Atomic Blonde(8/20/2017)

The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.

The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).

The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?

Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.

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Detroit(8/4/2017)

Kathryn Bigelow has had a kind of weird career trajectory, one that seems remarkably different than most.  She spent decades making somewhat interesting but not overly respectable Hollywood action movies like Point Break only to then suddenly turn into a respected auteur and chronicler of real world events almost overnight in 2009 after making her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker.  I closest thing to an analogues career turnaround I can think of is Curtis Hanson going from making trash like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to making Oscar nominated fare like L.A. Confidential, but even after he made his transition into respectablitiy he wasn’t seen as an auteur so much as a standard journeyman who just so happened to have better material to work with.  The crazy thing is that, for me at least, this second phase of her career has its own set of unique problems, many of them rooted in the sensibilities of her screenwriter of choice Mark Boal.  I thought The Hurt Locker was well staged and interesting to look at, but its high episodic nature felt limiting and that the overall arc only did so much for me.  Zero Dark Thirty also felt overly procedural and I was frustrated by its inability of really make a statement.  They’re movies written by a journalist and you can tell, their determination to just “tell the facts” ultimately just came off as kind of empty and timid.  But those movies certainly looked great and had a lot of passion behind them and I’ve been waiting for this stage two Bigelow to break out and finally make a movie that was really a slam dunk for me and her latest film Detroit certainly looked like another great opportunity for that.

Detroit begins with a slightly awkward animated display explaining the Great Migration North to those who are unaware and transitions into a recreation of the ill-fated 1967 raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit and how the anger over this action would snowball into a full scale riot.  From there the film begins to explain the lead up to the shameful “Algiers Motel incident” which would leave three black men dead and several other people beaten and terrorized.  This reenactment begins when members of a Motown style vocal group called “The Dramatics” including singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge from the chaos outside by paying to spend the night at a motel called the Algiers.  This seems to be going well until another person at the hotel named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) acts on an ill-fated impulse to shoot a harmless starter pistol in the direction of some police and national guardsmen stationed nearby provoking them and a local security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) to rush into the hotel and round-up everyone they find.  When the plainly racist police ringleaders Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) see two white women (played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) among the African Americans they become filled with range, line everyone up against the wall and start threatening bloody retribution until someone confesses to where the gun that took those shots is.

Detroit ends with a very carefully worded title card which says something along the lines of “because the events of that night were never fully determined in court, this has been reconstructed based on witness recollections…” and the film has also changed the names of the officers involved possibly out of fear of litigation.  I’ve done some reading into the facts of this incident and as best as I can tell the movie is pretty accurate in its condemnation of these officers’ actions and of the broad strokes of what happened that night and that most of the liberties that it does take seem reasonable.  However, I do think it makes a couple of liberties that come back to bite them from a storytelling perspective.  Firstly, there is a lot of controversy about the initial shots that attracted the police to the Algiers.  It’s not clear exactly where these shots came from or if anyone in the hotel knew anything about it as a gun was never recovered and witness statements are contradictory.  The movie, however, decides to simply pick a side and show Cooper taking the shots with the starter pistol.  This is a problem in part because it begs a rather simple question: why didn’t the people the police were torturing simply explain what happened?  The man responsible was dead and the pistol he used (wherever it ended up) would seem to do nothing but back up their story, why not just spill the beans rather than endure this torture?  The movie never really explains this.  Secondly, the movie is awfully wishy washy about Melvin Dismukes’ role in all of this.  The role of the real Dismukes in the crime is murky and the movie doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him.  He isn’t depicted as a willing participant in the torture but he also does fuck all to try and stop it.  He’s just sort of there and the movie seems oddly non-judgmental about his inaction.  That the real Dismukes is alive and seemingly more vocal about the whole thing than the other participants may have had something to do with this.

However close Bigelow and Boal came to the exact truth, there’s little questioning that they’ve constructed a very passionate re-enactment but I do wonder if they perhaps errored in choosing such an extreme example of police brutality to center their film around.  Earlier in the film there’s another police shooting in which a looter is shot in the back while running away from one of the cops.  That incident would seem to be a bit closer to the kind of police shooting that has been popping up in the news as of late.  The prolonged terror in the Algiers Motel on the other hand feels perhaps more like something out of the Stanford Prison Experiment than something out of Ferguson, Missouri.  The movie does milk the suspense of the situation but given the subject matter you aren’t terribly inclined to enjoy it like you would a horror movie, though you do perhaps wonder what the film would be like if it had dropped the docudrama trappings, taken a more subjective perspective, and really let itself play out like some kind of realistic torture porn.

I’m not sure that the kind of people who make a habit of defending the Darren Wilsons and Jeronimo Yanezes of the world are going to see a whole lot of themselves in this story.  Firstly, the story is located in a past in which racist cops are a lot less subtle in their animosity, and the prolonged terror seen in the story is not exactly in line with the split second shootings that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.  Those who claim that these shootings are the result of certain “bad apples” rather than inherent biases in police forces will also find their position somewhat supported by the film as the cops doing the killing seems to be really over the line evil while other cops including their commanding officer are (rightfully) horrified when they discover what happened and while they do make some clear mistakes they don’t seem to be going out of their way to cover up the crime either.  What’s perhaps more familiar is the film’s ending (which shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about the history of police violence in America) where we see an all-white jury do what all white juries do.

When Zero Dark Thirty came out I criticized it for being “too soon.”  Not in the sense that they were tapping on a wound that was too raw, rather that it was a film that was rushed into production before anyone had any real perspective on the event they were depicting and didn’t have a coherent statement to make about it.  Oddly enough I feel like in the race to be topical this movie was actually a little too late.  In the 90s or in the 2000s we could have used a reminder like this that the police aren’t always on your side and need to be kept in check sometimes, but I don’t think too many people who aren’t unreachably stubborn are going to be oblivious to that in 2017.  Detroit is certainly a well-made movie, and one that can spark at least some food for thought, but there are few real insights into what drove these cops to behave in such an extreme manner and it doesn’t offer a whole lot of advice as to how to prevent cops from behaving in such a way in the future.  It’s not a movie that will surprise its audience and it’s not a movie that will serve as much of an inspirational rally cry to fight against the forces of intolerance.  Instead we’re just given this grim two hour experience about how awful it is to be black in America when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we do need movies like that sometimes but I don’t know that we needed this one.

The Lost City of Z(4/23/2017)

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It’s always interesting to watch a good filmmaker as they pivot.  That’s what seems to be happening at the moment with James Gray, who’s not really a director I’m an expert on but whose work I know well enough that I can tell he’s in a transitional place in his work.  Gray began his career with a trilogy of crime films set on the gritty streets of New York and dealing with the Russian mafia.  He then seemed like he was going to transition into the realm of intimate contemporary character study when he made the movie Two Lovers but then he seemed to realize that that the indie film world already had more than enough intimate romance films so he switched things up again with his next film The Immigrant.  That film was another New York story but one set in 1921 and focusing on a female protagonist.  I was really fond of that movie when I saw it a couple of years ago but I’d be lying if I said that it had stuck with me as much as I had thought it would.  That movie did seem to indicate a new direction Gray would be going however as his next movie also seems to be taking a classical, if slightly modernized, approach to a familiar kind of period piece, in this case the “jungle adventure.”

That film, The Lost City of Z, is Gray’s first film to not in any way be set in New York.  The film is about a British military officer in the late 1800s/early 1900s named Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) whose career has been stunted both because he served in peacetime and because he comes from a family line that’s been previously tainted in scandal.  When an opportunity comes along to finally that would allow him to gain military rank and help overcome his family’s legacy he jumps at it and that opportunity comes in the form of working together with the Royal Geographic Society in order to survey the Amazon along the Brazilian/Bolivian border in order to settle those countries land disputes and maintain the peace.  While there he finds himself fascinated by the native populations and begins searching for evidence that would suggest that there was once a vast civilization he calls “Z” (which is pronounced “Zed” in the British fashion) in the Amazon which would prove to the other whites that that there was more to these people than it seemed.

The film is based on a recent non-fiction book called “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann and seems to largely be a pretty close re-telling of the real history of Percy Fawcett… and this is kind of a problem.  It’s easy to picture Gray reading that book with rapt attention, falling in love with the story it told, and feeling compelled to make audiences the world over as interested in Fawcett as he is.  And indeed, this is a guy who did live a fascinating life and I’m glad to have learned about him but his life does not exactly fit into a three act structure, which is not an insurmountable obstacle but it would have forced Gray to either adapt the story a little more to fit into one or found some new creative way to get around it.  Instead Gray has opted to do a very straightforward adaptation that would let the facts speak for themselves, which wasn’t necessarily the worst idea ever but it does give the film a pretty awkward through line.  It’s very much a film told in simple factual prose instead of poetry more often than not.

That should not suggest that the film doesn’t have its share of redeeming qualities.  The film is at its best when it focuses in on that “obsession” that featured in the title of the film’s source material.  This manifests itself in some kind of hokey ways at times (looking at you fortune teller) but at its heart it’s pretty interesting.  Characters in the film frequently mentions that similar lost cities had also become the fixation of the conquistadors and driving them to ruin, which conjures up images of Aguirre drifting down river surrounded by chimps, and contrasts it with Fawcett’s own obsession for a lost city.  His reasons for looking for said lost city are certainly more “woke” than those of the conquistadors but is his obsession any less self-destructive?  His motives are also a bit curious.  He’s trying to prove that South American natives were capable of building large civilizations with big structures and pottery but it’s not exactly clear in the movie why that would have been such a revelation.  Europeans were already well aware of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires at this point so what would a third civilization have really proved?  I’m sure there are answers to that question but if any of those answers are in the actual movie I think I missed them.  Still, there was something to watching Fawcett’s evolution as a humanitarian and anthropologist of sorts and I was interested to see him doing this to some extent.

Of course one of the things preventing the obsession theme from really reaching its full potential is that Charlie Hunnam’s performance is a bit weak.  I’ve never really been much of a fan of Hunnam’s work and while he’s not terrible here or anything but I don’t think he really gives this role the presence that would really make him pop from the screen and become something memorable.  Some of the adventure/travelogue elements of the film do work and manage to find a way to be interesting and entertaining without having the kind of Indiana Jones style serial action that often characterizes other jungle adventure films.  Still, even if the film is an interesting journey through the Amazon with some respect for the indigenous people, there is another movie that looms large over all this: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which was one of the best movies of last year.  For whatever The Lost City of Z does to try to be different from the colonialist narratives of this region it sure as hell isn’t that different and it also isn’t in much of a position to engage in anywhere near that movie’s level formal and narrative experimentation.  I’m not trying to just say “this movie with Robert Pattinson in it isn’t as daring as a black and white foreign film, therefore it’s bad” but it does put into perspective that there were more interesting ways to adapt this kind of material and Gray just wasn’t able to find them.

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Get Out(3/10/2017)

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Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Anyone remember that show called “On the Lot?”  This was a reality competition show from about ten years ago that was made when the networks were trying to apply the “American Idol” formula onto all sorts of random things, in this case filmmaking and it took the form of contestants making short films every week for the viewing public to vote on.  It wasn’t very good.  I bring this up because one of the most memorable things about it was a contestant named Mateen Kemet, an African-American fellow who was very interested in reflecting his political beliefs in his films.  His most memorable short on the show was for “horror movie week” in which he interpreted the theme creatively and made a movie about the anxiety that minorities feel when they’re pulled over by the police.  It was pretty interesting, certainly more memorable than every other contestant’s films even if a lily-white Fox Network show maybe wasn’t the most obvious place for biting political statements.  If I recall correctly I think it actually got a decent number of votes and he moved on to the next round but the short seemed to function better as a political statement than as a true genre film, a fact that I doubt troubled him much.  I was reminded of this obscure moment in reality television when watching the new hit horror film Get Out, which uses the language of the horror movie to look at the anxieties of being black in modern America.

The film begins in modern New York City, where an African-American man named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are planning a trip to visit her parents in upstate New York.  Chris is wary of this as visiting white people of an older generation can always go in some bad “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” directions but Rose tries to assure him that her parents aren’t like that and that they “would have gladly voted for Obama a third time if they could.”  When they get to her childhood home we meet those parents, who seem to be affable upper-middle class former hippies with all the trappings of modern progressivism.  Her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) talks rapturously about Jesse Owens and her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has a sort of earth-mother vibe going on and is apparently an accomplished therapist with an interest in hypnosis.  Things seem to be going alright in theory but something seems to be profoundly off about the place.  The parents have a pair of African American servants, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who seem oddly servile, almost inhuman.  Something’s going on and he’s not sure what.

The setup for Get Out would seem to immediately remind audiences of the 1975 feminist thriller The Stepford Wives, in which it’s revealed that the town a woman has moved into have been replacing all of its women with servile robot housewives with the not so subtle message being that society forces women to give up their individuality to meet patriarchal demands.  It wasn’t really a particularly scary movie, at least scene to scene and it’s not really a movie that all that many people actually watch all that often anymore, but it made its point pretty well and has remained something of a cultural touchstone ever since.  Get Out is similar in that it’s not a particularly frightening movie in terms of raw suspense.  People who go to this expecting to be scared by it the way they’d be scared by a James Wan or something and who have no interest in engaging in its racial messages will leave disappointed.  The film lives and dies by its allegory and to me that allegory is a bit hard to grasp.

The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (he’s the one with the hair) who are both bi-racial and much of their comedy stems from the tension of straddling the worlds of white and black.  That was the main theme of the duo’s feature film debut Keanu, which featured the likes of Keegan-Michael Key introducing some gang members to the music of George Michael.  Here Peele looks at the darker side of all this.  Malcom X once said that Southern white conservatives were like angry wolves lashing out at African Americans but that Northern white liberals were like foxes who hunt the lamb by acting friendly towards it before striking out and betraying it and believed that they were both two sides to the same coin.  Get Out seems to share this belief at least to some extent, as it is ultimately a story about two-faced liberals who put on a nice face but hold a secret agenda.  Here most of this secret racial animus takes the form of micro-aggressions: the slightly off tone that Rose’s parents take on when they see him, the stupid questions that he has to answer when attending their boujee dinner party, the agro tone that her brother takes on (which I guess isn’t that micro).

All micro-aggressions certainly seem annoying and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them, but they alone would seem more annoying than scary, but this isn’t a satire (at least it’s not just a satire) it’s a horror movie so this family’s ill-intent needs to go quite a bit further than that.  Eventually it’s revealed that they are not only less progressive than they appear but are in fact taking part in a scheme to kidnap black people and implant the minds of the elderly white people into their bodies in order to reverse the aging process… and this is where the movie’s allegory starts to lose me.  In the film white liberals and their micro-aggressions aren’t merely clueless people who aren’t as enlightened as they think they are: they’re evil.  They aren’t blind to their own racism, in fact they’re perfectly aware of it and are quite deliberately hiding it so that they can actively exploit and harm the black victims they’re luring to their spaces.  What exactly is this next step supposed to be a stand-in for?  What end game is the film positing is the result of the sort of benevolent liberal racism the movie is attacking?

Perhaps the suggestion is that by trying to incorporate these black people into white society they’re trying to rob them of their culture and heritage and turn them into “Oreos,” but Chris doesn’t really present himself as being particularly “black” in his mannerisms to begin with and the earlier micro-aggressions rarely seem to show all that much hostility towards his culture.  Perhaps the film is suggesting that white people all secretly want to be black out of some primal jealously, but that kind of thing seems to be more the domain of teenagers who want to emulate rappers than elderly people who pine for whatever slight athletic advantages they have, and again this doesn’t seem to be at the root of the micro-aggressions that were occurring earlier.  I think the more plausible message would seem to be that these white people only like black people insomuch as they can use them as props in order to make themselves seem cooler and more progressive, but if that’s their ultimate end-goal why would they be keeping their current brainwashed black people as servants?  That would seem to be the opposite of that goal.

I went into this movie pretty earnestly trying to get to the bottom of Peele’s critiques of the white liberal racism but I must say by the movie’s end I felt like I was left with more questions than answers.  I feel like what the movie may be missing is some model of what the “right kind” of white liberal looks like.  In the film every one of the white people turns out to be two-faced and awful both before and after their full motivations are revealed, and yet I’m not entirely sure what they could have done not to be judged as such.  Early in the film Rose is depicted as being a privileged fool when she stands up to a cop on Chris’ behalf and yet later she’s depicted as a traitor for failing to stand up on his behalf when other people around her start asking inappropriate questions and her brother starts acting like a dick.  People who go out of their way not to seem racist are believed to be hiding racial animus, people who do the opposite and make their racism clear are also obviously awful, and people who try not to bring up race at all are likely to also be seen as conspicuously two faced.

The movie perhaps inadvertently makes being white something of the ultimate catch-22 in which one can never really be without sin… and maybe that is a legitimate point of view and I can also see why Peele wouldn’t want to give white audiences and easy out, but there’s something rather hopeless about the film’s view of race in America.  Again, Jordan Peele is the product of an inter-racial marriage and he is himself married to a white woman, clearly he doesn’t really think it’s impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony and yet he still ends the movie with Chris killing the “white bitch” and then returning to his black friend and by extension the black community, presumably never to make the mistake of going to a white girls’ parents’ house again.  That’s pretty damn dark, and again, I’m sure Peele isn’t really a segregationist and that I’m maybe taking this to some symbolic extreme but what other conclusion am I to come to from this?

Of course maybe I’m just making the white boy mistake of trying to make this about me. This is a movie about a black man told from the perspective of a black man, maybe it’s a big mistake to be looking at it as some kind of how to manual about how to be a white guy and how not to be a white guy.  It’s more likely that the movie is simply trying to make you feel empathy for this guy and give you an idea of how and why he’s so ill at ease in these elite white settings, but then I have to go back to the point I made two pages ago: the movie isn’t that scary.  I feel like there would have been more tension to the whole situation if the film had done the Rosemary’s Baby thing and left it ambiguous for much of the run-time as to whether there was truly a threat here or whether Chris was being paranoid but with the film’s opening scene and the absolutely bizarre way the black servants behave it’s clear that Chris’ concerns are more than valid and you’re actually ahead of him in realizing that he’s in mortal danger.  Otherwise there just isn’t a whole lot in the way of really scary scenes here.  There’s a jump scare or two complete with musical stings and things do start to get a little gory at the end and there are one or two legitimately suspenseful scenes here or there but I do think Jordan Peele’s inexperience behind the camera shows and he’s not terribly elegant in executing on some of the horror sequences.

As of now Get Out is sitting at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with 176 positive review and only one negative review, meaning that if I was deemed worthy of contributing to that website’s aggregator I’d be sitting alone with Armond fucking White in not being terribly impressed with the movie.  That’s not good company to be in.  Honestly though that score kind of makes me think there really is something wrong with the movie.  I’d think that if a movie was truly provocative then unanimous praise should be the last thing it wants to receive.  Movies that break boundaries and tell harsh truths should divide people and get people riled up and if all the do is receive praise from the very people it’s speaking out against then something’s wrong.  In the case of Get Out I think Peele has oddly found a way to appeal to all sides in all the wrong ways.  Conservatives, who tend to hate latte liberals even more than black people, will watch it and say “see, those liberals are the real racists” and will proceed with their usual deplorableness secure in knowing that they’re no worse than the other guys.  Liberals will watch it and vocally approve of it lest they be accused of being the kind of two-faced liberal the movie is out to attack.  And finally the actual minorities will watch it and appreciate that a movie is finally acknowledging their lived experience.  That last reaction is fair enough, I’m certainly in no position to argue with that, but reviews are meant to be a personal reaction and I personally don’t think the movie worked for me.  As a horror movie I found it limp and if it set out to prove that liberal racism was just as bad as overt racism, well, consider me unconvinced… I don’t know what that says about me.

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Hidden Figures(2/12/2017)

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In general I’m a pretty open-minded filmgoer.  I bristle when people ask me “what kind of movies do you watch” expecting me to name one genre or other when in fact I think any “kind” of movie can work well if done correctly.  That having been said if there’s one kind of movie I have no use for it’s Hollywood movies whose only reason to exist is to be quote unquote “inspirational.”   You know the movies I’m talking about: Rudy, October Sky, Remember the Titans, Patch Adams, Seabiscuit… basically any time a movie that says “based on the inspiring true story” on the poster you can count me out.  To me these movies tend to be artistically bankrupt enterprises that actively avoid stylistic flourish, nuance, and challenging ideas in order to make themselves palatable as possible to the most basic of audiences, the kind of people who think going to Tony Robbins seminars is a good use of their time.  What is unfortunate is that Hollywood has recently begun using the “inspirational true story” playbook when they try to tackle movies about the Civil Rights movement.  I’m thinking in particular of movies like Red Tails, 42, and The Butler which tackle a very prickly subject in a very safe and neutered way, almost feeling like glorified children’s movies more than great cinema, and that’s very much the vibe I got out of the new film Hidden Figures which depicts the lives of African American women working at NASA during the 60s.

The film is set in 1961 and focuses on three women who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, which was an essential field center in NASA’s efforts to put a man in space.  One of these women, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is functionally the supervisor of a department of African American women mathematicians who work there as computers (which in this context means “one who computes”) but has been refused the official designataion of supervisor by the uncaring bureaucracy at NASA.  Another, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to break out of being a computer and become an engineer but in many ways can’t because she’s being barred from taking required night school courses by the segregated school system.  But the woman the film spends the most time looking at is Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a particularly talented computer who is selected to work with the Space Task Group led by a guy named Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) which is in charge of highly complex mathematics which will be critical in launching John Glenn into space and bringing him back safely.

As you can probably guess from paragraph one, Hidden Figures was not a movie made for someone with my film tastes.  In fact I avoided the movie for a while, but with all the Oscar nominations it’s received I came to the conclusion that I should probably give it a chance.  I do think the movie has a pretty solid cast led by Taraji P. Henson, who started her career playing these young highly energetic roles and does a pretty good job transitioning into playing a character who’s a bit more “square” here.  Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are also good here and the assortment of white people they found to surround these white people also do a pretty good job of playing what you’d call “low key racism.”  In general the movie does a pretty good job of keeping the focus on discrimination that’s a little more subtle and more applicable to the kind of issues people are still facing today.  The exception to this is the film’s obsession with segregated bathrooms, which apparently isn’t exactly accurate to what these women even went through at the time and feels like the kind of “safely in the past” racism that movies like this often focus on.

The film was directed by a guy named Theodore Melfi, a white guy previously known for making a Bill Murray movie no one cared about called St. Vincent.  The guy seems competent I guess, but he does very little to make the film really stand out.  I guess he makes decent use of period music and should be given some credit for the performances, but this is cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking to be sure.  All in all this just seems like the same safe civil rights story we’ve seen so many times before.  I suppose it deserves credit for coming up with a particular story of the civil rights movement but it treats the story with the same whiff of cliché that most of the other civil rights biopics of the Red Tails variety.  That’s not a terrible thing exactly, I guess children need to learn about the civil rights movement somehow, but the fact that this thing has become a major box office hit and awards contender suggests to me that there are a lot of people settling for a rather remedial take on civil rights.  There are better and deeper movies on the subject and grown-ups should be able buck up and see movies about race that are more challenging than this.

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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.

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