Capernaum(1/15/2019)

There are a lot of geographic blindspots in my film viewing and a pretty big one is the Middle East.  It maybe isn’t quite the blindspot that African cinema is, but with that continent I at least have the excuse of most of the rest of the film world being about as uneducated as I am.  I’m not completely unversed in cinema from that region, I have a reasonable knowledge of Iran’s unique brand of brainy experimentation and if you include movies from places like Turkey, Israel, and North Africa I’m sure seen a couple dozen or so movies from the area and obviously that’s more than most people but compared with the number of movies I’ve probably seen from individual countries like France or Japan it’s really nothing.  On top of that there isn’t really that much of a shortage of movies from the Middle East, like clockwork there tends to be at least one or two movies a year being imported in hopes of competing for that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and that might actually be part of the problem.  The movies from the middle east that they try to import around award season are universally about these countries’ social and political problems and they almost always draw reviews that are respectful but not overwhelming in their praise.  This year’s contender for the “important movie from the middle east” award is the new Lebanese film Capernaum, and I’ve decided to give this one a go.

Capernaum begins in a Beirut courtroom where a child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) who’s currently serving a prison sentence for stabbing someone has had his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) brought in as defendants in a lawsuit.  We’re told that these parents are ostensibly being sued for bringing Zain into a world of suffering, which more literally seems to be a suit for abuse or neglect or something (the legal grounds for all of this are rather vague).  We learn that his parents had way more children than they can afford to support and never bothered to get any of them real birth certificates or papers.  When these plainly awful guardians marry off Zain’s eleven year old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) for dowry money Zain goes into a rage and run away from home.  While away he encounters an illegal Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who takes him in and gives him room and board in exchange for his watching her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she’s at work, which goes pretty well until one day Rahil is rounded up in an immigration raid and Zain is stuck having to find a way to keep this kid alive while alone on the streets.

On its most basic level Capernaum is a kind of neo-neorealist movie about the life of a street kid in the poorest sections of Beirut.  Zain is said to be about twelve in the movie (not knowing his actual age is something of a plot point) but he looks like he could be nine or ten and seeing him in this harsh environment is supposed to be a bit jarring.  He speaks in very vulgar street terminology and while he does clearly have conscience he doesn’t seem to think twice about petty theft.  This reminded me a bit of the Moroccan film Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, which came out about twenty years ago and also looked at the life of street kids in the Arab world, but where that really focused on a group of kids in this position this one really focuses in on Zain as a solitary figure alone in the city.  The idea of people being alone in this cruel world is a bit of a recurring theme: Rahil seems to be similarly without anyone to depend on as her neighbors seem to be needlessly hostile towards her and she doesn’t seem to have a single friend who can help Yonas once she’s put in jail and the few people who should be acting as a support system like Zain’s parents seem to completely fail him.

Where the film starts to go astray is in its framing story. The trial that is meant to be the catalyst for much of this reflection makes very little sense if taken literally.  I’m no expert on the Lebanese legal system but I doubt that there are any legal grounds for someone to actually sue their parents for choosing to bring them into the world and even if that is meant to be a stand-in for a more mundane charge like child neglect that would still be an unusual place to tell this whole story given that the parents aren’t even present for something like 60% of the story that Zain is telling.  Even if you look at the trial sequences purely as a sort of metaphoric soapbox I’m still not exactly sure I’m on board with what the movie is saying.  Zain’s final word on the matter is that he wants his parents to stop having so many damn kids they can’t afford, which is a message that rings a bit too close to the kind of “welfare queen” shaming that often characterizes discourse about poverty in this country.  The movie isn’t completely in the position of demonizing poor parents as Rahil is clearly held up as an example of the kind of “working poor” who doesn’t deserve the misery she receives, but all too often the movie seems more interested in blaming poor people for their problems rather than highlighting the societal ills that are really at the heart of these problems.  Ignore all that though and Nadine Labaki has still made a pretty compelling human story which seems to capture the environment it’s trying to shed light on pretty effectively.

*** out of Five

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Bohemian Rhapsody(1/12/2019)

Sometimes I think it’s important to lay one’s biases right out when they start to talk about movies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have some biases about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  I certainly wasn’t opposed to the very idea of a Queen biopic, I like that band as much as the next guy and I’m not completely allergic to musical biopics like some people are but when the movie came out in late October it was completely panned by the critics and I had much more important things to see and I felt pretty comfortable skipping it.  Then it just kind of never went away.  The thing became a ginormous hit at the box office despite everyone in the film world having nothing nice to say about it and it somehow managed to become a big awards contender and despite having not seen it I sort of went along with my critical brethren in trashing each and every organization that thought it appropriate to treat this thing like one of the year’s best.  That instinct probably reached its pinnacle on the night of the Golden Globes when the movie shockingly won the Best Motion Picture Drama award and I responded with some rather rude tweets including “they must have straight up been smoking crack” and “The #HFPA is basic as fuck.” I don’t exactly regret the tone of those tweets so much as the fact that I was talking about a movie without having seen it (for the record, both sentiments also apply to the night’s other big winner Green Book, which I had seen).  So, with the not at all loaded mission of wanting to be able to trash something with more credibility I used my newly acquired AMC Stubs A-List membership to go see the damn movie, and while I certainly had my biases against it I also kind of had a sinking suspicion that with expectations so low I might have ended up pleasantly surprised.

The story of Queen begins when a young baggage handler named Farrokh Bulsara, who would soon come to be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), caught up with a bar band called Smile right as their bassist/lead singer had given up and quit the band.  Seeing the potential in the group he convinces the remaining guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Tayler (Ben Hardy) to let him join them as the new lead singer.  After hiring a new bassist named John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and touring extensively the group decides to make an album.  Meanwhile Mercury has been starting a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who he seems to have a deep and abiding love for but there always seems to be something between them keeping the relationship from completely working, what could that possibly be?

The element at the center of this film is of course Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, which has gotten a lot of acclaim even from people who dislike the film.  He does indeed to a pretty good job of looking like Mercury for most of the movie and he can certainly lip-sych like a pro (the singing is provided by archival recordings), but I wasn’t overly impressed by the speaking voice he mustered for most of the movie.  If you look up some old Freddie Mercury interviews you find he didn’t really sound that much like what Malek is trying to sell here and even if he did Malek just generally seems to be struggling with trying to perform while using the voice and there are some questionable line readings in the movie.  The rest of the cast is serviceable.  This is clearly a movie that’s primarily about Mercury for obvious reasons, though you do get the impression that the surviving band members are calling some of the shots as there is a suspiciously large focus on making the audience very aware of the fact that some of the other band members are responsible for writing a lot of the band’s hits.

The central sin of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is absolutely slavish to the rock biopic formula as lampooned by the movie Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story.  You’ve got the “I’m going to think back on my life before a performance” trope, the pop psychology about the artist’s childhood, the record exec who doesn’t get what they’re doing because they’re so ahead of their time, the record studio montages, and of course the “it used to be about the music, man!” segment.  To some extent a lot of this stuff is unavoidable in a biopic which isn’t doing some sort of avant garde I’m Not There experiment and I don’t expect every movie like this to subvert all of them but this movie really shamelessly leans into the formula without doing anything to bring any originality to the proceedings.  The film also really distorts a lot of facts about the band in order to fit this formula.  Much of the film’s second (and weakest) half revolves around Freddie Mercury’s supposed abandonment of the band in the early 80s to pursue a solo career and to pursue hedonism.  This version of the narrative rather conveniently ignores the fact that this supposed hiatus only lasted two years, that Brian May and Roger Taylor both released solo projects before Mercury did, and that the band had already reunited, released an album, and gone on a tour before they performed at Live Aid.

Of course all movies based on true events take some creative license but there are ways to use creative license for good and ways to use it for bad.  Here the liberties they take generally just served the purpose of making the movie more clichéd and predictable.  There is of course also the matter of how the film depicts Mercury’s sexuality.  Now, the film doesn’t necessarily hesitate in depicting Mercury as a gay man, something it might have done if it had been made some twenty years earlier, but in some ways what it does do is more insidious.  As I mentioned this movie follows the rock biopic formula to a T and these rock biopics almost always reach a point where the lead singer becomes full of himself and starts destroying the band, usually by falling into drugs and alcohol.  That happens here too, but instead of drug addiction the thing that starts happening to Mercury at this point in the story is that he starts fully embracing his sexuality and engaging with the gay community.  Yes, he’s also said to be taking drugs during this section but that is deemphasized here and it almost feels like the movie is equating homosexuality itself with self-destruction to the point where all the references to gayness in the script could have been replaced with references to drugs and the story would have basically been unaltered.  The presence of Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend in his later years mitigates this a little, but if they’d been more honest about this relatively healthy relationship which began long before Live-Aid and before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis the structure and framing would have been a lot less problematic.

So did I hate Bohemian Rhapsody?  Nah, it plays things a little too safe to really become something worth hating.  It also has one major and rather obvious asset: it has a lot of Queen music in it.  It will be a surprise to no one that Queen was a pretty damn good rock band and even knowing that it’s just a lip-synch show there is obvious entertainment value in seeing the scenes of the band performing these songs, especially if you’re watching them on a very large screen and with a really aggressive sound system.  Aside from a stretch leading up to the Live Aid performance at the end the movie is mostly pretty well paced ad often has a sense of humor about itself.  What I’m trying to say is that as corny as the film is at times there are worse ways to spend two hours in a theater, and while I don’t respect the movie at all I don’t have much ill-will for it either… at least I wouldn’t if not for the fact that some people have apparently blown the film’s positive qualities way out of proportion and are trying to give it a bunch of awards it plainly doesn’t deserve, but when you have low expectations like I did and you keep things in perspective there is guilty pleasure to be derived from this thing.

**1/2 out of Five

Vice(1/6/2019)

When I heard that Adam McKay was following up his 2015 The Big Short with a biopic about Dick Cheney I thought it sort of made sense but also didn’t make sense at all.  On one hand it was obvious from his last movie that McKay was transitioning from making broad comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights to making overtly political satires, so in some ways a Cheney movie seemed like a logical evolution of that, on the other hand who the hell wants to make or see a movie about the W. Bush administration in 2018?  That seems like a bad idea firstly because those years were hell and no one wants to relive them, secondly because enough time probably hasn’t passed to really bring anything new to the story with hindsight, and thirdly because with Donald Trump in office a lot of the awfulness of the Bush years almost feels quaint by comparison.  Truth be told, despite Bush’s slightly better tact and decorum than the current white house occupant, he was in fact pretty terrible and a lot of the worst aspects of modern Republican politics were very much alive when he was in white house as well and a reminder of that might be in order.

Vice does skip around in the timeline here and there but generally the film follows the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his time as a hard drinking your adult in Wyoming to his time working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon white house through to his time as a house representative and as a Halliburton executive until finally landing on the role that would make him infamous to history as the vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).  Along the way we see him interacting with his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and daughters Mary Cheney (Alison Pill) and Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe).

Let’s start with what is clearly Vice’s strongest and most talked about element: Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role.  Bale is a 44 year old Englishman who has very recently been in good enough shape to play Batman who is here playing a noticeably overweight American politician who was at his most famous between the ages of 59 and 67 and he has made is so that you don’t question this at all.  Bale has clearly done one of his trademark absurd weight gains for the role and he’s presumably using a lot of makeup but there is clearly a skill in managing to bring everything together and making these transformative elements still feel human.  Obviously Cheney isn’t the most emotional of characters, especially not in this telling of his life, so you don’t exactly get to see Bale doing any real “Oscar clip” scenes but he does adopt the voice pretty effectively and is generally quite good in the role beyond the obvious physical transformation.

The downside of this is that Bale going above and beyond the call of duty as much as he does kind of makes some of his co-stars look bad in comparison.  In particular I’m thinking of Steve Carrell, who certainly manages to make himself look reasonably like a young Donald Rumsfeld, but who seems completely incapable of changing the sound of his voice for this or any other role.  That seems particularly odd in this role given that Rumsfeld, Mr. unknonwn knowns, is probably most famous for using language to slink out of accountability and just generally feels like should be more complicated than what we see here.  Also probably more complicated than what we see here is the real George W. Bush, who Sam Rockwell depicts as being not just an easily manipulated personality but as someone who borders on being “special needs.”  You don’t really see a lot of Bush in the movie, which is partly by design given that the film is very much of the belief that Cheney was calling the shots through that whole administration, but when he is on screen Rockwell’s performance rarely rises above the level of SNL impression. Amy Adams fares better as Lynne Cheney, in part because she isn’t burdened with doing an impression of an overly familiar face, but the movie doesn’t give her a ton to do either, it’s basically a typical “long suffering biopic wife” role with some kind of contradictory hints that she might be a sort of Lady MacBeth behind his rise.

The film’s view of Dick Cheney will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Bush years.  Back then the theory was always that Cheney was the real brains behind Bush and that he was driving events largely out of greed for oil and in service of Haliburton and other oil contractors.  Given my political leanings I don’t necessarily doubt this narrative but I’ve always assumed it was basically unproven speculation and simply reenacting it in a movie like this doesn’t exactly seem like confirmation.  I might have preferred a documentary that goes into the records and really tried to prove what it going on here.  Instead what we get is something more along the lines of The Big Short: a fourth wall breaking satire which finds amusing ways to lay out political facts that uneducated viewers might not be aware of.  That approach worked well in The Big Short, in part because the financial system is legitimately complicated and it felt less condescending when really simplified metaphors are offered for it and partly because that raucous tone generally fit that story a bit better.  That was a movie about a class of people so drunk off of profits that they refused to see that they were heading for disaster, so all the irreverence kind of fit the mood.  Vice tries to do the same but doesn’t realize that it’s kind of telling the opposite story, that of a master manipulator who was very much seeing the big picture and was allegedly in control the whole time.

As it’s been released Vice has become one of the year’s most divisive films.  Some people really seem to hate it, in part because its satiric tone can come off as glib, and I agree with that to some extent.  There are also just a lot of really little things in the movie that bug me like how it just sort of skips past what got Cheney into politics in the first place with a cut forward in time and I also hated a monolog delivered by Cheney towards the end which might have seemed interestingly provocative in another movie but which made no sense in the movie its attached to which overly contradicts everything that he’s saying.  I also just flat out didn’t find the movie particularly funny despite sort of admiring some of the audacity on display.  Certain parts of the movie do work, which combined with how interesting Bale’s performances was keep me from really hating the movie as much as some people do.  That said, I do think that by and large the movie is something of a failure.

** out of Five

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

Creed II(12/29/2018)

Making yet another Rocky movie in 2015 certainly seemed like a crazy idea at the time, in no small part because I thought that trying to bring it back in 2006 was also kind of silly, and for that matter the decision to make the very first Rocky sequel back in 1979 was kind of suspect.  And yet, the movie Creed pretty effectively proved me wrong.  That spinoff about the son of Apollo Creed seeking out Rocky to be his trainer was a clear critical and financial hit and I think its success probably says less about how much life was still in the series than it does about what bringing in new talent can do to revitalize a franchise.  That new talent was Ryan Coogler, a director who was plainly a better visual stylist than Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen ever were but who did maintain an understanding of the series and why people loved it.  There were limits to my personal enthusiasm for it, I thought it was a very solid movie that achieved what it set out to do very well, but I wasn’t one of the people claiming it was some kind of outrage when it wasn’t a Best Picture nominee.  Still, the movie was a clear win and given that this franchise pretty much can’t be stopped it seemed inevitable that it would keep on going from there.  Unfortunately for the sequel, Ryan Coogler was too busy making Black Panther and generally taking over Hollywood to direct the sequel, so a relatively untested young filmmaker named Steven Caple Jr. has taken his place.  Can he continue to elevate the franchise with Creed II?

This sequel begins a few years after Creed and in that time Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has come into his own as a fighter and as the film is opening he’s winning a championship fight bout without too much trouble against a complacent champion who’s past his prime.  After the fight he proposes to Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and the two begin planning for their future.  However, on the other side of the world in the Ukraine another fighter named Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been training with his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the same Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV, and they have been waiting for Adonis to become the champion so they can challenge him and use the likelihood that he would accept such a fight in order to find their way into the boxing spotlight.  Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who feels a great deal of guilt over what happened to Apollo in that fight thirty years earlier, believes that accepting this fight would be a major mistake and that stirring up this old emotions is not worth whatever sense of family redemption this fight would offer.  Adonis, however, does not heed this advice and accepts the fight.

When I first heard that they were planning to incorporate Ivan Drago’s son into this sequel I thought it was a terrible idea, in part because Rocky IV is a very stupid movie rooted in empty Cold War era patriotism and going out of its way to acknowledge its existence within the series continuity seemed like trouble.  To the movies credit they do manage to make the Dragos feel relatively grounded and do a pretty good job of just ignoring the part where that movie implied that Rocky singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union through his inspiring performance in the ring.  That said, its occasional attempts to humanize the Dragos and make them into characters unto themselves do fall flat for the most part.  The film tries to establish that the two of them have a well-earned chip on their shoulder because of the way Ivan was abandoned by the Soviet propaganda machine after his loss to Rocky, but they depict this in rather broad ways and I kind of hated a device they used involving Drago’s ex-wife.  It also doesn’t help that Dolph Lundgren has proven to be a much less interesting and resilient actor than Sylvester Stallone and that the dude they found to play Viktor was an athlete chosen for his physical prowess rather than his acting abilities.

Despite all the invocations of Rocky IV, the film actually more closely follows the formula of Rocky III.  After Creed accepts the fight and tries to train without Rocky the big fight begins before we’re even at the half-way point and you’d pretty much have to be an idiot not to guess that this first fight isn’t going to go very well for Adonis.  So, much like when Rocky went up against Clubber Lang before him Adonis finds himself as the pampered champion underestimating his foe and having to find a way to regain the eye of the tiger after an embarrassing defeat. That is generally the problem with this movie, it’s undeniably formulaic and feels like a retread.  Of course the first Creed also mirrored a lot of stuff from the original Rocky but it felt like it was adding a bit more of its own flavor, in part because Adonis Creed felt like more of a distinct character in that film.  Here Adonis straight up just feels like nothing more than a younger and slightly more articulate Rocky Balboa.  The film does rub up against a slightly original idea of having Rocky question whether Adonis really “needs” to fight this guy and Adonis does seem to be swayed by this and mature out of all this toxic masculinity trap… but this is a Rocky movie so we can’t actually have our hero back down from a final fight so they just sort of throw all that out at a certain point and go along with the formula.

All that having been said the boxing scenes kind of save the movie.  Actually there’s plenty to criticize there as well.  Michael B. Jordan looks way more like a light heavyweight (the weight class he was fighting in in the first movie) than a heavyweight and I have my doubts about any state athletics commissions allowing a fight between him and the plainly much larger Drago.  Also things happen in the ring which are just kind of nuts (the final round in particular has to be the longest three minutes in temporal history) and nothing is as strong as the fights from the first Creed, but despite all that the film’s close up and impactful pugilism is still pretty enjoyable.  That’s the thing about this movie, it kind of works in spite of itself.  I maintain that it feels way more like the old Rocky sequels than Creed (something that probably has a lot to do with that fact that Stallone is once again writing), but… as dumb as those movies got most of them were kind of fun in spite of themselves as well.  Still, I don’t have a very good feeling about this series going forward.  I’m sure there will be a third film but I do hope they don’t get it in their heads to make five Creed movies like they did five (well, six) Rocky movies and that they heed this film’s lessons about avoiding the mistakes of the past more than Adonis does.

*** out of Five

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