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

Joker(10/3/2019)

Rather than simply opening the movie Joker wide in early October Warner Brothers decided to premiere the film a month earlier at the Venice Film Festival, which is a move that garnered the film some initial raves and won it the prestigious Golden Lion award.  Ultimately though I think it was a bad move because it meant that critics would spend the next month very publically arguing about a movie no one else was able to see in a way that’s much more visible than it is when they see arthouse movies early, and the discourse has not been pretty.  There were initial grumblings as early as that Venice premiere with people saying the movie was potentially “toxic,” which is one of those imprecise words that headline writers and no one else likes to use.  From there a certain subset the media decided there were clicks to be found in going full Tipper Gore and drumming up a sort of panic that the movie will cause mass shootings or something.  Even ignoring the fact that these articles were making long disproven arguments about violence in cinema and essentially advancing NRA talking points, there also seemed to be an inherit elitism to the whole thing.  This type of gritty violence has long been seen as understandable in limited release arthouse contexts but suddenly they were freaked out because it was in a movie that might be seen by the great unwashed masses.  But what really annoyed me about the whole thing is that there was this widespread argument about cinema going on and I had no way to weigh in or even follow it because the damn movie hadn’t even come out yet.  Well, it’s finally out and I have some thoughts.

Joker presents an origin story for the famous Batman villain as it examines the mental deterioration of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who starts the film with a long history of mental health problems.  Fleck lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), herself someone of questionable psychology, and takes multiple medications and has a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times regardless of his mood.  Fleck is working as a clown for hire and has some rather delusional aspirations at becoming a stand-up comedian and idolizes a late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).  None of this is working out very well for him but his life starts to take a turn when he gets his hands on a handgun and ends up shooting three bullies who try to attack him on an empty subway.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Joker and not bring up the two Martin Scorsese films that inspired it: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy.  Robert De Niro of course starred in both of those movies and his presence here seems to be a tacit nod to this inspiration.  Like Taxi Driver this is following a man with a clear screw loose as he loses it, begins arming himself, and forms unhealthy stalker-like obsessions with a woman and with a politician and like The King of Comedy this unhinged man has delusions that he’s a talented comedian and wants to find his way on a popular talk show by any means necessary.  That the film is plainly derivative is something of an albatross around the movie’s neck which for many will blunt whatever it accomplishes what with it standing on the shoulders of giants to get there, and I do sort of feel that way to some extent but simply dismissing it as a rip-off seems unfair and inaccurate as well.  First of all, a lot of perfectly good movies do stuff like this.  Boogie Nights is basically Goodfellas in the porn industry, Black Swan is basically Repulsion meets The Red Shoes, First Reformed is basically a hash of ideas from 1950s art films, and perhaps most comparably there’s the movie Logan, which could easily be described as a watered down and comic bookified rehash of Children of Men and The Road.  Let’s also not ignore the fact that Scorsese himself is second only to Tarantino in his propensity to proudly wear his influences on his sleeve.

Of course the thing that does differentiate Joker from the Scorsese movies that inspired it is that this is a comic book movie, a fact that’s often been downplayed when arguing in favor of the movie but which is actually kind of crucial to it.  The things that happen in Joker are generally bigger and more operatic than they would be in a Scorsese movie from the 70s.  Also the film is quite specifically set in Gotham City rather than New York, and not even the kind of hyper modern Gotham that we say in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films but a kind of decaying Gotham of the past.  This isn’t the first time Batman has been done as a semi-period piece.  Tim Burton’s Gotham was a mix of 30s art deco and futuristic technology, possibly as a means of bridging the comic book’s Golden Age origins with modern cinema and other Batman properties like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gotham” followed suit.  This film never cites a year it’s supposed to be set in but it certainly looks like it’s straight up set in the 70s or early 80s both in terms of technology (all televisions in the movie are CRTs) but also in terms of social conditions because the city seems to be dealing with the kind of crime rates and budget shortfalls that New York was experiencing when Travis Bickle dreamed of a rain to “wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.”  Almost like what Tim Burton’s version of the city would have become in about thirty years were it not for the intervention of The Dark Knight.

That this is set in a fictional time and place is, I think, what’s maybe throwing some critics for a loop.  People seem to be expecting this to be a movie that is making a statement about America today when I think it was actually meant to be a bit more off in its own world than that.  This is still very much a comic book movie, just more of a gritty 80s comic book than a fun silver age comic book.  Its set in a city that’s over-run by crime, not necessarily a problem in America today (at least not relative to 1976), but it was certainly a problem in the Gotham City that gave birth to Batman, and while it does have some interest in the plight of the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s situation is pretty specifically rooted in a fictional condition that’s poorly treated by the shortcomings of a fictional city’s healthcare system.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some relevance to real life conditions here, after all this fictional world was inspired by social problems that have and do exist in the real world, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be as tapped into the current zeitgeist as it’s been suggested.

This I suppose brings me to the criticism that the film in some way endorses or glamorizes the violent actions of unhinged individuals, which I think is largely unfounded.  First and foremost it should be noted that the Joker in this movie is not exactly what you’d call a mass shooter.  Any violence in the film is generally quite personalized and is committed by small and unglamourous weapons like knives and snub-nose handguns.  There are no assault rifles to be seen and even at his worst this Joker isn’t taking out his anger on random individuals.  Then there’s the rather lazy assertion that the film is some sort of “incel” manifesto, which is odd given that “incels” are a fringe online group who are defined almost entirely by their rage at women who don’t want to sleep with them, and while Arthur Fleck has all sorts of grievances with the world his sex life or lack thereof is not really a focus of the film and also isn’t one of the character’s main stated grievances and very few of his victims are women.  This isn’t to say that the character is entirely free of misogyny, his treatment of the Zazie Beetz character is certainly all kinds of creepy, but he generally seems far more angry about his trouble holding onto a job and random street violence than he is with the women of the world.  Additionally, the movie never falls into the trap of suggesting that Fleck is some sort of kind soul who’s just misunderstood.  The film has enough sympathy with him to not want him to be assaulted on the street and wants him to have access to social services, but it’s upfront about how messed up he is from the very beginning and why everyone around him has very good reasons to keep their distance.

So if this isn’t trying to make a grand statement about society what is it trying to do?  Well, I think it’s trying to say something about Batman.  Specifically it seems to be contrasting the oft filmed origin of the caped crusader with this new birth of the clown prince of crime and suggest that one is the funhouse mirror reflection of the other.  And I’m going to have to get into spoilers here.  Batman was famously born of a tragedy caused by street crime but it’s also said to have been Bruce Wayne’s unconventional means of carrying on the legacy of his enlightened Carnegie-esque millionaire father.  Joker rather cleverly re-casts Thomas Wayne as someone who was also a father figure to Fleck, at least in his own head, but also suggests that he viewed him as being less of a swell humanitarian and more of an out of touch condescending Randian asshole and that Wayne was more the cause of than the solution to Gotham’s many problems.  Where the real son opted to emulate his father (or his conception of him) and rebuild law and order by peaceful means, the fake son opted to rebel against his “father” (or his conception of him) and go on a sort of nihilistic crusade against law and order.  There’s obviously more to Fleck’s descent into madness than that and his murderous ways are of course wrong whether or not he’s “right” about Thomas Wayne, but the movie does do a very good job of decontextualizing the origin story we all know and love.

So how does one make a final analysis of Joker? It’s certainly no Taxi Driver, but then again what is?  I’ve certainly seen lesser riffs on that formula like The Assassination of Richard Nixon and One Hour Photo.  Ultimately I think the choice to draw inspiration from that film is an aesthetic choice more than anything and it makes Joker something rather unique among comic book movies: one that plays like a drama rather than an action movie.  To me that’s something that’s unique and valuable but it’s only an impressive aesthetic choice if you’re looking at the movie as a comic book movie rather than as some sort of realist drama: looked at as a comic book movie it’s one of the most impressive entries in its form but looked at as a realist drama it’s… not, and probably never could be given the fantasy elements that are inherent to its very nature.  Either way it’s an exceptionally well made movie that’s hard to look away from and features a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix.  It’s certainly better than director Todd Phillips has made previously and significantly better than the more conventional superhero fare that Warner Brothers has been giving us through its DC Cinematic Universe.  Just maybe don’t take it too seriously.

**** out of Five

It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum(5/16/2019)

I really want to like these John Wick movies.  John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 were doing things with the action movie format that I’ve been waiting for Hollywood to do; they’re shot cleanly, their action is hardcore, they aren’t cracking stupid jokes every ten seconds. And yet despite everything they do right I wasn’t really able to fully get behind those first to movies because, at the end of the day there were things in those scripts that were just too stupid to ignore.  I can forgive a lot from the story in certain genre movies.  Comedies can overlook all sorts of logic and get away with it if they’re still funny, martial arts movies and be all kinds of simplistic as long as they’re solid showcases for the skills of their performers, and similarly these action movies like John Wick can get away with a lot simply because they very effectively accomplish the main thing they set out to do: make Keanu Reeves look really cool while killing a whole lot of people.  But there’s a difference between giving a movie a pass for having great action scenes and fulling embracing a movie as a great action movie: for that you need to have the full package and these John Wick movies just don’t.  But just the same I was looking forward to the next fix that the third installment would provide.

The film picks up immediately after John Wick: Chapter 2 with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) having less than an hour before he’s declared excommunicado and a fourteen million dollar hit is put out on him and he’s barred from all assistance from all branches of The Continental and any other organization affiliated with The High Table.  On top of that, The High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean house and punish anyone who assisted Wick in the last movie including Winston (Ian McShane) and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).  She even recruits an assassin named Zero (Mark Dacascos) to carry out her dirty work.  But first Wick needs to find a way out of New York and much of the film’s first half deals with this chase to find some degree of sanctuary.

Let’s start with the positive, which is largely the same positive that was there in the first two movies: the action scenes.  They’re still pretty good, especially in the first half.  As the movie opens Wick is essentially on an elaborate chase through New York and goes through several landmarks like the Public Library (which closes way earlier than that for the record) and the central part carriage ride stables.  Each of these are accompanied by some fairly creative action beats like a fight against a seven foot tall assassin and a fight through a hall of antique weapons and knives.  I will say though that the movie does kind of blow some of its wad early and some of the later scenes feel more generic like a mid-film gun fight which is well staged but seems to go on forever and a finale which in some ways just feels like more of the same of what we’ve seen before.  In some ways the film seems to be emphasizing unarmed combat more than the previous film, which would seem like a good way to mix things up but Keanu Reeves isn’t really a martial arts expert and that does show a bit in the film.

Of course the complaints I’ve had about these movies are also still here.  There are a lot of people who come to find the world building in these movies to be really charming but I’ve never really been a fan.  These movies take place in a rather strange world where there are so many assassins that it’s hard to imagine there being enough “contracts” to keep them all employed.  I also generally get the impression that they’re sort of making the rules of this world up as they go and it often goes back on some of its own premises.  For example, in the beginning Wick’s excommunicado status is set up as something so firmly set in stone that a doctor can’t even finish stitching up a wound once it goes into effect and yet later Wick seems to very cavalierly enter other Continental locations without even bothering to try to disguise himself in any way. Even worse than that though is that I’m not entirely clear on why we’re supposed to root for Wick in his war against The High Table.  Yes, they’re obviously an evil organization but Wick is himself a mass murderer and their various rules don’t necessarily seem that unreasonable when compared to his ethos of killing thousands in retaliation for the death of a damn dog.

So are the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum enough to save it from its shortcomings?  Yeah, probably, but I must say I feel like the franchise has been taken about as far as it can be.  That would be fine if this were a final film to cap off a trilogy but, and I don’t really think this is a spoiler, it isn’t.  The basic arc of the story has John Wick more or less ending right back where he started and the film’s ending is clearly a setup for a Chapter 4, and on top of that much of the film’s second act feels like a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series starring Halle Berry.  That’s a problem because this third installment frankly didn’t leave me wanting more and the fact that it was in many ways an exercise in treading water just left me kind of frustrated.

*** out of Five

The Incredibles 2(7/1/2018)

[Editor’s Note: It has recently come to my attention that, for reasons unknown, this review was never posted on the blog back in the summer of 2018 when it was written.  It is being posted now for posterity.]

The Incredibles is certainly not the best Pixar movie but it’s almost certainly one of their most important ones.  It’s the first movie where the studio was willing to work with human characters in earnest and it was also the movie where they started to expand their scope and aim their sights on slightly older audiences.  That movie still resonates but it was released way back in 2004, which in the world of animated movies is kind of an eternity.  That’s fourteen years, meaning that a kid who saw it in its original release at ten years old would be twenty four now, and yet in this whole timespan Pixar never saw fit to make a sequel, which is odd given that it seemed more suited for one than a lot of the other movies they seemed to have no qualms about mining for additional installments.  After all, the first film ended on something of a teaser for future installments and given the film’s debt to comic books, which are an inherently serialized medium made The Incredibles seem like perfect franchise material.  Part of the delay might simply be the aversion that Pixar once had to unnecessary sequels, but that certainly hasn’t been part of their philosophy in a good ten years.  It also might have simply been a matter of working around director Brad Bird’s schedule as he branched out into live action filmmaking with varying degrees of success.  Really though I think a big part of why there was a delay is that the first movie benefited greatly from coming out before Hollywood was regularly making high quality superhero movies and they were waiting in vain for the superhero genre to die down a bit in Hollywood, but that clearly wasn’t happening anytime soon so they decided to finally give it ago with this year’s The Incredibles 2.

This sequel picks up almost instantly from where the original film left off, with the moleman-like supervillain The Underminer (John Ratzenberger) emerging from the ground and trying to rob a bank, leading The Incredibles along with Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) to launch an attack despite the laws against masked vigilantism still being on the books.  While they do stop the attack the fight does leave a lot of the same collateral damage that got “supers” banned in the first place.  However, one person is not outraged by this and that’s a billionaire named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who has been a superhero enthusiast since the death of his father years ago.  He calls Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and offers to let them stay in one of his mansions if they work with him on a lobbying campaign to bring back costumed heroes.  The catch, he wants this campaign to start slow and just have Elastigirl do the crime fighting at first given that he has less of a history of destructive fighting.  That means Mr. Incredible is the one tasked with staying home and watching Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) whose powers are just starting to come into full bloom.  Mr. Incredible says he’s game to do this, but in reality he kind of resents this turn of events and doesn’t really know how to cope with the domestic life.  Of course he is self-aware enough not to complain about this to Elastigirl, who finds she has her hands full when a mysterious villain called The Screenslaver emerges and begins wrecking-havoc.

Ever since the release of the original The Incredibles people have been debating whether the message as its center about what society owes to the exceptional people among them ultimately boils down to a sort of junior version of Randian Objectivism.  This sequel doesn’t exactly continue down that path but it doesn’t exactly shy away from material that could be viewed as political.  For instance there’s a story the Bob Odenkirk character tells at one point about someone who’s killed by an intruder as he calls for a superhero instead of dealing with the problem himself, which is disturbingly similar to the NRA propaganda about the dangers of relying on police instead of personal gun ownership.  On the other side of the spectrum there’s some talk about the “supers” in the family having to hide their true selves, which could be seen as something of an allegory for gay or trans identity.  But the plotline that most overtly and extensively deals with ongoing modern debates is the Mr. Incredible’s ennui at the process of being a sort of stay at home dad while his wife wears the pants… I mean costume… and Elastigirl’s own anxiety about trying to “have it all” instead of maintaining more of a work/life balance.  This is a storyline that I suspect will annoy people who sit on both sides of the feminist divide.  On one hand the movie certainly ultimately falls on the side of Elastigirl being perfectly capable of pursuing a career on her own and of not guilting her for her decision to do so, but on the other hand it feels kind of lame and regressive that we’re still doing the whole Mr. Mom thing in 2018 and the fact that Mr. Incredible proves to be this incompetent at keeping a house in order without the help of a woman does kind of reinforce the gender norm at play.

Messaging aside, the way the film splits into a separate A story with Elastigirl tracking down the Screen Slaver and a B story with Mr. Incredible holding things down at home does lead to a bit of a clumsy and slightly TVish story structure for a lot of its runtime before things merge later on.  What’s more each of these stories have their weakness.  The Elastigirl story doesn’t have anything jarringly poor in it but it also feels a bit routine as far as these things go.  The mystery about who the screenslaver is isn’t terribly compelling and the film doesn’t really do as much with the idea of a superhero going on a PR campaign as it could.  The Mr. Incredible story by contrast feels a lot more unique in that you don’t exactly see every day but it did draw attention to one of the series bigger weaknesses: the Incredibles kids are not very well drawn out.  Violet is a pretty cliché over-dramatic teenage girl and Dash is even more thinly drawn and doesn’t do much in the film besides get overly excited about stuff.  He’s frankly kind of annoying.  The movie also has slightly more clumsy animation than I was expecting from a new Pixar movie, possibly because the art style they devised back in 2004 was designed to work around the limitations of the technology of the time but which may be more of a stifling force today.

I’ve complained a lot but the movie is actually a lot better than I’ve probably let on.  In fact I enjoyed it quite a bit while I was actually watching it and it’s more when I look back on it that if feels a bit more flawed and insubstantial.  What probably saves it are its action set-pieces and its sense of humor.  It’s no secret that in terms of powers and to some extent the overall concept The Incredibles are basically a ripoff of The Fantastic Four and it uses this set of powers a lot more creatively than any of the real adaptations of that property ever have and the animation medium makes all the fights seem a lot more loose and fun than a lot of the action scenes in “real” super hero movies do even if they don’t have quite the same sense of spectacle that you get from seeing these powers in more realistic settings.  The film also has a generally amusing tone and some of the comic elements like Edna Mode remain strong.  Watched with tempered expectations the film is quite fun but the fact that it’s a movie fourteen years in the making kind of makes you expect a bit more than the film is really able to deliver on.  It certainly isn’t going to have the impact of the original movie but I suspect it will leave most audiences satisfied enough.

*** out of Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****1/2 out of Five