Toy Story 4(6/20/2019)

With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see.  These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness.  At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror.  What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are.  Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story).  That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better.  Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.

Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback.  It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of.  We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious.  As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well.  When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.”  Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan.  Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.

This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it.  I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect.  Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve?  To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out.  Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.

To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building.  A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up.  These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established.  Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things.  Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan.  That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so.  This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.

Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings.  That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again.  It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college.  Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters.  It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete.  Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.

This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist.  Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them.  Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children.  Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense.  As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series.  It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third.  Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.

**** out of Five

Us(3/21/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Two year ago I found myself in the rather unenviable position of being one of the few people in the world who didn’t much care for Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning horror film Get Out.  At the time the one and only negative review of that movie on Rotten Tomatoes was written by noted provocateur Armond White and to my general bafflement the movie became a giant box office success despite its rather unconventional appeal.  Still, I’m rather proud of that review.  I finally had a fairly original take on a movie and I think I expressed it pretty effectively and I haven’t really waivered at all in my take on the movie.  That said, with me going against the grain of popular opinion like that I feel like I spent a lot of time focusing on the negatives of the film when there were in fact certainly aspects to it that I found impressive.  It was certainly a different approach to the genre and Jordan Peele was certainly a voice I wanted to hear more from, so despite my issues with that debut I was looking forward to his follow-up film, the interestingly titled Us.

Us focuses on the Wilson family, which consists of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex).  As the story begins the family is headed to Santa Cruz, where they have a vacation home, but Adelaide has come to sort of dread this trip because of a traumatic experience she had as a young child in that area where she wandered off into a house of mirrors and encountered something that scared her to the point that it took her years to recover.  She does not, however, have the easiest time explaining this to her husband, who is looking forward to meeting with his friend Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss).  Things mostly seem to be going normally for a while until suddenly at night the family notices a group of strange people standing out in their driveway looking rather threatening.  Soon they discover that this family is a sort of mirror image of themselves but with different and more violent personalities and ready to menace them over the course of the night.

Unlike Get Out, which was more of a Twilight Zone episode than a true horror film, Us is unquestionably meant to be a full on work of horror.  Specifically it’s a home invasion movie, at least in its early stages, which is significant because that is a sub-genre that’s been rather prone to rather loaded political subtext suggesting a sort of invasion of middle America that needs to be fought back, often though gun ownership.  Us isn’t specifically meant to be an inversion of that but it is worth noting.  The family at the center of the film is African American, and I don’t think this is incidental at all but it is interesting that it’s not something the film’s screenplay seems to draw attention to at all.  Had Peele decided to change directions and cast a white family at the film’s center I’m not sure that it would have really had to change any dialogue at all.  Instead I think the film very notably draws attention to the fact that this family is distinctly upper middle class.  They have a vacation home, the father rather prominently wears a Howard University sweatshirt through much of the film, and there’s an element of “keeping up with the joneses” in how they view their slightly richer friends with an understated but clear degree of jealousy.

This class distinction to me is key to understanding the film.  The metaphor at its center seems to be a sort of critique of the way American wealth comes at the expense of others both domestic and abroad.  We wear clothing that’s sewn at sweatshops, we communicate on devices that are put together by people known to throw themselves off of buildings, and we eat food picked by horribly mistreated migrants.  We do everything in our power to avoid thinking about the people propping up our way of life and engage in bullshit acts of performative charity like Hands Across America in order to tell ourselves we’re on the good side, but ultimately we’re all implicated in a system propped up on the exploitation of others whether we like it or not.  And that is where the “tethered” come in.  Adelaide’s counterpart rather explicitly lays out that the root of her discontent is that the surface dwellers have been living high on the hog while the people below have been actively miserable.  We like to think of these people as being a vague “other” but in reality they’re basically just alternate versions of “us.”

Of course that’s subtext, the really weird thing about Us is that the basic text of the film… kind of doesn’t make sense, or at least the twist doesn’t if you’re looking at it literally.  I gather from watching the movie that, prior to Red changing things, these tethers are supposed to be constantly mirroring every last movement of their counterparts above.  Which is something that would seem to result in a whole lot of walking into walls.  Think about it for just a couple minutes and you come up with questions like “What happens if you fly to the opposite coast? Do the tethers follow?  Do immigrants have tethers?  How do the tethers end up with the exact same mates as their counterparts above and pass along exactly the right genes to produce children identical to their clones on the surface?”  Beyond that there are other questions, like where they get their jumpsuits or why they think they’ll be able to take over a country with 1.2 guns per person using only scissors.  At a certain point you kind of need to invoke Argento style “nightmare logic” to excuse this stuff, and how willing you are to do that will probably determine how much you’re going to like the movie.

I’m normally pretty quick to have my attention derailed by plot holes and logical inconsistencies like that but I must say I found myself oddly willing to go along with Us.  I think that’s partly because it seems to be deliberately existing in a sort of symbolic place in a way that mainstream horror movies generally don’t.  That is the main thing that differentiates it from Get Out, which was also essentially an allegory, but a very clear allegory when that allegory started to stopped lining up as much as it thought it did in the second half it sort of lost me.  This one is more open for interpretation and that gives it a certain leeway that I wasn’t inclined to give Get Out.  It also frankly just works a lot better as a visceral thriller rife with intense pacing and visceral horror imagery and that alone puts it over Get Out even if I didn’t have other issues with that movie.

**** out of Five

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri(11/23/2017)

It has been almost ten years since Martin McDonagh made his feature film debut with a little crime film called In Bruges and yet he’s still established himself as a pretty strong voice in pop culture just the same.  I wasn’t expecting much from In Bruges, a movie that was basically advertised as a Tarantino riff of modest ambition, and while I didn’t immediately love that movie as much as some people it did certainly exceed my expectations.  It was a movie that managed to easily transition between some legitimate psychological turmoil on the part of its characters and this very biting and subversive sense of humor.  At the end of the day I don’t know that it quite had the substance it needed underneath it all, but it’s a movie that’s improved my memory more than I would have expected.  His sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, went all in on that subversive sense of humor and pushed it into a place of meta-textual anarchy that proved to be a little too messy and too crazy for its own good.  Despite how nutty that movie was it didn’t actually seem to leave much of an impression on the culture and in many ways his newest film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a more direct continuation of what McDonagh started with In Bruges but also feels generally weightier more focused than that movie.

As the title implies the film takes place in and around the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri and follows a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a high school aged son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges).  Mildred is at this point a rather prickly woman who’s done taking crap from anyone and is at this point reeling from the violent death of her daughter Angela (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Newton) seven months prior.  Angry that the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make progress on her case she decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of the town which read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” respectively.  In town this causes a great controversy, in no small part because Willoughby is a very popular figure in town despite the fact that a lot of his deputies seem to act like dictatorial monsters, especially one named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dangerously stupid little monster who is alleged to have tortured an African American suspect in a prior incident.  What follows is a standoff of sorts between this determined woman and a police force that is completely unprepared to look itself in the mirror.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has widely been hailed as a remarkably topical movie given that it’s about a strong willed woman trying to make sure a rapist is held accountable.  It’s not too hard to read the film that way, but there are a couple issues with that.  For one, while sexual assaults often aren’t taken as seriously as they should be by law enforcement, it’s usually less extreme cases like date rapes that have trouble getting investigated or rapes that occur in areas that are backed up by bureaucracies.  A white girl being forcibly raped by a stranger and then viciously killed and burned alive in a rural area is not one of those cases, that’s the kind of thing that usually does get significant police and media attention.  The movie does acknowledge this; the first thing that Willoughby does upon hearing about the billboards is try to go to Mildred and explain everything he’s done to investigate the case and the reasons why the trail went cold.  The film’s take on Willoughby himself is a bit complicated.  He doesn’t seem like a “bad” guy exactly but he does allow bad things to happen through a sort of obliviousness.  He willfully employs Dixon even though he’s plainly both a racist and an incompetent officer to boot basically just because he doesn’t have the vision to improve on the town’s status quo.

The film works better if viewed less as a specific expose of how police handle sexual assault cases and more as a metaphor for the process of what’s needed for citizens to hold their governments accountable.  The dysfunction going on at the Ebbing sheriff’s office plainly runs deeper than their handling of this one case and Mildred makes it clear throughout the movie that in addition to her anger that no arrests have been made in her daughter’s case she also frequently points out that the deputies spend their time harassing African Americans and is in general need of reform but no one seems to do anything simply because the like Willoughby and never seem to think to challenge him either out of some kind of courtesy or fear.  The film suggests that sometimes “good” people need to be exposed in order to make needed change happen and that this kind of protest often involves sacrifice and determination and that there’s no guaranty of accomplishing what you set out to do.  The film is also interested in the possibility of improving certain people and reconciling them to a certain side, which is where it perhaps runs into trouble.  There’s a redemption arc here for one of the characters which is going to be a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people.

This should not, however, be mistaken for some dry take on civil action, it is still a Martin McDonagh film with all of the irreverence that this implies.  Much of the film’s entertainment value comes from it the cleverly biting and often politically incorrect lines that McDonagh puts in Mildred’s mouth as well as Dixon’s shameless incompetence.  If you’ve watched the red band trailer for the film or you’ve seen other movies by McDonagh or his brother John Michael McDonagh you probably know what to expect from the movie’s humor and it’s brought to life very well by the cast, who adeptly manage to strike the right balance between serious naturalism and heightened comedy.  I would caution people that this isn’t necessarily a laugh a minute comedy so much as a dark story with frequent moments of piercing wit.  The film also loses some steam in its second half when the shtick starts to wear off a bit and that somewhat questionable redemption arc starts to kick in.  That McDonagh is a playwright originally becomes clear as the movie goes on.  It’s not that if feels locationally condensed or conspicuously talky but the themes all present themselves and the plotlines all come together in a way that feels self-contained in a way that a stage play would.  Still, it’s a bold piece of work for the most part which finds a unique way to present its themes and is for the most part well worth seeing.

Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

Toni Erdmann(2/4/2017)

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One of the first major rifts that tend to form between parents and children tends to occur when the children become teenagers and stop wanting to be seen with the parents everywhere they go.  Parents often take this personally and don’t get it but the teenagers in question do usually have reasonable reasons to do this in their minds.  For one thing they’re trying to become independent and want to feel less like little children and secondly because parents have a nasty habit of not taking said teenager’s various social anxieties as seriously as the teenager does and they tend to be very bad wingmen because of it.  This usually causes a bit of family discord for something like four or five years but once the kids move out tensions usually smooth over; the parents learn to give the kids space and the kids start to find the parents to be perfectly fine to visit when appropriate.  But this eventual understanding probably doesn’t come to ever family and I’m sure there are plenty of people who come to dread being around their parents well into adulthood.  That’s the subject of the new German comedy Toni Erdmann, which peaks in on a daughter who is still sort of embarrassed to be seen with her father and a father who gives her a lot of good reasons to feel that way.

The film begins in contemporary Germany, where we’re introduced to a man named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who seems to have been living a somewhat aimless life after divorcing his wife and finding he misses his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) as she jet-sets around the world in her role as a consultant for oil companies.  Her most recent assignment has brought her to Bucharest where she’s on the verge of a very important presentation when suddenly Winfried decides to drop by and visit.  Needless to say, she’s in no mood to deal with her goofball father that weekend and as such she proves to be a less than complimentary host.  The two seemingly part ways but Winfreid decides to remain in Bucharest to find some way for the two of them to reconnect, seemingly whether his daughter wants to or not.

At first the film seems to be a sort of darkly comedic take on Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film in which two parents try to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to be treated like an annoyance by their ungrateful kids.  That’s a movie that has a rightful place in the cannon and I’m not going to argue with Ozu’s unique visual language, but I’ve always found the story to that movie to be a bit of a crotchety guilt trip.  It’s a movie made by a middle aged man that whines about those “damn ungrateful kids” for having the gall to not drop everything and kiss their parents asses.  There’s something similar going on in the first half of Toni Erdmann in that Ines does not have a lot of time to deal with Winfried to his disappointment, but the film does not make Winfreid into some kind of paragon of elderly wisdom either and the film does realize that he’s putting her into quite a bind by showing up unannounced and occasionally butting into her business dealings.  In the second half though the film changes directions and leans more towards a strange sort of reconciliation brought along in a way that I could almost see a Hollywood comedy going, albeit in a much different way stylistically.

Toni Erdmann was directed by Maren Ade and after the film earned raves at Cannes I checked out here previous (and also well regarded) film Everyone Else and was kind of disappointed by it.  That movie was certainly pretty well made but I never really connected to the film’s characters at all and was never really able to go along with their journey.  I connected with the characters here a little better to a point, or at least I connected to them initially, but as the film depicts them reconciling their differences later in the film it started to lose me.  So as a character study it doesn’t quite work for me.  The film also seems to be trying to say something about modern globalism given the nature of Ines’ job, but this also never quite gets pressed hard enough and doesn’t quite work for me.  Then of course it also wants to be something of a farce at certain points but again never really commits to this enough for it to fully work.  In general it just seems like a movie that tries to do a number of things and never really pulls the trigger on any of them.  I can see a pretty interesting movie somewhere in this thing, and there are certainly scenes in it that are great, but in its attempt to be all things I think it loses something.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Things to Come(12/10/2016)

12-10-2016ThingsToCome

What are we talking about when we call a movie “bad.”  The new Mia Hansen-Løve film Things to Come is a film I intend to give a two and a half out of five star rating, which under the old Ebert rules would qualify as a “thumbs down,” and yet I certainly think it’s better than various movies I’ve given three stars to this year like Deadpool, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Conjuring 2.  Is this simply a matter of expectations?  Of holding non-genre films from respected auteurs to a higher standard?  To some extent, yes and yes.  Those three “three star” movies were all movies I watched on blu-ray instead of in theaters and on some level it’s a lot easier to casually give a “light pass” to something I’m throwing on at home versus something I actually drove to a theater and paid to see.  Also, yeah, to some extent I do have to take the fact that certain movies have more modest goals in mind when I look at them, and that does give something of an advantage to a movie that just wants to show a super hero making dick jokes over a movie about a woman’s existential crisis following a divorce.  If that sounds unfair, well the catch is that when they’re done right these movies I’m holding to a higher standard stand a much better chance of getting a very high rating, which is probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage.  But perhaps I’m getting way ahead of myself and setting the wrong tone for my review of Things to Come.

The film is set in more or less contemporary France (presumably a few years ago as it’s established that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president and there’s some sort of economic austerity measure that everyone’s abuzz about) and focuses on a woman named Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert).  Chazeaux is a middle aged philosophy professor living in upper-middle class domesticity with a husband and two teenage/young adult children.  This all takes quite a blow when it’s revealed that her husband has been cheating on her and intends to divorce.  Meanwhile, her mother’s mental and physical health has been in decline, which has taken up a lot of her energy and she’s also taking a few hits to her professional standings as of late.  That’s a lot to take all at once and the tension of the movie is all about how she’s going to react.

The only other Mia Hansen-Løve film I’ve seen is her last film, Eden, which looked at something like ten or twenty years in the life of an EDM DJ as he rises and falls in the world of Parisian house music.  I admired that film’s ambition and the scope of the story it was trying to tell, but its central character never quite intrigued me enough and I didn’t really care for Félix de Givry work in that role.  Things to Come seems to have the opposite problem in many ways: it has a fascinating central character played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert, but Hansen-Løve never quite seems to provide an interesting enough movie to put her in.  Nathalie is a character with some fairly complex depths, she’s clearly a dedicated to her philosophy studies but it’s never entirely clear that what philosophical school of thought she belongs to, if any, and she seems to react to all the personal turmoil she goes through in the year or so the film takes place in with aplomb.

The character’s general strength is however something of a double-edged sword.  The general format the film is seemingly supposed to follow is: “woman goes through hell, finds her way out, and is stronger for the experience.”  And yet, in many ways Nathalie is so strong that all this craziness only barely seems to faze her and you never really get the impression that she isn’t going to persevere through adversity.  Of course there is something to be said for the film not going down the entirely expected and it is interesting to watch the character handle all this like a pro, but there is a point where it kind of robs the film of drama and conflict.  What’s more I feel like the movie starts and ends in strange places; we see a lot of how her life falls apart but when it gets the “I will survive” portion it just cuts forward a year, plays a coda, and then ends.  I don’t know, I think I might be missing something here and I’d be willing to read up on people’s interpretations of it but for the most part the film just kind of seemed to go nowhere and if there’s any profundity in what we are given it’s kind of lost on me.  Still, that cerntral performance is quite good and the movie is an engaging enough watch even if it’s point was lost on me so you can do a whole lot worse than this but I want my arthouse movies to leave me with a little more to chew on than this.

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