Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi(12/14/2017)

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

It’s been about two years since the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but the hype-train leading up to it almost feels a bit like a distant memory.  That movie’s very existence almost seemed like a miracle, like something we were never going to see until George Lucas passed away, or that if it did exist under Lucas’ eye it would have been met with incredible suspicion.  But the movie did come out, all signs pointed to it being the movie everyone wanted and somehow some way it basically lived up to the hype.  Critics like it, audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of all time at the domestic box office.  I liked it too, I didn’t love it beyond reason, but it was a very solid blockbuster with some great new characters and a firm grasp of what a Star Wars movie should probably look like in the 21st Century.  Prior to its release I greeted The Force Awakens with cautious optimism but I’ll admit I came pretty close to getting caught up in the hype as well on some level.  Oddly though, with its direct follow-up The Last Jedi my excitement has been a bit muted despite all signs pointing to it being and even bigger deal than its predecessor.  This might have simply been the result of me being a little too diligent in avoiding spoilers for my own good.  At a certain point all I’d really known about the movie was that initial “breathe” trailer, which maybe wasn’t the best put together piece of advertising ever.  Still, it’s Star Wars, and when Star Wars comes around you show up for it.

The film picks up not too long after the events of The Force Awakens and despite having had their super-weapon base destroyed in the last movie it seems that the First Order have largely taken over the galaxy and the resistance against them is on its last legs.  In the opening scenes the resistance are evacuating from their last base and escape to light speed just in time to avoid destruction.  They think they’re in the clear, only to suddenly have the First Order have found a way to track people through hyperspace and suddenly appear right behind them.  Realizing that another jump to light speed would only waste the last of their fuel, the resistance hits their thrusters and diverts shields to the rear, which allows their faster armada to stay just ahead of their pursuers as long as their fuel lasts.  Desperate, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan for Finn to leave the flotilla along with his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and travel to a separate planet to find a codebreaker who will help them infiltrate the lead imperial ship and turn off their ability to track the rebels when they jump to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reunited with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To as per the final moments of The Force Awakens only to discover that Luke has become bitter about the ways of the Jedi and has no interest in training another apprentice.  Persistent, Rey proclaims she will not be leaving the planet without Luke or at least without some lesson, but she’s also become troubled by strange visions she’s been having of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), visions where she starts to wonder if he’s looking back at her.

Let’s start with that inciting incident.  One of the problems I had with The Force Awakens is that it seemed pretty unclear just what this First Order was and how they managed to take over the galaxy in such a short time from this republic that our heroes had fought so hard to establish in the first movies.  This problem sort of persists here with us learning in the opening scroll that despite taking a big L in the first movie the First Order had become dominant in the galaxy and were now more or less in the position the Empire was in in the original trilogy.  This felt a bit odd given that the Resistance did seem to still have a pretty decent foothold in The Force Awakens but here they seem even weaker than the scrappy rebellion of the original movies and are so small and contained that they are confined to what appear to be four spaceships.  The idea of those four spaceships getting into a sort of low speed battle of attrition with star destroyers as they just barely outrun them is a cool one and I can imagine something like that having the makings of a good episode of Battlestar Galactica or something but it’s a little hard to believe in this context.  Why doesn’t the First Order simply call for re-enforcements to cut them off from the other side?  They’re running the galaxy now and they have gigantic armies don’t they?  For that matter what’s stopping them from simply sending more Tie-Fighters try to outflank them like Kylo Ren did early on?

But okay, it’s a cool little tense scenario and I can work with it, but the tenseness of that scenario is something of a double edged sword as it makes the danger feel really immediate and pressing and that really takes the fun out of any sort of delay along the way.  It makes it harder to sympathize with Luke’s hesitance to join in initially, but the bigger problem is that it makes it kind of infuriating to watch Finn and Rose horse around (literally and figuratively) while on their side mission to the decadent planet of Canto Bight.  This whole section of the movie is frankly a disaster.  I might have enjoyed exploring this decadent space resort but everything’s supposed to be on the line at that point in the story and that is not the time for them to be exploring the lighter adventure aspects of the franchise and especially not when they’re this poorly executed.  That space horse escape scene was decidedly not worth the effect it has on the narrative and the fact that they were stupid enough to put their whole operation in danger just because they couldn’t wait to find a parking lot was dumb and so was the coincidence of finding themselves in the same jail cell as a code-breaker who is good enough to help them with their rather specific mission.

Granted, as new characters go I rather liked Rose and thought Kelly Marie Tran brought something interesting to the table in terms of Star Wars characters and didn’t just feel like an echo of or reaction to previous Star Wars personalities like so many of the characters from The Force Awakens did.  It had more mixed feelings about Benecio Del Toro’s character DJ, I did enjoy his interactions with Finn where he debated the morality of the resistance but I did not like the way he just coincidentally entered the movie by showing up in the right jail cell and didn’t believe that Finn would have risked hiring him for such a critical mission.  Poe Dameron, though technically established in The Force Awakens only really starts to get significant screen time here.  I wouldn’t say I disliked Dameron in the previous film, but nothing about the character particularly impressed me, he just seemed like this very generic hero and given what we’ve been given here he almost seems like a parody of the white male heroes that have historically been at the centers of space operas and serials like this.  In many ways this movie seems to have been made to pull the rug out from under him but it doesn’t quite have the nerve to really go in for the killshot.  I did appreciate how effectively the movie tricks the audience into going along with his insubordination and makes you assume the ends will justify the means but it also doesn’t want him to live with the consequences once this blows up in his face.  This guy was essentially gambling with the fate of the galaxy and lost; he got hundreds if not thousands of resistance members killed, and yet just a couple hours later he still has a leadership position in the resistance and is still being treated as a hero.

The material with Rey and Luke on the other hand generally fared a little bit better but isn’t without its own flaws.  Mark Hamill is quite good in the movie and makes a compelling case that he should have been getting more work all these years.  That said, unlike Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher it’s a little hard to reconcile the older Luke Skywalker with the fresh-faced young man from the original films.  That’s explained to some extent in the backstory about his history with Kylo, which is shown in what I believe is the first instance of real flashback in the history of Star Wars.  This backstory does a pretty good job of explaining why Luke is bitter and ready to end the Jedi order, but I don’t necessarily get why he opted to fuck off to a remote planet instead of staying behind to help clean up the mess he made.  Regardless, his unwillingness to train Rey now that she’s sought him out on the planet is understandable given the track-record we’ve seen so far of highly powerful people getting trained late in life that we’ve seen so far.  In fact I feel like the question of what qualifies as Jedi is kind of an inconsistency throughout the Star Wars canon at this point.  The prequels made the Jedi out to be these warrior monk samurai who achieve their status through years of hard work and study, which probably scans best with how these sorts of things work in real life.  The original trilogy doesn’t exactly contradict this as it seems to suggest that force sensitive people can go their entire lives not even knowing they have powers, but it does seem to suggest that in a pinch a few months of running through the jungle with Yoda will probably be good enough.

In this new Abrams trilogy it feels more like being a Jedi is just something you can sort of pick up on even if you’ve never been trained at all.  Here Leia is apparently able to use the force to survive in the vacuum of space despite having presumably rejected Jedi training (a truly odd scene if ever there was one) and in the last movie Rey could apparently fight off a trained sith in a lightsaber fight just on instinct and here she’s similarly able to take on all the knights of ren about as effectively as Kylo could.  In the last movie I gave them some benefit of the doubt about this in hopes that there would be some explanation for that in the sequels but here they seem to actively suggest there is no explanation.  Yet Luke still insists at the end that Rey is going to become a Jedi somehow despite having not received any real training, losing her one possible mentor, and having not even been left with some books to study.  And if training is truly this irrelevant to what being a powerful Jedi is all about why exactly does Luke feel guilty about having trained Kylo or think it might be dangerous to similarly train Rey?  Doesn’t exactly make sense for someone who thinks she’s such a natural that she can just be a Jedi autodidact.

The Rey-related elements of this section of the movie generally work quite well though.  It’s pretty easy to relate to her frustration with Luke and her palpable desire to train while on that island works pretty well.  More importantly her strange force-induced psychological bond with Kylo Ren is quite effective and you can really feel a palpable tension in them.  These also lead to what is rather plainly the strongest section of the movie: the confrontation between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke.  Andy Serkis’ Snoke is great here and throughout the movie and really redeems what had seemed like a rather odd element in The Force Awakens and while I was sad to see him go I will say that I was pretty genuinely surprised that they were willing to split him right in half right here in the second movie and the ensuing fight with the guards was also a really good.  It wasn’t just the Kylo/Rey stuff that was working well here; all the storylines converge quite nicely during this section of the film.  Poe’s mutiny was very exciting and tense, Finn and Rose’s storyline finally picks up as they sneak onto the ship and get captured, and the moment when Holdo does a light speed kamikaze run is obviously incredible.  In fact the movie so clearly peaks at this point that it’s kind of odd that it keeps on going for another twenty minutes or so and while there’s good stuff in the battle on Crait it certainly feels less involved than what came before and almost feels like something that should have happened in a latter movie.

The big complaint about The Force Awakens was of course that it played things too safe to the point that it almost felt like a re-skinned remake of the original Star Wars.  To some extent this sequel also seems to echo its predecessors.  The way it splits up an aspiring Jedi trying to train on a remote planet with her friends being on the run from bad guys is not unlike the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and the way Finn and Rey are betrayed is not unlike what Lando does to Han and Leia in that movie.  And yet “playing it too safe” is certainly not something you can really accuse The Last Jedi of doing given that it pretty deliberately does the opposite of what you’d expect at various moments, sometimes to the point of underwhelming.  Most controversially the film kills off the mysterious Snoke without so much as trying to explain who he was or where he came from and also rather casually giving the most mundane explanation for Rey’s parentage possible.  One could blame Star Wars fans for obsessing over those two mysteries and setting themselves up for disappointment, but to that I call bullshit.  The fans had every reason to ponder over those mysteries given that they were questions that J.J. Abrams quite intentionally left open, more than inviting people to theorize about them for two years.  If he doesn’t have a good answer for something he maybe shouldn’t set it up as a mystery… has he learned nothing from “Lost.”

There is perhaps something of a meta-textual reading to all this.  Leaving the old ways behind seems to be one to the film’s most consistent and on the nose themes.  Luke talks about letting the Jedi die out until sort of changing his mind, Kylo literally kills his mentor and talks about leaving “the old ways” behind, Yoda’s force ghost literally burns the old order to the ground.  The whole thing seems to be some sort of metaphor for the series itself breaking away from its usual traditions and framing it through a sort of Silicon Valley lens of “disruption” as necessary for progress.  It’s kind of a wild message to be delivering given that their last Star Wars movie was nostalgia-tinged to the point where it inspired the phrase “memberberries,” and to go straight from something like that to something like this which is flipping over tables and burning things to the ground causes a certain degree of whiplash.  A lot of people are praising them for being bold and taking risks, but taking risks isn’t an inherently praiseworthy thing; you also need to make the right risks, the ones that actually pay off, and all too often I don’t think the direction that Abrams and Johnson chose go pays off.

Beyond meta readings of the movie the more overt messages of The Last Jedi are all over the place and at times contradictory.  In his ghostly appearance (which was poorly executed incidentally, I think Frank Oz has lost his gift at doing this voice) tells Luke to let the old order burn and Kylo Ren also destroys the Sith order, and yet by the end Luke defiantly declares that he won’t be the last Jedi.  Finn’s story ends with Rose preventing his kamikaze run and telling him that they’re going to win by saving what they love rather than fighting what they hate, whatever that means, but this more or less contradicts a similar act of self-sacrifice that Holdo had more or less been valorized for committing and if not for the unexpected intervention of Luke’s force projection this act of “saving what they love” would have done nothing more than to doom the galaxy.  Finn’s lesson on the other hand is supposed to be that he needs to stop taking unnecessary risks and quit acting impulsively, but as stated previously the film never really engages in the consequences of this.  The overall theme might be something more general along the lines of “you need to learn from your failures,” but a lot of these failures seem more the kind of failures that kill you than make you stronger.  By the end of the movie the resistance (which seemed oddly small to begin with) has been reduced to the point where they can all fit into the Millennium Falcon.  It’s implied that the true victory is that the galaxy is now “inspired” by their stand, but I don’t see why they would be given how much they screwed up, the events of the last movie seem a hell of a lot more “inspirational” to me.  The only real hope to be found in this ending is that their opponent seems kind of incompetent and is now in the hands of a petulant child who got his ass kicked by a novice in the last movie and got played for a chump in this one.

So is this even a good movie?  When I first left my the theater I would have said “yes” even though I was a bit baffled by what I’d just seen.  While watching the movie disappointment had set in early on and there continued to be moments I just did not like, but there were also moments that sort of made up for that.  The characters remained fairly likable and there were action scenes which gave me that excited Star Wars feel.  However, the film’s general messiness and tonal confusion remained and as time has gone on its flaws have stuck with me more than its moments of excitement.  I could go on and on about why Rian Johnson’s “burn it all down” attitude annoys me and why his refusal to engage in the mysteries of the previous film is a dereliction of duty, but that isn’t really the problem here so much as a series of smaller offenses just sort of drown the movie.  It’s less a death of a thousand cuts than a injury of 250 or so cuts.  I do not, however, want to go too deep into the realms of hyperbole and suggest that I hate the movie or that there aren’t plenty of redeeming qualities to it.  I suspect that a lot of the things I found to be gaping flaws will seem a lot more forgivable to the more casual Star Wars fans who just wants to see a lot of lightsaber fights and space ship battles, but the movie does not hold up to closer analysis and its rather flippant attitude towards a filmmaking legacy that means so much to so many people is pretty hard to take.  I’ll give the movie one thing: my dislike of it has been a keen reminder of how much this franchise meant to me in the first place.

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Darkest Hour(12/9/2017)

Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a second shall we?  Oldman is an actor who I wasn’t introduced to through one of his actual film roles but rather through online rumors that he would be the perfect person to play Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2.  That was a role that eventually went to Alfred Molina, but such speculation was not uncommon at the time because to a lot of people Oldman was someone who would be perfect for pretty much any role and anytime there was a high profile role that needed to be filled his name seemed to come up in the rumor mill, to the point where even Homer Simpson once insisted that Oldman would be the perfect person to play him in a movie.  Part of this might have just been Oldman’s tendency to show up in movies that were popular with the young male internet dwellers of the early 2000s but it also has a lot to do with the fact that he had this odd tendency to be both a hammy scenery chewing villain in movies like Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Fifth Element but also a dedicatedly chameleonic presence in certain roles like his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK or Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy.  The fact that he kind of stayed under the radar despite appearing in some fairly popular films was a help in this and gave him a certain cool factor.  The odd thing is, Oldman seemed to age surprisingly quickly.  Despite the internet’s obsession with him he sort of disappeared during the 2000s outside of his supporting roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises and seemed to re-emerge in the 2010s as a seasoned British veteran in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now he’d doing the ultimate British veteran move: playing Winston Churchill in an Oscar season biopic called Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour is set in the May and June of 1940 and begins with parliament calling for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for his inability to stand up to Hitler.  France was on the verge of collapse and the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to assist in the defense of France was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais; decisive action was needed.  Unable to replace Chamberlain with his chosen successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the Tories instead turned to the one person in their party that the opposition party would accept: the outspoken hawk Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) despite the general distaste that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has for him over his various previous failures.  With the success of the Dunkirk evacuation very much in doubt Churchill had one very difficult decision to make: will he consider hearing Germany’s terms for surrender and call for a cease-fire or risk a potential slaughter and defeat if they aren’t able to find a way to get those men off the beach in time.

When the movie Lincoln came out a few years ago I felt like it encountered a lot of resistance less for what it was and more for what people assumed it would be.  I think what they assumed it would be is a movie not unlike what Darkest Hour is actually like.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie is a hagiography it’s certainly a movie that’s been made for people who are already very much believers in Churchill’s legacy.  The film isn’t afraid to show him as a drunken old man at times but it’s not very interested in challenging his worth as a leader.  The film actually serves as a sort of “Last Temptation of Churchill” and ponders what would have happened if the man whose entire legacy was built on his uncompromising certainty in the importance of fighting Nazism had considered surrendering rather than fighting.  I’m not sure I buy that this was something that Churchill really dithered over as much as is shown and I also doubt there was really as much pressure being put on him to do so as is depicted here and the sequence it invents to depict how he made his final decision is frankly corny and ridiculous.

Gary Oldman is of course really good here, possibly too good.  The film is very interested in showing some of Churchill’s vices, which is important as you want to illustrate why so many of Churchill’s colleagues and rivals doubted him at this point.  Oldman is almost too good at making Churchill seems like a mumbling drunken old man, to the point where you really don’t get how this guy ever pulled himself together enough to be this beloved figure that he is.  There are some other solid actors here like Ben Mendelsohn, who has the unenviable task of playing King George VI after Colin Firth more or less defined the role of “Bertie” in The King’s Speech but does a pretty good if not wildly memorable job just the same.  Ronald Pickup is also quite good here as Neville Chamberlain, a tragic figure that I almost would have wanted to see at the center of a film like this and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.  Lily James is also good here as Churchill’s secretary, but I’m not exactly sure why her character is in the movie.  She seems like she’s meant to be an audience surrogate but the movie isn’t actually from her perspective most of the time and in many ways she kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay where it was.

Darkest Hour isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a poorly timed movie.  A year or two ago a movie about the political machinations going on in the background of the Dunkirk evacuation would have seemed like fresh ground for a film but Christopher Nolan kind of made a movie this year called Dunkirk which showed the evacuation itself in visceral detail.  Darkest Hour by contrast feels like little more than a crappy sub-plot that Nolan knew better than to put in Dunkirk to keep from slowing it down.  The experiences of soldier’s fighting for their lives is always going to be more cinematic and interesting than the old white men bickering in dark, sometimes literally smoke-filled, rooms.  And even if Nolan hadn’t made that film earlier I’m still not sure that 2017 is the best year to try to get audiences to root for a large and somewhat unconventional conservative leader to stick to his guns while in the presence of establishment doubters.  The bigger problem here though is just an absence of anything overly compelling.  Director Joe Wright adds a couple of interesting flourishes but does nothing to write home about and the script is not insightful enough about its subject to really add much to the conversation about him.

Wonderstruck(10/29/2017)

 

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

While I like to stay focused on movies themselves when talking about them, there do occasionally arise certain situations where distractions happen while watching movies that I feel obligated to disclose.  In this case I had the odd experience of showing up to a movie I barely knew anything about to find that it was playing subtitles at the bottom.  These were not subtitles translating a foreign language as the film’s spoken dialogue is in English, rather these were captions intended for the deaf and hard of hearing which transcribed every word of dialogue and also described all the sound effects and music ques.  They were annoying.  Really though my distraction had less to do with the captions themselves so much as my confusion as to why they were there.  Had I accidentally walked into a special screening of this intended for the hard of hearing?  Should I have waited for the next screening?  Why wasn’t I told ahead of time this was a special screening?  Or did the film’s director, Todd Haynes, actually intend for the film to have these caption given that it turned out to be a story about deaf people?  Doing research after the fact I took another look at the theater’s website I discovered that they were in fact turning on these “open captions” for every screening of the film, possibly in response to an online petition that is demanding that theaters do so.  It’s a fact that they apparently saw no need to alert their customers to outside of some fine print next to other “amenities” like reserved seating.  Some simple notice that this was going to happen would have gone a long way toward letting me just relax rather than stewing about this during the first act of the movie.

The film follows two children who live in two different times and places and whose fates seem increasingly intertwined as the film goes on.  The first is a boy living in the Midwest circa 1977 named Ben (Oakes Fegley) whose mother has recently died and has a burning desire to track down his long lost father.  When fate intercedes in the form of having him struck by lightning and left deaf he decides to take matters into his own hands and run away to New York City in order to follow a lead that could help him find his father.  This is intercut with the story of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl living in New Jersey circa 1927.  This girl has never been taught sign language and her father seems to have very little patience with her.  Eventually this reaches a breaking point and she runs away and boards the ferry to New York City in hopes of finding her favorite silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  Both characters paths lead them to the American Museum of Natural History and specifically an exhibit there called a Cabinet of Wonders where a souvenir book called “Wonderstruck” is sold.

Wonderstruck is based on an illustrated juvenile novel of the same title by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the book that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was based on.  Selznick apparently has some pretty strong interests because there are definitely some commonalities between the two.  Both works seem to have an interest in silent films, both are about children, both have a sort of whimsical magical realism at their center, and both are very interested in fate resolving wrongs and reuniting people.  Let’s start with the silent film thing.  Early on in the 1927 section we see the deaf girl go to the movies and watch a fictional silent film and upon leaving the theater see a sign advertising that the theater is about to install a sound system and begin playing “talkies.”  This may have been the inspiration for the whole captioning thing at my theater and the fact that one more comfort is being taken away from her acts as a reasonable catalyst for her trying to run away.  It also serves a purpose to bring up silent film during this section because the scenes in 1927 take on a lot of the language of silent cinema.  The dialogue and sound effects in these scenes are dropped in the film to mimic the character’s affliction, but the non-diegetic musical score persists.  The sections are also in black and white and many of the actors do take on the somewhat exaggerated pantomime associated with silent cinema.  The scenes are not, however, a complete recreation of 1920s film style along the lines of something like The Artist and certain more modern techniques do persist.  There are no title cards in these scenes and the film maintains its widescreen presentation and continues to use camera-work that is 21st Century in nature.

That silent film style is pretty cool and the movie’s look at late 70s New York in the other sections is also pretty well rendered.  Todd Haynes certainly directs the film well and it’s generally pretty enjoyable to watch in the moment and up until the moment it ended I thought it was a pretty good piece of work.  However, I was not satisfied by the film’s ending and the more I thought about it the more I think the problems that led to be underwhelmed were baked into the film’s entire plot.  Central to the film is some sort of magical force that’s driving its characters to reunite at the end.  The magical force gives Ben the clues he needs, seemingly provides him a guide in New York, and even has him struck by lightning to spark his journey.  The film surrounds this magical force with whimsy and clearly sees it as a benevolent force setting fate into motion, but if you think about it this magic causes way more harm than good.  For one thing, the film couches Ben’s decision to run away from what appears to be a perfectly loving aunt in a whole lot of romanticism and then has seemingly no regard for the panic that Ben’s little runaway adventure is probably causing back home.  That’s perhaps forgivable given the film’s point of view but it becomes more and more clear that this “amazing” revelation the film is leading towards is not worth all the trouble that this divine intervention is causing.

At the film’s end Ben does not get his hearing back and is disfigured seemingly for life and his aunt presumably worried sick, and for what?  For his trouble he learns about a grandmother he was never looking for, gets a friend he probably won’t be spending much time with once he returns home, and I guess he can say he had an adventurous week in New York when he was a kid.  Did he need to be struck deaf by fate in order for any of this to happen?  I don’t see why.  The fact that he didn’t know who his grandmother was in the first place is odd, the film doesn’t give a particularly good explanation why this is meant to be some hidden secret.  What’s more there’s no particular reason why Ben couldn’t have come to this revelation in a less dramatic way.  There’s no real time limit on finding out who his father is and we aren’t given much of a reason why his aunt couldn’t just bring him to New York to find this bookstore instead of having to be sparked into running away to do everything on his own.  A lot of this isn’t readily apparent, firstly because the film’s supposedly happy ending arrives abruptly before Ben returns to his previous life having been permanently disfigured in order to learn some things that won’t really affect him in the grand scheme of things, and secondly because we as the audience get answers to questions that we have and are thus probably more satisfied by everything than the people who actually need to live with the consequences of all this should be.

Having said all that I don’t want to be completely dismissive of Wonderstruck even if I think the story is kind of daft.  The 1927 sections in particular are worth watching even if it sort of peters out towards the end.  The film also employs some interesting techniques involving puppetry and panorama towards its ending to explain a lot of the backstory in a way that doesn’t feel like an exposition dump and almost distracts form the aforementioned story problems.  This is of course nominally a family movie, which perhaps complicates how it’s assessed.  If you weigh it against some of the other movies aimed at that audience it is noticeably more artful than the competition despite its problems and some of its flaws might not be as apparent to younger audiences who might buy into the film’s whimsy rather than see it as a strange crutch.  However, when compared against other Todd Haynes films or against the movies that Todd Haynes films are usually compared against.  There are definitely worse movies to see than Wonderstruck, but I still can’t forgive it for its occasional laziness or for its ultimate pointlessness.

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.

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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