Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse(12/30/2018)

2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man.  The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them.  With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out.  Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with?  Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids?  Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things?  Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.

This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in.  In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective.  Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations.  One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider.  Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down.  Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process.  He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good.  Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed.  Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.

This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman.  In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way.  The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to.  I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything.  I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count.  The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.

So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place.  In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag.  Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film.  That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape.  That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them.  It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game.  The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look.  Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.

On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting.  I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t.   On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show.  Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished.  I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains.  The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.

That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this.  Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it.  The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them.  All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it.  Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.

***1/2 out of Five

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Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion.  Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason.  That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works.  For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood.  Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling.  I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional.  His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg.  I thought that movie was… alright.  It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me.  I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters.  But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters.  I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.

Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores.  Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband.  These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside.  They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.

I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation.  It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting.  This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections.  Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son.  The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue.  The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.

That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me.  The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that.  The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.”  Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made.  The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain.  Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.

Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters.  I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph.  Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child.  Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout.  It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large.  I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.

***1/2 out of Five

Suspiria(11/3/2018)

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

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

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

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

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

***1/2 out of Five

A Star is Born(10/6/2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**** out of Five

Sorry to Bother You(7/14/2018)

While I’ve long been a hip-hop fan I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the “conscious” hip-hop that has long been touted as the “smart” alternative to all the “commercialized sellout” hip-hop that most people actually want to listen to.  I certainly don’t need or want my rap music to be ignorant, and I’m not talking about artists like Tupac or Kendrick Lamar who mix politics into traditional hardcore rap, but I’ve always found it a bit suspect how certain “fans” seem to want this particular genre of music to act more as a billboard for various social or political causes and the further away from college the less use I have for a lot of these guys.  That’s not to say I eschew every group that falls under the “conscious” banner; The Roots are obviously awesome and Talib Kweli’s best stuff mostly works for me. But I have little use for the lecturing of Immortal Technique, Common’s music mostly seemed like a series of empty platitudes, and even the granddaddy of all these artists, KRS-One, could be rather tiresome.  And this brings me to The Coup.  I’ve never had terribly strong opinion about that group as they basically just seemed like one of many artists vying for attention in that space but they were distinct from some other “conscious rappers” in that they were even more left-wing than a lot of them.  They’re like the Rage Against the Machine of hip-hop and their members are committed socialists with distinctly anti-capitalist views and seem to be genuinely interested in burning everything to the ground and starting over.  I bring all this up because The Coup’s founding member is a guy named Boots Riley and he has now decided to move into filmmaking with his debut film Sorry to Bother You.

Sorry to Bother You follows a guy named Cashus “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland.  In an attempt to get his life back on track Green takes a job at a telemarketing call center called Regalview where he’s told to “stick to the script” while selling encyclopedias (or something) over the phone to people who aren’t terribly receptive.  Cash struggles for a while before an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) advises him that he’d have more success if he used his “white voice” instead of his natural cadence.  From there Cash starts code switching while talking on the phone to customers (Stanfield is overdubbed in these moments by comedian David Cross) and almost immediately starts to become very successful and gets promoted up the corporate ladder.  That would seemingly be good news for Cash but it puts him at odds with some of his old friends who are tying to start a union in the lower levels of the company and with the world at large given that the film is set in a satirically heightened version of our world where a billionaire named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been convincing people to sign lifelong contracts with a company called WorryFree that basically turns them into slaves.

If that summery didn’t make it clear, Sorry to Bother You is a really weird movie, though it’s not entirely without precedent.  The movie certainly seems to be in the same tradition as some of Spike Lee’s more “out there” movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and especially Bamboozled, which was also about a black guy who could be accused of being an “uncle tom” trying to decide how deep down the road of collaborating with racist corporations he wants to go.  However the film also seems to draw a bit from other culty movies like Repo Man and Putney Swope which choose to eschew subtlety and kind of shout their frustrations about the status quo in unusual and sort of surreal ways.  The film is being sold on the high concept of the salesman using his “white voice” to get ahead in telemarketing, and while the double consciousness of black Americans is a theme of the movie that concept is really more of a jumping off point than the dominant message of the movie.  Over the course of the film’s running time capitalism itself is just as much of a target as racism and increasingly takes the movie over by the end.

Much of Sorry to Bother You attacks American capitalism though a sort of satiric exaggeration.  For instance there’s the “WorryFree” organization that is essentially peddling slavery with congressional approval and there’s an even more outlandish allegory about worker exploitation that emerges later in the movie.  That would seem to be a powerful statement if you’re someone who’s so inclined to view the capitalist system as already essentially being legitimized slavery, but if you don’t already hold that view (I certainly don’t) the movie isn’t necessarily going to persuade you to see things that way and the allegory will just seem like some outlandish hyperbole.  In fact the movie delivers a lot of messages through outlandish hyperbole, it kind of feels like the sort of movie someone makes when they have a lot to say but don’t know if they’re ever going to have the chance to make another movie so they just throw everything into one project.  It wasn’t enough to make a movie about a guy who abandons his culture and sense of self for profit and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie about the ways capitalism pits poor people against each other and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie that takes digs at reality television, meme culture, and the modern art world, he needed to make a movie that comments on seemingly everything that’s came to mind about American culture and the result is a movie that is densely filled with slightly half-baked ideas.  I desperately want to give this thing an “at least it’s trying something different” pass, but at the end of the day it’s a little too messy and unfocused and also probably not as laugh out loud funny as it needed to be.

**1/2 out of Five

Summer, 1993(6/24/2018)

The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name.  That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception.  Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year.  The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.”  Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.

Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles).  That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline.  There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments.  Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough.  I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull.  This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well.  Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer.  This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me.  And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance.  Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.

** out of Five