Spider-Man: Homecoming(7/8/2017)

It’s easy to forget just how important Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man was to the development of the superhero genre.  When talking about the first superhero boom in the 2000s a lot of people point to Blade and X-Men as the beginning of the trend, and technically that’s true insomuch as they were the first two Marvel movies of the era but their impact wasn’t nearly as momentous.  Adjusted for inflation that is to this date the second highest grossing movie based on a Marvel property behind only the first Avengers movie and in 2002 it managed to beat a Star Wars movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Harry Potter movie to be the highest grossing movie of that year and it did it by a lot.  It wasn’t just the fact that it made all that money either, it had to do with how it made all that money.  Earlier superhero movies like the 1989 Batman had almost played out more like action movies than entrants in a genre unto themselves and movies like X-Men changed their look and tone in order to reach a wider audience that may be put off by something that looks too much like a comic book.  Spider-Man looked and felt more like the 1978 Superman but it had modern special effects which would make its success a lot more replicable.  I don’t love that movie, I think there are things about it that don’t hold up, but it was an event and it set the stage for an entire generation of blockbusters.  That’s why it felt so incredibly wrong for Sony to have just rebooted that whole series exactly ten years later and just do the whole thing over again but worse.  Had the Amazing Spider-Man series gone in some radical new direction it might have justified itself but it was just a blatant cash grab and by the second movie audiences rightly rejected the series.  Now there’s a new Spider-Man and you’d think I’d be similarly annoyed by this third iteration of the franchise in fifteen years, but unlike that goofy first reboot this one adds something to the equation: Sony has managed to cut a deal with Marvel studios to bring their web-slinger into the red hot Marvel Cinematic Universe and they more than proved that they had a unique take on the character when he appeared in Captain America: Civil War.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up almost immediately after the end of Captain America: Civil War with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) arriving home from Germany where he had just fought Captain America on Iron Man’s behalf.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) lets Parker keep the high tech spandex suit he’d made for him and tells him to use Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his main contact.  From there we begin with the classic Spider-Man set of challenges: Parker must find a balance between living a high schooler’s life with his crime fighting side job all while keeping his secret identity intact.  We’re introduced to his peers like his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), the school bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the girl Parker has a crush on named Liz (Laura Harrier).  Parker is going through the usual teenage stuff with all these people but constantly finds himself abandoning social situations and flaking on obligations because he’s tracking down a gang that’s been selling high tech weapons to criminals.  Parker doesn’t know yet that this will put him on a collision course with a man named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who got his hands on a bunch of alien technology after the invasion depicted in the finale of The Avengers and has been combining them with human technology to make these weapons and to steal more alien technology he’s created a wing suit to take on the persona called “The Vulture.”

It is perhaps fitting that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a Sony production made in affiliation with Marvel rather than a more conventional entrant in the Marvel cannon because Spider-Man has always been a different kind of hero than the Avenger types that we’ve mostly seen populate the MCU.  He’s more of a street level costumed vigilante than a flashy world savior.  He has a secret identity (something that, curiously, almost none of the previous MCU characters have had), he has to make ends meet, and of course he’s young.  The first thing you notice about the new Spider-Man is that he actually looks like a real teenager.  Tom Holland would have been about 19 or 20 when he made this movie but compared to Toby Maguire and Andre Garfield, who were 27 and 29 when their first Spider-Man movies came out, he seems practically cherubic.  Ignoring all the superhero material this is actually a very solid high school, one that occasionally references John Hughs but isn’t married to some of the dated elements and nostalgia that often drags down movies from this genre.  The film has a very post-21 Jump Street view of modern high schools and doesn’t feel bounded to ancient teenage stereotypes like “jocks” and “goths.”  Parker is still a “nerd” of sorts but he’s not ostracized for enjoying science and isn’t routinely stuffed in lockers or whatever, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that he’s simply not very popular and isn’t a savant in social situations.

These coming of age elements are extended to the film’s superhero elements and particularly to his relationship to Tony Stark, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn was actually an important part of the film rather than a marketing gimmick.  Stark acts as a father figure within the superhero portion of Peter Parker’s life and it quickly becomes apparent that their interactions are an allegory for the struggles between young people who think they’re prepared for greater independence than their parents believe they’re ready for.  This time around Spider-Man’s suit has been provided to him by Stark and it comes with an Iron-Man style talking A.I. and various other neat perks and features to assist him in crime fighting, but many of these features have been locked out by Stark’s “training wheels” initiative and he’s also being tracked and coached during many of his superhero outings.  Cautious Sokovia Accords advocate Tony Stark clearly wants to make sure that Parker sticks to fighting within his weight class and wants him to stick to being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” during his youth rather than get himself in battles with super villains and the like, but when Parker believes he’s needed he subverts this surveillance and defies his metaphorical father with mixed results.

The villain that Stark doesn’t want Parker to be messing with is The Vulture, who in his own modest way is probably the best villain to ever grace an MCU film.  This is likely a function of the film’s more down to earth nature.  To tangle with The Avengers a villain basically needs to be out to destroy the entire world and the kind of people who want to destroy the world tend not to have a lot of nuance; they lack personality and are basically just pure evil.  The Vulture AKA Adrian Toomes on the other hand is a guy whose decent into criminality actually makes sense and is rooted in some understandable grievances.  It’s explained in the prolog that Toomes’ was financially hit when a contract to salvage the alien wreckage from the battle in The Avengers was snatched from him by Tony Stark and the federal government after he’d already purchased a bunch of equipment for the job.  Essentially he’s a representative of the resentful white working class that have been such a fixture of concern in the media since the rise of Trump, a parallel that likely wasn’t intentional when the movie was being produced but which is nonetheless interesting.  On top of that The Vulture is just a cool looking and well-conceived villain.  The film comes up with a believable-ish costume for him and finds interesting ways to conduct his various heists.  There is of course a bit of irony in the idea that Michael Keaton, star of the Hollywood satire Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is now playing an avian themed masked character in a superhero movie but that dissipates when you realize that Keaton really is kind of perfect for this role and does a good job of making his character relatable and believable.

If there’s anything that holds back Spider-Man: Homecoming from greatness it’s probably the filmmaking.  Jon Watts is a newcomer to the world of big budget filmmaking and while he certainly proves himself to be a serviceable filmmaker here he doesn’t really seem to be bringing a unique vision to the table, or perhaps the Marvel machine isn’t letting him.  The action scenes here are almost universally good, but few of them really stand out as being truly memorable cinematic moments that rise above what you’d get out of a typical superhero movie.  If this movie had come in with the kind auteur prowess that someone like Christopher Nolan was able to bring to The Dark Knight or that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man 2 it may well have become a true classic of the genre but as it is it has to settle for merely being one of the best MCU movies, which is kind of like being the best burger at McDonalds.  But let’s not overlook how much of an accomplishment it is to bring a noteworthy superhero movie to an oversaturated market like this.  Watts has managed to make a movie that should feel overstuffed and bloated, yet movies along at a crisp pace and which fits all the usual expectations of the superhero genre point for point while somehow not feeling formulaic at all.  It’s great summer fun and it extends a pretty clear win streak that Marvel has been having the last two years.

The Salesman(2/26/2017)

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2011 was kind of a crappy year for movies.  I mean there were certainly some good and even very good movies that came out that year but there was almost nothing that really inspired a really strong reaction from me and by year’s end nothing had come out that really seemed worthy of being called “best of the year” and that was kind of depressing me.  Then, almost like a miraculous deus ex machina, I found myself going to see one last movie before locking in my top ten list: an Iranian film that had received a lot of critical buzz called A Separation.  Needless to say that became my favorite movie of the year, and while it would be a big exaggeration to say it restored my faith in cinema it certainly made me feel a lot better about the year.  The film, which took a deep dive into a moral quagmire surrounding a pair of families, did not revel in Metatextual cleverness like the most famous Iranian films and instead defined itself by its humanity and insight and managed to be this amazingly accessible but incredibly deep film that was engrossing to watch.  Clearly a new master had emerged and yet I somehow found myself missing his follow up film, the French language The Past, in theaters.  I don’t remember all the details, I think it just came out late in the year during the Oscar logjam and reviews weren’t as strong as they were for his previous movie.  When I finally caught up with it and found it was really good too that seemed like a very bad choice.  I was not going to repeat the same mistake with his new film The Salesman.

The Salesman concerns a literature teacher/semi-professional actor living in Tehran named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) who are currently staging a Persian production of Arthur Miller’s landmark play “Death of a Salesman.”  They’ve also recently moved into a new apartment in a building owned by someone in their theater troupe.  It’s not the nicest apartment but they don’t plan to be there long and they think they can make do.  The biggest problem is that the previous tenant has apparently been evicted and she hasn’t yet returned to pick up some of her belongings.  Eventually the landlord simply removes the items and leaves them there for her to pick up, but everyone starts to wonder just what it was about this woman that has caused so much notoriety.  Then one day something awful happens.  While Rana is going about her daily routine a man comes into their apartment and attacks her.  It’s left vague what the full details of this attack are but it’s clearly a major violation and it leaves Rana with a big gash on her head.  Emad is consumed with rage and Rana is in a state where she doesn’t know what to think.  She doesn’t want to go to the police (too much trouble and she worries they will be unsympathetic) and Emad has no real idea how to support her.

I’d like to say that the traditional animosity between the United States and Iran wasn’t in the back of one’s mind when watching Asghar Farhadi films, but one can’t help but view them as an antidote to the one-dimensional view that Hollywood usually provides of Iranians and Muslim countries in general.  Of course most Iranian movies will have non-stereotypical characters in them so why do Farhadi’s films work so particularly well in this regard?  Part of it is that the characters he chooses to depict tend to be young to middle aged intellectual and essentially secular urbanites, which is more or less the demographic that will most closely match up with Western art house audiences.  Really though, I think it mostly has to do with just how much detail and humanity Farhadi injects into his characters and the situations they find themselves in.  They’re pretty much the most relatable movies set inside of repressive theocratic nations that you’re ever going to see.  I do think Farhadi knows at this point that he has an international audience and is trying to reach them and the fact that his latest film involves people who are performing one of the most famous works of American literature is probably not a coincidence.

The main theme in this movie is ultimately that of revenge; whether it’s an appropriate response and who has the right to seek it.  On some level this was also the theme of A Separation but that film was largely on the side of the avengee rather than the avenger and it looked at it in a less traditional way.  I’m probably not spoiling anything by saying that the movie ultimately comes down on the side of revenge being empty and unsatisfying in the long run, which is not a terribly original message at this point.  I’m also not entirely clear on how “The Death of a Salesman” fits in with all of this.  Granted it might have been a little on the nose for the theater troupe to have been putting on a production of “Hamlet” or “Elektra” while all this angst was going on, but Arthur Miller’s play has almost nothing to do with revenge and is about a guy who would probably be too meek to seek out revenge for much of anything.  Perhaps the theme that  Farhadi is trying to highlight is less the revenge plot and more the challenges of trying to build an ideal middle class life and how easily that can go wrong down the line.  Either way there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, but Farhadi’s grasp of human nature remains firm and he once again creates a situation that allows for deep empathy.  Of the three Asghar Farhadi movies I’ve seen this is clearly the third best, but it’s still a Farhadi movie and it’s worth seeing.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Silence(1/7/2017)

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On October 22nd 1988 a fundamentalist Catholic group linked with the far-right National Front firebombed the Saint Michel theater in Paris, a theater that was showing what had become a highly controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ.  The film had been condemned sight unseen by everyone from The Vatican to Jerry Falwell to Pat Boone.  People were picketing outside the home of the president of Universal Pictures, it was banned in numerous countries, and everyone involved received numerous death threats.  A film this controversial would be the most famous thing that most Hollywood directors would ever be involved with, but for Martin Scorsese it almost feels like a footnote in an extraordinary career.  That’s partly because, once the controversy died down, people were left with a rather complicated movie that isn’t easily digested.  It’s certainly isn’t my favorite Scorsese film but I do see it as a pretty important movie in understanding Scorsese’s career.  The weight of a traditional catholic upbringing has long been a central theme within his work and it’s something that he’s put a lot of thought into… so much thought that when he dives into it he often presents audiences with works that are a little over their heads.  That’s probably what happened with Last Temptation even among audiences who were open minded, and perhaps something similar befell his under-rated 1997 film Kundun.  Despite this, he has boldly dived back into those waters once again with another long awaited passion project: his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.

The film begins in Macau in 1639 where a pair of Jesuit friars named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have arrived from Portugal on a mission from the Vatican to assess the location of a priest named Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  Ferreira had been on a mission to Japan in order spread Christianity there when the local government decided to crack down on foreigners meddling in their country.  They banned Christianity within their borders and isolated the country from foreigners.  The last word that escaped from the country suggested that Ferreira had cracked under pressure from the inquisitor (Inoue Masashige) and renounced his faith, rumors that Rodrigues and Garupe find difficult to believe given Ferreira’s previous fervor.  The two insist on completing their mission despite the grave danger of sneaking into Japan and find a Japanese man living in China named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) who they opt to hire as a guide despite his clear alcoholism and questionable motives.  Seeing how determined the two monks are to complete this mission, the head of the local church (Ciarán Hinds) agrees to let them go but warns them that there will be no further missions into Japan and that they are on their own while there.

It would be an understatement to say that this movie is dealing with some pretty heavy themes.  The film’s Japanese setting will almost certainly draw comparisons to the works of Kurosawa, but its contemplative religious musings are in many ways closer in nature to the works of Carl Th. Dreyer and early Ingmar Bergman.  It’s a movie that is very interested in exploring the power of faith and the internal struggles of its main character as he sees people suffer and die for their faith and contemplate whether a god that seemingly does nothing to answer his prayers is really worth dying for.  Central to this struggle is the fact that this character is catholic rather than merely Christian and in a perhaps incidental fashion the movie makes a pretty good argument for the value of the protestant reformation.  It quickly becomes apparent exactly how problematic Catholicism is when it’s removed from the institutional infrastructure that provides priests to forgive sins and deliver biblical interpretations and whatnot, and the more you think about it the more it feels like these “requirements” are only in place to give power to the central authority.

Roger Ebert once related a story of Scorsese telling him during the 70s or 80s that he “thought he would go to hell for violating the church’s rules on marriage and divorce” before eventually rejecting the dogmas of the Catholic Church and becoming an agnostic.  Given that this is at its heart a movie about the Rodrigues character’s inner turmoil about his faith and his increasing skepticism about the rules that he’s been tying his faith to, I imagine that this is a story that is deeply personal to Scorsese.  It is not, however, a story that is deeply personal to me.  As someone who dismissed my catholic upbringing at age 12 with no real struggle it is really hard for me to connect with this kind of person as he writhes in agony over the fact that god isn’t saving his flock from their enemies and the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to make me empathize with him either.  That having been said I’m not sure how many practicing Christians are going to be able to connect with this either as, and I don’t want this to sound too condescending, but I feel like the people who are happily faithful tend not to think too deeply about the religions they practice and the finer points of faith.  In many ways this is a movie that will be too contemplative and questioning for religious audiences that lack theology degrees and yet too focused on matters of faith to really connect with people who just sleep in on Sundays.

In many ways I do kind of feel ill-equipped to fully grasp this movie, at least on a first viewing, and I kind of have a hunch that the same goes for a lot of the critical community circa 2016 given how the consensus surrounding the movie seems to be of the “respectful but now overly enthusiastic” variety.  I suspect that people would be a bit more eager to dive in had the movie spent more time discussing the political situation that led Japan to persecute its Christian population and gave a bit more time to the Japanese Inquisitor to explain his actions.  I was certainly waiting to hear him at least lay out the argument that these missionaries very well could be used for the purposes of setting up the nation for colonization in much the way they were used against the indigenous people in the Americas and perhaps point out that this behavior is hardly unique to Japan (there’s a reason that the word “inquisition” is more closely associated with Catholic Spain than Buddhist Japan).  That’s not to say I would have necessarily agreed with that line of reasoning given that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are core tenants of liberty, but the debate would have certainly interested me.  However, I don’t think that debate is what interests Scorsese about this story and that’s certainly his prerogative.

At the end of the day you have to analyze the movie you’re given and not the movie you maybe wish you were given.  The movie I was given is one that I desperately wanted to like more than I actually did.  I really want there to be a place for serious weighty movies like this to thrive, especially in this larger budget level, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to find much of an audience, at least not during its initial run.  You’ve got to feel sorry for Scorsese, he made the mistake of releasing a very adult movie during very childish times.  And yet, I have to admit the movie didn’t really sing for me either despite the fact that it’s clearly very smart and quite well made.  It’s definitely a movie that I plan to see again, repeatedly, and I also want to look up a lot of what’s been written about it by people who know more about its historical and religious context of what’s going on here.  For not though all I can say is that it’s a quality movie that did not quite deliver that excited feeling I normally get from new Scorsese.

4

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(12/16/2016)

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In the world of videogames there’s a term that’s been come to used, at least amongst people with some interest in the financial side of the industry, called “annualization.”  This is used when a company, usually a major publisher like Activision or Ubisoft realizes that one of their series is a really popular cash cow and put enough resources into it to have multiple teams working on multiple sequels to it at once so that they can reliably put out a new installment of the franchise every single year.  This makes sense for sports games like Madden but becomes more problematic when it’s applied to series that are actually supposed to have stories like the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise and even when it’s applied to something like “Call of Duty” which doesn’t have a continuous story it still sort of kills a lot of goodwill from consumers who complain that they’re being bilked into buying the same game over and over again, and even if they’re okay with this in principle there’s no doubt that this practice sort of kills that anticipation that players build up for new installments of franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” who take a slower approach and make each installment an event.  This same practice isn’t unheard of in the world of film, in fact you could argue that the Marvel movies have been doing it for years now, but it seems to have really taken a hold now that Disney is also trying to do something like it with their newly acquired Star Wars license.  Now for basically the first time there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters that isn’t an official “Episode,” a sort of Star Wars “Halo: Reach” that’s officially called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One is set in the days leading up to the start of the original Star Wars film and focuses on a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has been coerced into working as an engineer for the Empire.  With this in her past and her mother dead Jyn has seemingly grown up to be something of a streetwise rebel.  Her parentage does catch the attention of the Rebel Alliance, who believe that Galen may be working with an Imperial general named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on a super weapon that could end the Rebel Alliance once and for all.  As such a task force led by a guy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and featuring a reprogramed Imperial robot called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) break her out of prison and bring her on a mission to find Galen and determine what he’s up to and if necessary neutralize him.

When I first heard the title Rogue One I had envisioned it as a sort of Star Wars flyboy movie that would focus on a squadron of X-Wing pilots, but the film is more of something along the lines of The Guns of Naverone with a team of misfits setting out to retrieve one of cinema’s most famous MacGuffins.  There are definitely some good ideas at its center.  In essence the movie is trying to give the viewer a better idea of what life under the Empire leading up to the original trilogy and what the fighting in the titular wars was like for those in the trenches rather than the VIPs we follow through the other movies.  That’s a great idea in theory, but certain aspects of the execution here leave something to be desired and the movie gets off to a real shaky start.  The film doesn’t begin with an opening text scroll like the other Star Wars movies, which is a smart way to differentiate it from the “real” Star Wars movies with episode numbers, but the movie could maybe use one because the first act of the movie feels like something of a jumble of names we don’t know and political machinations that could have used a bit of extra exposition to untangle.

A big part of the problem may simply be the new characters that the film introduces just aren’t that strong or maybe that the movie doesn’t do a very job of establishing a connection between them and the audience.  Jyn Erso is a character that certainly seems interesting in theory and Felicity Jones does bring a certain something to her, but at the end of the day she’s a bit one-dimensional on the page and her motivations seem a bit inconsistent.  The movie desperately wants her to be this aloof Han Solo type but she spends the whole movie trying to protect her father’s honor and the movie never really seems to decide how many fucks she gives in general.  Similarly Cassian Andor just seems like a very one note company man and other characters like a defecting Imperial pilot with brain damage or something played by Riz Ahmed mostly just seems to confuse matters and the movie just never makes other characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus just kind of seem to be here out of a nebulous obligation for the movie to build a team rather than because there’s any real reason for their presence in the film.  Not every character here is lame, the robot K-2SO is pretty charming for example, but few of them really leave the same kind of impression as the iconic characters from the original trilogy or even some of the new characters introduced in The Force Awakens.  Hell, for all their shortcomings even the prequel trilogy probably introduced more characters that people are likely to remember the names of than this movie.

Beyond that the film is frustrating in that it establishes this darker tone and puts forward some interesting ideas only to then squander them.  In particular I was not impressed with the way the film suggests that the Rebel Alliance had its shortcomings and destructive tendencies only to fail to really explore them.  For example, the initial mission that Jyn Erso is sent on is to find a guy named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who Mon Mothma labels as an extremist Rebel who has ultimately proven to be a liability to the Alliance.  That’s an interesting idea but it goes nowhere, we never really see what makes this guy a Rebel extremist or what he’s up to.  When we meet him he’s certainly an interesting looking character but all he actually does is give Jyn the next piece of the puzzle and send her off to the next location.  Later we’re left to deal with a tension within the group as they debate over whether to assassinate Galen Erso, but the stakes to this are never really clear.  We as an audience know that whatever harm Galen can do has already been done and if it hasn’t then what is the urgency to deal with him?  Later still we have to deal with what is essentially one of these stock standard movie situations where the hero is right about something but the Rebel Alliance acts as this artificial roadblock to the “man of action” who wants to do something and when the Rebels have a change of heart on this point it isn’t terribly clear why.

Having said all that, the film kind of redeems itself in its third act.  It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a big battle scene which is classic Star Wars with the action cutting between three or four different aspects of the action scene each one of them interesting in their own way.  It isn’t just that spectacle that makes this third act work though, it also does a lot of clever things to connect the movie to the beginning of the original Star Wars in ways that are impressively seamless.  I was also impressed with the film’s willingness to have a rather dark ending that isn’t afraid to leave things in a pretty grim place to set up why the Revels so desperately need “a new hope.”  Of course the film’s interest in recreating aspects of the original Star Wars does have some drawbacks.  For one thing, Grand Moff Tarkin is a character in the film, which is narratively logical but it with Peter Cushing having died in 1994 the filmmakers decided to use CGI to resurrect him, an idea I might have been willing to roll with if the technology was there but the result is decidedly a trip into the uncanny valley.  I don’t know that I would have wanted them to recast the character either so I guess I wish they had left him out or maybe done his scenes with those blue hued hologram things or something.  Their decision to bring back Darth Vader for a few scenes was also done with mixed results.  You’d think his costume would make him easy enough to recreate, but there’s just something different about him… maybe David Prowse deserves more credit than he gets.

It’s been a truism in filmmaking that if a movie has a lousy ending it will undue a lot of goodwill a movie has built up and if you have a great ending audiences will forgive a lot of earlier mistakes and Rogue One may prove that to be true.  The film’s last third does indeed really leave you just about ready to completely forgive how poorly written the first two acts are, but not entirely.  I don’t think time and repeat viewings are going to be kind to this movie, the thrill of seeing Darth Vader unleash on some Rebels is going to diminish over time and the unfulfilled potential of the film’s exploration of the messy side of rebellion is going to remain a disappointment.  I must say though, that I feel like a bit conflicted about my reaction to this one.  When The Force Awakens came out I thought it was pretty cool but complained that it stuck too rigidly to the formula of the previous movies and relied too much on old characters and nostalgia, and now here comes a movie that boldly eschews the old formula and plays by a new set of rules and it’s still not really what I want.  I guess that’s what’s frustrating about the movie: it seems to have the right idea and go about it the right way, it just botches the execution along the way and doesn’t handle its best ideas the right way.  Despite all that, on balance there is definitely enough here to make the movie a mostly worthwhile experience as the best parts work like gangbusters, it’s just that you’re kind of left with what could have been.

Snowden(9/25/2016)/Sully(9/26/2016)

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Every so often Hollywood will manage to put out a pair of movies so close to one another that one can’t help but look at them side by side.  One such instance seemed to happen this month when two film’s went into wide release within a week of one another that are so different and yet so very similar.  Both films are ostensible biopics about ordinary-ish people who became news stories within the last ten year for actions they took more or less over the course of a single night.  Both films were directed by veteran filmmakers who have become associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum and both films have the challenge of expanding what are ostensibly brief “moments of truth” into feature length films.  Hell, both films are named after surnames that start with “S.”  And yet, what links the two films on a deeper level is that both films more or less exist to ask one simple question: “was this guy a hero?”  The two movies I am of course talking about are Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic Snowden and Clint Eastwood’s Chesley Sullenberger biopic Sully.

To summarize these movies would almost be to simply recite the news headlines of a couple years ago, but I’ll do it just the same.  Snowden depicts the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levit) leading up to his decision to leak multiple government surveillance program to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).  We see his time working in the CIA in both a direct capacity and as a contractor as well as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  While Scully chronicles the day airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was forced to land an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River after losing two engines and the immediate aftermath of this incident including his time he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) spent defending his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Both of these movies come with their share of baggage; Sully needs to make a feature length film out of an incident that took something like thirty minutes in real life and Snowden has similar issues while also having to contend with the legacy of the critically adored documentary Citizenfour, which covers a lot of the same material.  Both movies address these weaknesses by adopting non-chronological structures.  Snowden probably does this in a more traditional way by making Snowden’s Hong Kong meeting with Greenwald and Poitras (the centerpiece of Citizenfour) into a framing story from which we flash back to most of Snowden’s adult life leading up to that moment.  That’s not terribly original but it does serve to solve one of the bigger problems with Citizenfour: the fact that that documentary did not really have an ending.  Where Citizenfour set up this Hong Kong meeting as the beginning of something (namely a vigorous public debate), Stone’s Snowden instead sets this meeting up as the end of something (namely its main character’s arc).  Sully by contrast begins after “the incident” and spends a majority of its runtime focusing on Sullenberger as he reacts to his sudden fame, experiences post-crash jitters, and defends his actions to the investigators.  It does of course eventually flash back to the crash, but the post-crash material is more the main story than a mere framing narrative.

The post-crash material in Sully showed some real promise in its early sections, in part because it seemed to be interested in getting into the head of its protagonist and exploring his self-doubt.  At times it almost felt like a sort of companion-piece to American Sniper in that Sullenberger almost seemed to be going through a sort of post-traumatic stress as he contemplated what happened.  I was especially interested in this notion that maybe Sullenberger had spent so much time considering worst case scenarios that once he finally found himself in an actual crisis he maybe, just maybe, over-reacted and tried to pull a hero move that may not have been necessary.  The movie seems somewhat interested in tackling these issues during the first act but it quickly becomes clear that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are less interested in these nuances than maybe they should have been.  Once the inquisitors from the NTSB come into the picture they feel less like professionals trying to do their jobs and more like smarmy villains who seem dead set in hurting our hero.  I get the impression that these NTSB hearings have been condensed to the point of ridiculousness, all the parts where the questioners are being fair and professional is cut out and the few spots where they ask questions that prove baseless are emphasized.  All the interesting self-doubt and second guessing of the first half is completely thrown out in favor of this bizarrely abrupt ending where the movie hits and incredibly smug note and then just cuts to credits rather than even bothering with the obligatory coda where our hero is reunited with his wife or something.

Given that Sully brings this controversy up just to drop it, I can’t help but feel like the movie was creating complexity where there may not have been any in the first place.  Most people going into the movie already think Sullenberger was an unambiguous hero and the movie perhaps only sows doubt about this in order to give the film something do with its runtime.  With Snowden Oliver Stone does not really have this luxury as his subject was a highly controversial figure from the moment he entered the public consciousness and in many ways Stone’s movie is interested in mounting a defense of his actions.  As such there isn’t a whole lot of nuance in his movie either, but at least it doesn’t bring up the specter of nuance just to take it back and say “never mind.”  The movie does do a pretty good job of showing exactly how the invasive government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on worked and how extensive their operations were.  That’s something that Citizenfour was never really able to do and the movie also gives the viewer a better idea of how extensive Snowden’s CIA/NSA career was.  On the other hand the fact still remains that the life of Edward Snowden, computer nerd extraordinaire, was never exactly the world’s most exciting person outside of his eventual whistle blowing and while seeing him slowly grow his convictions does have some interest it does not exactly make for the world’s most thrilling movie.

Both movies have at their centers a pretty strong performance.  Tom Hanks is solid as Sullenberger as you’d expect given that playing likable everymen is his specialty.  It’s hardly his best work but maybe it’s not that fair to dock points from the guy for his consistency.  Joseph Gordon Levitt could also be said to be a pretty obvious casting choice for Edward Snowden but we’re slightly less used to seeing him play these kind of roles.  Both movies sort of suffer a little just because their stars feel like movie stars playing dress up as commoners, but to some extent that’s just something you need to accept in Hollywood movies like this.  Sully is probably the more obviously cinematic of the two movies given that it has a special effects scene at its center and that crash re-enactment definitely delivers on what its audience is expecting form it and I particularly liked the way it was able to successfully depict this crisis as a perfect fusion of different people working together to pull off a really unlikely save.

Beyond that the movie is tonally more or less what you’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood movie, albeit with a slightly lighter center given that the subject matter is fairly uplifting and Tom Hanks’ general presence adds a touch of levity as well.  Of course Oliver Stone is also a pretty skilled filmmaker and while he’s been floundering as a filmmaker for the last couple decades he has always maintained a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking.  There’s nothing in Snowden that’s as adventurous as what Stone was doing in something like JFK or Natural Born Killers but there are at least a couple of neat touches like a scene where Snowden is having a Skype call with his CIA mentor and rather than filming a computer screen Stone superimposes the image of this guy in the entire background of the screen with Snowden looking on in the foreground as if the CIA guy were Big Brother giving orders to one of his subjects.  Stuff like that is relatively rare in the movie though and Stone generally plays things really safe, possibly to the movie’s detriment, and while this is better than most of the stuff Stone has made recently it still isn’t really the return to form that we’ve been waiting for from the guy.

So, in a direct contest between the two movies I’m not entirely sure which I’d choose.  The actual plane crash scene in Sully is probably better than anything in Snowden but then again Snowden leave you with a little bit more to chew on and nothing in Snowden pissed me off as much as the way Sully ended.  Really though I’m not sure I can say either of these movies rose above the level of “average.”  Of the two Snowden is probably the bigger lost opportunity as I feel like something a lot better could have been made either by a younger and more adventurous Oliver Stone or someone else who just had a more creative approach.  Sully on the other hand probably wouldn’t have benefited from a less conventional approach so much as it could have used a few more re-writes, possibly by someone with a slightly more thoughtful approach.  Ultimately I think both movies probably do justify their existences, but just barely and while I would say both will work well enough for people who are already interested I’m not sure I’d recommend either as movies which people who are on the fence should go ahead and take the plunge on but I’m sure both would satisfy if caught on HBO or Netflix some day.

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Southside With You(9/4/2016)

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I should probably start this review by saying that I’m a complete and unabashed supporter of President Barack Obama.  He’s pretty much everything I want out of a president and whenever I see him at that presidential podium or in the oval office I get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.  He’s almost certainly the most perfect president I’m likely to see in my lifetime and think that half the reason Hillary Clinton has had such a hard time in this election cycle is because Obama has set the bar unrealistically high for any successor and whatever shortcomings have emerged in his administration I generally tend to blame either on the opposition or on necessary compromises that needed to be made to appease the electorate he inherited.  Frankly, I think anyone who’s disappointed by his presidency probably had unrealistic expectations given the current political climate.  The thing is, making a movie about a living hero before he’s even left office is not easy.  It’s the opposite of the problem Oliver Stone made the movie W. eight years ago and somehow had to humanize a person that any right-thinking person should have had nothing but contempt for in 2008.  In making a similarly timed film about our current president indie director Richard Tanne has opted for a different approach, looking not at the Obama we know so much as the Obama “before he was famous” with his new film Southside With You.

Set one fateful day in the summer of 1989 in Chicago, Southside With You depicts the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama.  The film begins with Obama (Parker Sawyers) driving to pick up Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in the early afternoon.  The two know each other from the law firm where Robinson is a 2nd year associate and Obama is a sort of summer intern as he’s in the middle of finishing his law school degree.  Robinson believes that they’re on their way to attend a community organizer meeting, and they are, but Obama has arranged for them to begin their outing earlier so that the two can attend an African American art exhibit and get lunch together.  Robinson is a bit uncomfortable with the outing because the two are co-workers and Obama is technically a subordinate.  Obama persists though and while it isn’t love at first sight the two do grow closer together over the course of the day and, as we all know, they will only grow closer afterwards.

The sort of “one fateful day when a couple comes together” format of the movie of course harkens back to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise but there is the notable difference of this being a movie about a real relationship and real relationships don’t always start on the conveniently romantic note that the one in that movie began on.  It’s clear from this movie that the Obamas’ courtship was not something that was destined to be and that it was something that developed slowly.  What’s more, this is not the wise and mature Obama we know today so much as the younger Obama trying to find his place and you actually can sort of understand Michelle’s hesitance.  You start to see some of the future leader of the free world showing through in the community meeting mid-film and from some of the stories of what Obama had accomplished as an organizer earlier in life, but as a prospective boyfriend this younger chainsmoking Obama actually comes off as a bit of a creeper at times with the way he kind of tricked Michelle into going on this date and his persistence throughout.  I guess you could say that he takes “no” as an invitation to “carry on,” which is a concept that would be a lot more objectionable outside of the relatively limited scenario presented here.

I feel like the bigger problem here though is just its kind of middling execution.  One thing that becomes glaringly clear early on is that Tika Sumpter looks and sounds a lot more like the real Michelle Obama than Parker Sawyers looks and sounds like Barack Obama.  Now I’ll grant you, being able to convince you that you’re in the skin of someone who’s been on TV every day for the last eight years is probably not easy and obviously I don’t expect the filmmakers to be able to find a qualified actor who looks exactly like a young version of the president but I still think they could have found a way to make it work better especially when the film’s co-star seems to be pulling it off just fine.  Beyond that, I’m just not really sold on the film’s director Richard Tanne.  The film’s visual sensibility seems pretty bland for the most part and Tanne seems to greatly over-estimate how interesting the south side of Chicago is to look at, especially the way he films is, because this is not one of those movies that successfully makes its location its character (which is especially unfortunate given the title).  The whole movie just feels really Sundancey, and not like the kind of thing that would normally deserve to break out of that festival.  I’m sure it felt like a breath of fresh are in that context next to all the Before Sunrise ripoffs about characters who don’t end up becoming leaders of the free world, but on it’s own, it feels kind of slight.  It’s not awful or even bad, but people looking for insight into the Obamas are only going to get so much out of it and people looking for a date movie would probably be better served elsewhere.

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