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

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Hereditary(6/9/2018)

When did audiences and critics suddenly become so divided in their taste for horror movies?  It probably isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it seems like there’s been a certain role reversal.  It used to be that critics looked down on horror movies in general and wrote snobby reviews of the likes of The Thing and it would be left up to audiences to recognize the skill on display and build its legacy.  Obviously there would be certain movies like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs that would be so good they would win over critics as well as audiences, but for the most part mainstream movie critics were far less forgiving of the genre than the public.  That’s still the case to some extent given that there are plenty of horror movies of the Ouija variety that the public laps up despite critical apathy, but there’s been an odd trend recently of “arty” horror movies that critics have loved but which audiences have angrily rejected.  The most prominent example of this was probably Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which was only kind of a horror movie but audiences were certainly expecting it to be one and they were not too happy with what they got.  Something similar played out with last year’s It Comes at Night and with less widely seen films like The Witch and The Babadook.  It’s a pretty disturbing trend, in part because it suggest that audience have really closed their minds to what a horror movie can and should be, but it is good to see smart movies like this getting recognition and the latest movie that seems to have fit this trend is the new film Hereditary, which received incredibly strong reviews on the festival circuit but seems to be confounding mainstream audiences.

The film opens with the text of an obituary of an old woman named Ellen and transitions to her funeral where her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is conflicted about how to feel.  Her mother had been mentally ill throughout her life and the two fought often and went through periods of estrangement.  Annie’s kids aren’t quite sure what to think about the death of their grandmother either.  The older son Peter (Alex Wolff) had not spent much time with Ellen as Annie was estranged from her when he was young but her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) did spend time with her but generally has a rather cold demeanor and doesn’t reveal much in the way of her emotions.  In the days after Ellen’s death Annie finds herself seeing some odd things that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) dismisses as her mind playing tricks on her but Annie still finds herself secretly going to support groups for grief where she meets a woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) who tries to support her and begins introducing her to alternative coping mechanisms.  However, as Charlie begins acting increasingly strangely and other odd things keep happening and it becomes clear that something far more sinister than mere grief is going on here.

Hereditary could be said to be a rather extreme example of the many ways not to handle grief and family strife.  Much of what makes the film special is the way that the family at its center starts to break down and turn against one another as things grow increasingly painful for everyone involved and we see different coping mechanisms out of each of the main family members.  The mother desperately searches for answers and becomes prone to anger, the son more or less cocoons himself away and falls into a sort of depressive stupor, and the father tries to just move on and ends up having to act as a sort of mediator between all parties involved.  I wouldn’t exactly say that this rings “true” exactly given all the horror trappings that adds a new dimension to everything, but it does sort of feel like an extreme version of dynamics that would exist in a similar if less fantastical scenario.  As such this requires more out of its actors than the typical horror movie and much of the cast delivers.  Gabriel Byrne does a good job of conveying the desperation of a guy who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a truly messed up dynamic and Alex Wolff does a pretty good job of making his character’s utter confusion palpable.  But the true standout here is almost certainly Toni Collette who brings to life a character who is in an almost constant state of mental breakdown because of an accumulation of years of confusion and repressed memories and also the desperation of her current situation.  Were this a more standard family drama in the Ordinary People vein she would be a shoe in for an academy award for this performance.

This focus on mental breakdown in a familial situation draws some comparison to another recent “arty” horror movie, The Babadook.  I would say that in general Hereditary is a scarier and more hard hitting horror movie than The Babadook but it lacks the ambiguity of that movie and other clear inspirations like Rosemary’s Baby.  I think the movie wants you to sort of be unclear, at least for a little while, as to whether or not there’s truly something supernatural going on or whether Toni Collette’s character is letting her paranoia and insecurities get the best of her, or at least that’s a card I wish it had wanted to play but it shows you things early on that are plainly supernatural and in doing so it sort of discards that possibility early on.  In general if I have a problem with the movie it’s that it is perhaps trying to be a few too many different kind of horror movies at once.  At times it feels a bit like a ghost story of the Paranormal Activity variety and it isn’t above going for a jump scare here and there, at times it feels like an occult/witchcraft movie along the lines of The Exorcist or The Witch, and at times it wants to be more of a psychological thriller along the lines of The Babadook and the weight of trying to be so many things at once sort of prevents it from being everything it could potentially be.  I think dropping some of the elements that fake towards it being a haunting movie and letting it be more of a slow burn at the beginning would have been to its benefit and I also don’t exactly know that it lays out the rules of its horror universe as clearly as I would have like (I was never exactly clear how the rules of possession are supposed to work in it), though of course there is probably a decent argument to be made that a more mysterious approach would was the right one.  Whatever it’s imperfections that may or may not preclude it from the pantheon of horror masterpieces, this is plainly a cut above most of the horror movies that are likely to be in theaters at a given moment and is well worth seeing if you’ve got the stomach for a lot onscreen trauma.

**** out of Five

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.

A Ghost Story(7/30/2017)

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

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

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

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

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

5-6-2017GuardiansoftheGalaxyVol2

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.

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Graduation(4/29/2017)

5-6-2017Graduation

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.

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