement usually has one filmmaker in it who acts as a standard bearer and for the Romanian New Wave that figurehead is almost certainly Cristian Mungiu, who was the first Romanian filmmaker to win the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.  That winning film was 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an intense but realistic film about back alley abortions in Ceaușescu’s Romania, and it was one of the landmark arthouse movies of the last ten years.  After that film’s success Mungiu used his newfound clout to make his next film Beyond the Hills on a slightly bigger scale.  That film examined the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romanian society and the way women are treated with in it as well as the divide between urban and rural society.  His new film, Graduation, is a little more modest but has clear depths to it in its examination of contemporary Romanian society and family dynamics.  When it debuted in Cannes it was greeted as another success for the director and won an award for Best Director, but it maybe didn’t quite make the splash that his earlier films made.

Graduation is set in contemporary Romania and follows a skilled surgeon named Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) whose daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) is about to graduate from high school.  Eliza is a strong student who has already earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge but this scholarship is dependent on getting high marks on a series of heavily proctored SAT-like exams.  Going into the movie Romeo isn’t too worried about her chances of passing these exams, but that changes when she’s assaulted on the street by a man who appears to have been an escaped convict.  This throws her and Romeo worries that the trauma will put her at a big disadvantage during the exams and could throw her hopes of getting that scholarship out the window.  As such he does what any good helicopter parent would do and uses a contact he has in the ministry of education in order to try to give her scores a boost in the off chance she underperforms.  This is very much out of character for Romeo, who has long been disgusted by the kind of corruption that occurs in Romania, which is a big part of why he’s so excited for his daughter to study abroad.  It also goes against much of what he’s taught his daughter about integrity and given that she would need to mark the exam in order for it to be pulled and given special treatment it puts her in an oddly compromised position and makes her reconsider her father.

Depending on your perspective Graduation could be viewed as a critique on a culture of corruption that exists in modern Romania, or it could be viewed as a look at the hypocrisy of one man and the consequences of his sanctimonious views, or it could be viewed as some combination of the two.  The protagonist is notably not a patriot, or at the very least he’s a very frustrated one; it’s established early on that he and his wife once lived abroad and returned to Romania after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime hoping to make a difference.  He was disappointed in what he came home to and now believes that the only hope for his daughter is for her to move abroad.   However, it becomes clear that in many ways this is a classic “this isn’t my dream, it’s your dream” when looked at from his daughter’s perspective.  From a certain perspective the father’s pessimism perhaps seems overblown, snobbish almost, and that may especially be true when looked at from the perspective of someone who has grown up in this environment.

At the same time, Romeo is the film’s protagonist and you do see his point of view in all of this.  Everything had seemed to be plotted out perfectly for him and seemed to be going so well until his daughter was attacked on the worst possible week and suddenly started rebelling and having second thoughts about her future on the worst possible week.  He’s certainly right to want her to keep her options open, and you can also see why he’d justify the lengths that he’d go to in order to ensure she had a leg up.  After all, if everyone else in the country is getting theirs why shouldn’t he get his?  However, it’s that one moment of failure that’s ultimately his downfall.  I’m reminded a bit of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character from A Serious Man, whose life turns into a Jobian trial as he considers selling out his principals once.

Stylistically Graduation is less bold than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills and perhaps more closely resembles the look of some of Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian contemporaries, especially Corneliu Porumboiu, but that choice does fit this particular movie well enough.  The movie actually kind of reminds me of one of the movies that it was competing against at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman.  The two films actually do have the shared theme of men reacting in less than appropriate ways to women in their lives being attacked, but really what the two films have in common is that they’re in the slightly awkward position of being very good movies unto themselves while also kind of being the weakest efforts from their respective filmmakers.  Of the three films Cristian Mungiu has made since his breakout this is clearly the third best to me but that maybe says more about those other films than it does about this one.

Get Out(3/10/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Anyone remember that show called “On the Lot?”  This was a reality competition show from about ten years ago that was made when the networks were trying to apply the “American Idol” formula onto all sorts of random things, in this case filmmaking and it took the form of contestants making short films every week for the viewing public to vote on.  It wasn’t very good.  I bring this up because one of the most memorable things about it was a contestant named Mateen Kemet, an African-American fellow who was very interested in reflecting his political beliefs in his films.  His most memorable short on the show was for “horror movie week” in which he interpreted the theme creatively and made a movie about the anxiety that minorities feel when they’re pulled over by the police.  It was pretty interesting, certainly more memorable than every other contestant’s films even if a lily-white Fox Network show maybe wasn’t the most obvious place for biting political statements.  If I recall correctly I think it actually got a decent number of votes and he moved on to the next round but the short seemed to function better as a political statement than as a true genre film, a fact that I doubt troubled him much.  I was reminded of this obscure moment in reality television when watching the new hit horror film Get Out, which uses the language of the horror movie to look at the anxieties of being black in modern America.

The film begins in modern New York City, where an African-American man named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are planning a trip to visit her parents in upstate New York.  Chris is wary of this as visiting white people of an older generation can always go in some bad “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” directions but Rose tries to assure him that her parents aren’t like that and that they “would have gladly voted for Obama a third time if they could.”  When they get to her childhood home we meet those parents, who seem to be affable upper-middle class former hippies with all the trappings of modern progressivism.  Her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) talks rapturously about Jesse Owens and her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has a sort of earth-mother vibe going on and is apparently an accomplished therapist with an interest in hypnosis.  Things seem to be going alright in theory but something seems to be profoundly off about the place.  The parents have a pair of African American servants, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who seem oddly servile, almost inhuman.  Something’s going on and he’s not sure what.

The setup for Get Out would seem to immediately remind audiences of the 1975 feminist thriller The Stepford Wives, in which it’s revealed that the town a woman has moved into have been replacing all of its women with servile robot housewives with the not so subtle message being that society forces women to give up their individuality to meet patriarchal demands.  It wasn’t really a particularly scary movie, at least scene to scene and it’s not really a movie that all that many people actually watch all that often anymore, but it made its point pretty well and has remained something of a cultural touchstone ever since.  Get Out is similar in that it’s not a particularly frightening movie in terms of raw suspense.  People who go to this expecting to be scared by it the way they’d be scared by a James Wan or something and who have no interest in engaging in its racial messages will leave disappointed.  The film lives and dies by its allegory and to me that allegory is a bit hard to grasp.

The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (he’s the one with the hair) who are both bi-racial and much of their comedy stems from the tension of straddling the worlds of white and black.  That was the main theme of the duo’s feature film debut Keanu, which featured the likes of Keegan-Michael Key introducing some gang members to the music of George Michael.  Here Peele looks at the darker side of all this.  Malcom X once said that Southern white conservatives were like angry wolves lashing out at African Americans but that Northern white liberals were like foxes who hunt the lamb by acting friendly towards it before striking out and betraying it and believed that they were both two sides to the same coin.  Get Out seems to share this belief at least to some extent, as it is ultimately a story about two-faced liberals who put on a nice face but hold a secret agenda.  Here most of this secret racial animus takes the form of micro-aggressions: the slightly off tone that Rose’s parents take on when they see him, the stupid questions that he has to answer when attending their boujee dinner party, the agro tone that her brother takes on (which I guess isn’t that micro).

All micro-aggressions certainly seem annoying and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them, but they alone would seem more annoying than scary, but this isn’t a satire (at least it’s not just a satire) it’s a horror movie so this family’s ill-intent needs to go quite a bit further than that.  Eventually it’s revealed that they are not only less progressive than they appear but are in fact taking part in a scheme to kidnap black people and implant the minds of the elderly white people into their bodies in order to reverse the aging process… and this is where the movie’s allegory starts to lose me.  In the film white liberals and their micro-aggressions aren’t merely clueless people who aren’t as enlightened as they think they are: they’re evil.  They aren’t blind to their own racism, in fact they’re perfectly aware of it and are quite deliberately hiding it so that they can actively exploit and harm the black victims they’re luring to their spaces.  What exactly is this next step supposed to be a stand-in for?  What end game is the film positing is the result of the sort of benevolent liberal racism the movie is attacking?

Perhaps the suggestion is that by trying to incorporate these black people into white society they’re trying to rob them of their culture and heritage and turn them into “Oreos,” but Chris doesn’t really present himself as being particularly “black” in his mannerisms to begin with and the earlier micro-aggressions rarely seem to show all that much hostility towards his culture.  Perhaps the film is suggesting that white people all secretly want to be black out of some primal jealously, but that kind of thing seems to be more the domain of teenagers who want to emulate rappers than elderly people who pine for whatever slight athletic advantages they have, and again this doesn’t seem to be at the root of the micro-aggressions that were occurring earlier.  I think the more plausible message would seem to be that these white people only like black people insomuch as they can use them as props in order to make themselves seem cooler and more progressive, but if that’s their ultimate end-goal why would they be keeping their current brainwashed black people as servants?  That would seem to be the opposite of that goal.

I went into this movie pretty earnestly trying to get to the bottom of Peele’s critiques of the white liberal racism but I must say by the movie’s end I felt like I was left with more questions than answers.  I feel like what the movie may be missing is some model of what the “right kind” of white liberal looks like.  In the film every one of the white people turns out to be two-faced and awful both before and after their full motivations are revealed, and yet I’m not entirely sure what they could have done not to be judged as such.  Early in the film Rose is depicted as being a privileged fool when she stands up to a cop on Chris’ behalf and yet later she’s depicted as a traitor for failing to stand up on his behalf when other people around her start asking inappropriate questions and her brother starts acting like a dick.  People who go out of their way not to seem racist are believed to be hiding racial animus, people who do the opposite and make their racism clear are also obviously awful, and people who try not to bring up race at all are likely to also be seen as conspicuously two faced.

The movie perhaps inadvertently makes being white something of the ultimate catch-22 in which one can never really be without sin… and maybe that is a legitimate point of view and I can also see why Peele wouldn’t want to give white audiences and easy out, but there’s something rather hopeless about the film’s view of race in America.  Again, Jordan Peele is the product of an inter-racial marriage and he is himself married to a white woman, clearly he doesn’t really think it’s impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony and yet he still ends the movie with Chris killing the “white bitch” and then returning to his black friend and by extension the black community, presumably never to make the mistake of going to a white girls’ parents’ house again.  That’s pretty damn dark, and again, I’m sure Peele isn’t really a segregationist and that I’m maybe taking this to some symbolic extreme but what other conclusion am I to come to from this?

Of course maybe I’m just making the white boy mistake of trying to make this about me. This is a movie about a black man told from the perspective of a black man, maybe it’s a big mistake to be looking at it as some kind of how to manual about how to be a white guy and how not to be a white guy.  It’s more likely that the movie is simply trying to make you feel empathy for this guy and give you an idea of how and why he’s so ill at ease in these elite white settings, but then I have to go back to the point I made two pages ago: the movie isn’t that scary.  I feel like there would have been more tension to the whole situation if the film had done the Rosemary’s Baby thing and left it ambiguous for much of the run-time as to whether there was truly a threat here or whether Chris was being paranoid but with the film’s opening scene and the absolutely bizarre way the black servants behave it’s clear that Chris’ concerns are more than valid and you’re actually ahead of him in realizing that he’s in mortal danger.  Otherwise there just isn’t a whole lot in the way of really scary scenes here.  There’s a jump scare or two complete with musical stings and things do start to get a little gory at the end and there are one or two legitimately suspenseful scenes here or there but I do think Jordan Peele’s inexperience behind the camera shows and he’s not terribly elegant in executing on some of the horror sequences.

As of now Get Out is sitting at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with 176 positive review and only one negative review, meaning that if I was deemed worthy of contributing to that website’s aggregator I’d be sitting alone with Armond fucking White in not being terribly impressed with the movie.  That’s not good company to be in.  Honestly though that score kind of makes me think there really is something wrong with the movie.  I’d think that if a movie was truly provocative then unanimous praise should be the last thing it wants to receive.  Movies that break boundaries and tell harsh truths should divide people and get people riled up and if all the do is receive praise from the very people it’s speaking out against then something’s wrong.  In the case of Get Out I think Peele has oddly found a way to appeal to all sides in all the wrong ways.  Conservatives, who tend to hate latte liberals even more than black people, will watch it and say “see, those liberals are the real racists” and will proceed with their usual deplorableness secure in knowing that they’re no worse than the other guys.  Liberals will watch it and vocally approve of it lest they be accused of being the kind of two-faced liberal the movie is out to attack.  And finally the actual minorities will watch it and appreciate that a movie is finally acknowledging their lived experience.  That last reaction is fair enough, I’m certainly in no position to argue with that, but reviews are meant to be a personal reaction and I personally don’t think the movie worked for me.  As a horror movie I found it limp and if it set out to prove that liberal racism was just as bad as overt racism, well, consider me unconvinced… I don’t know what that says about me.

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Hidden Figures(2/12/2017)

In general I’m a pretty open-minded filmgoer.  I bristle when people ask me “what kind of movies do you watch” expecting me to name one genre or other when in fact I think any “kind” of movie can work well if done correctly.  That having been said if there’s one kind of movie I have no use for it’s Hollywood movies whose only reason to exist is to be quote unquote “inspirational.”   You know the movies I’m talking about: Rudy, October Sky, Remember the Titans, Patch Adams, Seabiscuit… basically any time a movie that says “based on the inspiring true story” on the poster you can count me out.  To me these movies tend to be artistically bankrupt enterprises that actively avoid stylistic flourish, nuance, and challenging ideas in order to make themselves palatable as possible to the most basic of audiences, the kind of people who think going to Tony Robbins seminars is a good use of their time.  What is unfortunate is that Hollywood has recently begun using the “inspirational true story” playbook when they try to tackle movies about the Civil Rights movement.  I’m thinking in particular of movies like Red Tails, 42, and The Butler which tackle a very prickly subject in a very safe and neutered way, almost feeling like glorified children’s movies more than great cinema, and that’s very much the vibe I got out of the new film Hidden Figures which depicts the lives of African American women working at NASA during the 60s.

The film is set in 1961 and focuses on three women who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, which was an essential field center in NASA’s efforts to put a man in space.  One of these women, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is functionally the supervisor of a department of African American women mathematicians who work there as computers (which in this context means “one who computes”) but has been refused the official designataion of supervisor by the uncaring bureaucracy at NASA.  Another, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to break out of being a computer and become an engineer but in many ways can’t because she’s being barred from taking required night school courses by the segregated school system.  But the woman the film spends the most time looking at is Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a particularly talented computer who is selected to work with the Space Task Group led by a guy named Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) which is in charge of highly complex mathematics which will be critical in launching John Glenn into space and bringing him back safely.

As you can probably guess from paragraph one, Hidden Figures was not a movie made for someone with my film tastes.  In fact I avoided the movie for a while, but with all the Oscar nominations it’s received I came to the conclusion that I should probably give it a chance.  I do think the movie has a pretty solid cast led by Taraji P. Henson, who started her career playing these young highly energetic roles and does a pretty good job transitioning into playing a character who’s a bit more “square” here.  Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are also good here and the assortment of white people they found to surround these white people also do a pretty good job of playing what you’d call “low key racism.”  In general the movie does a pretty good job of keeping the focus on discrimination that’s a little more subtle and more applicable to the kind of issues people are still facing today.  The exception to this is the film’s obsession with segregated bathrooms, which apparently isn’t exactly accurate to what these women even went through at the time and feels like the kind of “safely in the past” racism that movies like this often focus on.

The film was directed by a guy named Theodore Melfi, a white guy previously known for making a Bill Murray movie no one cared about called St. Vincent.  The guy seems competent I guess, but he does very little to make the film really stand out.  I guess he makes decent use of period music and should be given some credit for the performances, but this is cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking to be sure.  All in all this just seems like the same safe civil rights story we’ve seen so many times before.  I suppose it deserves credit for coming up with a particular story of the civil rights movement but it treats the story with the same whiff of cliché that most of the other civil rights biopics of the Red Tails variety.  That’s not a terrible thing exactly, I guess children need to learn about the civil rights movement somehow, but the fact that this thing has become a major box office hit and awards contender suggests to me that there are a lot of people settling for a rather remedial take on civil rights.  There are better and deeper movies on the subject and grown-ups should be able buck up and see movies about race that are more challenging than this.

Hacksaw Ridge(12/19/2016)

It must take a special kind of insanity to willingly go to a theater to see a movie you’re 90% sure you won’t like out of some strange belief that you need to be involved in “the conversation.”  That’s especially true when you’re under no professional obligation to see anything and the range of people who care about your opinions is… limited.  Still, for whatever reason I do feel a certain pressure to go see certain movies that have a degree of relevance critically or commercially or in awards season.  In the case of Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge I was desperately afraid that would end up happening.  The film’s trailer makes it look awful; like the worst kind of pandering mess made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I was desperately afraid that it would become a big red state hit along the lines of an American Sniper or Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ, but that never really ended up happening.  The movie actually did end up earning a good sixty million dollars at the box office, but it certainly wasn’t an unavoidable sensation.  Oddly enough, the critics were actually more enthusiastic or at least they were a lot less harsh on it than I expected, but they weren’t swaying me either.  What did finally force me to break down and see the damn thing were the award bodies.  Somehow the movie managed to make it to the National Board of Review’s top ten, and then it was nominated for a BFCA award, and then it somehow even managed to get a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes.  What the hell?  I’m now pretty worried the thing could somehow get an Oscar nomination (if The Blind Side could do it…), and given that I felt I had to see the movie so that I could complain about its success with credibility.

The film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who grew up in rural Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church and believed in a strict form of pacifism because of this and because his father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) had awful experiences during the First World War.  However, once World War II began, Doss felt much the same obligation to fight as his peers did and as such he enlisted but only under the provision that he be trained to be a medic and not be forced to personally fight or even carry a weapon into battle.  This is met with skepticism by his fellow cadets as well as his drill instructor Sargent Howell (Vince Vaughn), and he’s even sent to face a court martial for his unorthodox demands, but eventually he gets his way and he’s deployed with the rest of his unit to Okinawa where they’re all asked to take over a heavily fortified position at the top of a steep ridge… the Hacksaw Ridge.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has to have been one of the most influential movies released in my lifetime.  Before that movie there really weren’t that many World War II combat movies being made at all and the ones that were getting made didn’t look anything like the ones that have been made since.  Today it’s pretty much impossible to depict that war without muted colors, graphic violence, and soldiers who don’t look like action heroes.  However, time has dulled the effect of this style and what was once exhilaratingly original is now kind of a cliché.  Between Flags For Our Fathers, Fury, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Defiance, Windtalkers, Miracle at Saint Anna, two separate “Band of Brothers” series, and various video games I kind of feel like this style has been run into the ground.  That’s not to say that filmmakers absolutely need to stop making their World War II battles like this, just that this kind of spectacle alone does not really impress me anymore and I need the film itself to be doing more.  That is a problem for Hacksaw Ridge given that it’s one and only really redeeming feature is that much of its second half consists of an elaborate re-enactment of the battle atop Hacksaw Ridge, which is admittedly pretty well staged but adds almost nothing to the usual WW2 battle formula outside of its general size and the amount of screen time it takes up.  This sequence is notably gory even by modern war film standards, which isn’t an inherently incorrect decision given that the film wants to juxtapose the main character’s pacifism with the horrors of war, but Mel Gibson has long had something of a sadistic streak in his directorial efforts and it’s not hard to question his motives here.

It’s a good thing that the film eventually does at least become a serviceable battle movie because pretty much everything else about the movie absolutely sucks.  Andrew Garfield, an actor whose talents are increasingly appearing to be rather suspect plays Desmond T. Doss as the most punchably earnest sap that you could ever imagine.  His accent seems notably phony (a problem the movie has in general given that almost all the actors except Garfield and Vince Vaughn are from Australia) and Garfield never really makes this character seem believable or grounded.  Granted this is partly the fault of the material he has to work with, which can charitably be described as hagiographic.  If there’s any moral gray area in Doss’ decision to conduct himself in the way he did, the movie completely dismisses it in its pursuit of canonizing this guy.  Also, make no mistake, the fact that this guy was a pacifist is not really what the movie finds so admirable about him.  The movie does not give a damn about universally ending warfare and is very much of the belief that Japanese violence needed to be met with violence.  What the movie really likes about Doss is that he was unapologetically religious and that he “stuck to his guns” on the topic.  The film was clearly designed to do well with the “faith-based” audience and I’m thinking that the goal was for evangelical audiences to view the film as a sort of allegory for their own struggles in the face of public ridicule as they protest the teaching of evolution or picket abortion clinics or whatever the fuck those people are doing now.

Really there’s no limit to how corny this movie’s first half is with its goofy flashbacks, half-assed romance sub-plot, and silly court room theatrics.  It’s perhaps a testament to Gibson’s skills as a filmmaker that the movie ends up feeling bad rather than howlingly terrible by the time it ends, which is the result of a combination of that battle scene being pretty decent and just a sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes you inured to some of its dumber elements by the time you get to that second half, but make no mistake this is not a good movie.  It’s easily Mel Gibson’s worst directorial effort and I’m genuinely baffled that so many critics have completely given this thing a pass and that these awards bodies are giving it the time of day at all.  I for one would genuinely rather re-watch Pearl Harbor than sit through this thing again.

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The Handmaiden(10/20/2016)

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

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

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

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