It(9/9/2017)


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

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War for the Planet of the Apes(7/14/2017)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little.  When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes.  However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.”  This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole.  It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus.  Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are.  This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone.  Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead.  Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted.  As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place.  These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.

As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper.  I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them.  I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys.  Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren.  There’s almost none of that here.  I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human.  With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain.  To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.

On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better.  This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point.  Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera.  This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths.  So the film is great visually but what about the substance?  Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception.  The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.

For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end.  I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea.  That’s not a huge deal though really.  My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t.  Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say.  Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow.  Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.

The Beguiled(7/4/2017)

This review contains spoilers

I think it’s fair to say I’ve had something of a hot and cold relationship with the work of Sofia Coppola, one that has not always been in line with the rest of the critics.  I liked her debut feature The Virgin Suicides plenty and like most people I liked her breakthrough film Lost in Translation quite a bit though I maybe don’t quite put it into the same lofty realms of greatness that some of its bigger fans have placed it in.  I was not, however, a fan of her 2006 film Marie Antoinette at all and while I haven’t revisited it in a while I don’t think my opinion on that would change much.  I got even less out of her follow-up film Somewhere, a film I have actually never finished watching, so I’ll refrain from further comment about it.  Oddly enough though, I actually liked her last film The Bling Ring more than a lot of critics did, possibly just because my expectations were maybe a little lower than a lot of people’s.  Truth be told, I think the expectation game has frequently worked against Coppola.  People expected Marie Antoinette to be an attack on the vapidity of the upper class, it instead ends up being a defense of its protagonist’s naiveté (one that doesn’t even end with a beheading), and people are disappointed.  People expect The Bling Ring to be an attack on teen celebrity worship, it ends up essentially being a more traditional look at millennial ennui, and people are disappointed.   Coming out of Cannes there seems to have been a similar complaint against her latest film The Beguilled, in part because critics seem to have wanted something a bit pulpier and more outrageous than what we got.

The film is set in Virginia in the middle of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school that has been largely abandoned save for the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), one teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five pupils.  One day one of the younger students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is scrounging in the woods when she stumbles upon a Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who is wounded and separated from his troops behind enemy lines.  She decides to bring him back to the school and Martha agrees to patch him up and make sure he’s healed before they attempt to turn him in to the local confederates.  Realizing that he’s something of a captive McBurney starts angling to manipulate his captors and find ways to endear himself to them.  It doesn’t go smoothly.

The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel called “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan, which more than likely would have fallen into obscurity had it not been previously adapted into a film in 1971 (also called The Beguiled) which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood in the role now played by Colin Ferrell.  That original film is not a great film or even a particularly good one so much as it’s an interesting artifact or sorts and it’s not overly popular and is mainly just discussed as a stepping stone in the evolution of Eastwood’s onscreen persona.  This would in many ways make this an ideal subject for remake as it isn’t an untouchable classic and there’s certainly room for improvement.  On top of that this is a story with a certain set of… let’s say “sensitive themes” which could make for an interesting update.  The original film is, after all, the work of two of the most masculine people in film history in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the very same people who would later that same year make Dirty Harry.  As such it would seem that, in the hands of a director who has been widely praised for adding a distinctly feminine touch to cinema, a remake of such a film would be a noticeably subverted adaptation.  There is indeed a little of that here, but I was actually surprised at how much Coppola actually didn’t change.

The crux of what makes this story interesting is that it inverts the usual gender power dynamics.  In this house, which seems almost entirely isolated from the outside world, the man present is wounded, outnumbered, and in a position where he’ll be sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp if he displeases the women.  In his desperation he’s left with the one option that women are often left with in literature: to use sex appeal as a weapon.  McBurney quickly assesses that the women in this school are rather thirsty and quickly engages in a degree of flirtation with them, especially with the relatively age appropriate ones.  It’s not particularly clear how much of this macking is done because of his own sexual desires and how much of it is done out of self-preservation but as the movie goes on all the games he plays with these women’s emotions become increasingly high stakes and start to backfire and he eventually tries to take back power in more direct ways, which also backfires eventually.  All of this is true of both the 1971 version as well as the remake, the differences are mostly a matter of focus.  Specifically the love triangle (love square) between McBurney, Martha, Edwina, Alicia is actually expanded on in the original film and because of this it’s less ambiguous (though not entirely) that Martha’s decision to amputate McBurney’s leg was out of jealousy rather than medical necessity.  This subtle shift has the effect of making the movie a bit less salacious and also justifies some of the women’s actions, but also makes the revelation that McBurney is sleeping with Alicia (who’s named Carol in the original) kind of come out of nowhere.

That’s a change but not really a major one.  Instead it seems that the appeal here is less a personal or political shift and more just the usual coat of paint that modern remakes of older films are given.  Were I of the belief that the 1971 version of The Beguiled were a particularly well-crafted movie to begin with I might have been less receptive to this, but that movie feels less “vintage” than simply “dated.”  Coppola ups the production values noticeably for the sets and the photography that she and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd bring to the film is excellent.  The movie was shot on 35mm and a lot of the scenes in it are lit by candlelight very effectively.  The casting is also an improvement this time around.  Clint Eastwood was probably miscast in the original movie and he’s said as much in interviews about it and Colin Ferrell probably works a little better in this role.  The women are all a little better here as well with actresses like Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Elle Fanning all bringing a lot to their roles and the younger actresses also doing well in the movie.

The Beguiled is an interesting case in that one’s enjoyment of it will likely be dependent in what you expect from it and your willingness to let it operate on its own terms.  Given that this source material with a rather loaded premise that’s rife for dramatic revision I suspect a lot of critics are going to go in expecting something a little more radical and will be disappointed as a result.  Those going in expecting something that operates on the same salacious and borderline trashy wavelength of the original film will not really be getting what they want either.  This is in fact something a little more straightforward than that: an adaptation that simply discards some of the bullshit from its source material and delivers a better told and more streamlined story and does it pretty well.  That’s not something to be completely overlooked and given that this is in many ways the closest that Sofia Coppola has gotten to making a more accessible genre exercise I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(5/6/2017)

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On my Letterboxd page I have this running list ranking every Marvel/DC superhero movie I’ve seen including almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s got almost 50 movies on it at this point but one movie I haven’t included on it is the original The Guardians of the Galaxy for the simple reason that, despite have the Marvel logo in front of it, that movie is not a superhero film.  None of the characters really have “superpowers” with the possible exception of Groot, they don’t have secret identities, they aren’t really vigilantes, in fact they’re barely even heroic.  They really don’t fit any definition of “superhero,” rather the movie was a straight-up space opera.  With the possible exception of Groot none of the characters really had any superpowers beyond some science fictiony gear, they didn’t have secret identities, and they also weren’t really all that heroic.  If these are superheroes then so are the crews of the Millennium Falcon, the Serenity, and Moya.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it was pretty refreshing.  Marvel has more than enough superhero stories under its belt and being away from the web of cameos that characterize the Avengers theater of the Marvel world gave the filmmakers freedom to sort of do their own thing.  Sure they were still chasing around and infinity stone and the film’s irreverent tone maybe wasn’t as unique as some people made it out to be but for the most part it did sort of seem like its own thing and the film’s entertainment value was there.  Audiences seemed to agree and made what was thought to be a relatively risky venture into one of Marvel’s biggest hits.  Now the crew is back for a sequel and one with much higher expectations to boot.

Set shortly after the events of the original film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our roguish heroes on a mercenary gig on behalf of an alien race called the Sovereigns in exchange for the custody of Nebula (Karen Gillan), who they have apparently captured after the events of the first film.  The mission is a success but soon they find themselves on the outs with the Sovereign when its revealed that Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has stolen from them.  Soon they’re chased across the galaxy and crash land on a random planet.  Fortunately they soon find themselves saved by a stange guy named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains that he is Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long lost father and the two of them along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to go off to Ego’s homeworld while Rocket and Groot (who’s taken the form of an infant after the events of the first film but is still voiced by Vin Diesel) stay back and repair the ship while guarding Nebula.  While staying back Rocket and Groot encounter Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang, who capture them after Yondu himself finds himself the victim of a mutiny.  Meanwhile back on Ego’s planet the rest of the crew start making some disturbing discoveries of their own.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like a lot of Marvel movies recently, is one of those movies which in many ways doesn’t really feel like it needs to be reviewed.  I feel like I could save a lot of time and effort by just saying “Did you like the first movie?  Yes?  Then you’ll probably like this one too.”  I guess that hasn’t always been true about Marvel movies.  In fact in most of Marvel’s franchises the second movie has been the big stumbling block.  The second Iron Man movie was pretty widely disliked and for my money the second Thor is the worst movie that the studio has ever put out, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron also kind of sucked if you want to view that as a second movie.  I think the issue with these first sequels is that they want to be as breezy as the original films but they don’t have origin stories to hang on like their predecessors and they can just seem kind of like aimless movies treading water.  It’s no coincidence that the one sub-franchise to really avoid that sophomore slump was Captain America, in part because the original in that case was set during World War II and by shifting time periods the first sequel had to kind of re-invent the series rather than rest on its laurels.  In a number of ways Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does have the same problem as some of those other marvel sequels but silly aimlessness is almost the point of the GoG series so that doesn’t seem as egregious.

If there’s a real problem here it’s probably that some of the crew, particularly Peter Quill, is kind of starting to buy into the notion that they’re heroes rather than scoundrels.  In the first movie Quill famously described himself as “an ‘a-hole’ but not one hundred percent a dick” but here he seems to be at most 10% a dick and not really much of an “a-hole” at all outside of a few quarrels with Rocket.  You’d hardly know he was raised by pirates at all despite the film revisiting that aspect of his life in more detail than you’d expect.  Rocket still has some of his original edge to him but the rest of the crew seems to be rapidly moving away from the notion that they’re thieves and mercenaries at all.  That’s not a huge problem given the particulars of the story that’s being told in this particular installment and it’s not necessarily something you’re going to be noticing while watching the movie, but if you go away from it thinking something was missing it might be that.  On the other hand the movie does start to establish constructed family of the Fast and Furious variety as the running theme of the series, which, is fine I guess.  Not exactly the world’s most original focus for a movie like this but it works I guess even if they start hitting it really really hard toward the end.

Oh, but here I am something like a thousand words into this review and I haven’t even brought up what people actually care about in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie: the soundtrack.  Once again the film has assembled a collection of 60s/70s classic pop songs to populate the film with.  This time around the music selections are pretty much in line with what we saw before except that there are fewer kitschy choices like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” that serve to be enjoyed ironically.  Most of the songs here do seem to be music I can imagine director James Gunn pretty genuinely enjoys and wants to bring to his audience’s attention.  The musical highlights are probably the sequences set to “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electronic Light Orchestra and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & The Americans.  However I will note that the conceit from the first film that these songs are all coming from Quill’s Walkman and that he’s sort of imposing them on the aliens around him against their will is increasingly thrown out the window in this movie and there are some slightly off scenes where characters like Rocket and Yondu seem to be digging into Quill’s collection unprompted.

So I guess we’re back to the “if you liked the first movie you’ll probably like this one” stance I took at the beginning.  The movie is basically more of the same with minor tweaks and adjustments, which maybe speaks to how effective that first movie was because there are definitely franchises out there that would not be able to get away with a retread like this as effectively as this one has.  Will they be able to do keep on doing what they’re doing for a volume 3 without shaking things up a little?  I don’t know.  Apparently the Guardians will have a part in the next Avengers movie, not sure how that’s going to work out.  Personally I’d like to see what a Guardians movie where the crew goes to Earth and gets their “Voyage Home” on would look like, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Your Name(4/9/2017)

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I’ve been going to “arthouse” theaters for a little over ten years now and there’s one thing that’s remained a constant about these theaters since the beginning: the audiences at them are very old.  There are some young people who will show up to them occasionally, myself included, but I would bet that the median audience age at some of these theaters is sixty or over.  However, recently I went to one of these theaters to see an anime film called Your Name and was taken aback by what I saw: the crowd that had assembled to see the movie was the youngest set of faces I’d ever seen at that theater.  There were a couple of the “traditional” arthouse audiences members I’d normally expect to see at a place like this peppered in but most of the people there seemed to be college, maybe even high school aged or at least in their twenties.  At the age of 29 I may well have actually been in in the elder third of audience members at that theater for the first time in my life.  It was also a pretty large crowd in general.  These kind of theaters do fill up some times, usually when movies that are getting Oscar buzz make their local debut, but in general I expect Sunday afternoon screenings at these places to be half filled at most but this place was close to sold out.  It was heartening.  Of course a big part of this may be that, outside of its foreignness Your Name is not really an “arthouse film” at all.  In its native Japan it’s actually a huge blockbuster.  It’s made nearly $200 million dollars in that country alone making it the fourth highest grossing movie of all time in that country and it’s also done big business in China and South Korea.  Apparently that buzz reached across the pacific and generated a crowd to see the film now that it’s available in the United States.

Your Name appears to be set in present day Japan and concerns a pair of teenagers named Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who live far away from each other and seemingly have no connections to one another until one day they mysteriously begin to switch bodies ala Freaky Friday.  It’s not terribly clear why this is happening but seems to be connected to a comet that’s visible in the sky while all this is going on.  Mitsuha is a girl living in a remote little town called Itomori while Taki is a guy living in Tokyo so Mitsuha is thrilled to experience all the fun things in Taki’s life while Taki comes to be charmed by Mitsuha’s town and its quaint ways.  The two are not in this state permanently and seem to do these body switches only a couple of times a week and when they return to their own bodies their out of body experiences feel hazy, more like dreams they’ve woken from rather than clearly remembered experiences and the two leave notes for one another and set certain boundaries that the other shouldn’t be crossing.  This goes on for a little while and the film seems like a pretty pleasant little low stakes comedy but there is something else going on here and when it emerges it makes this experience all the more deep for both people involved.

Unlike other famous anime films like Akira or Princess Mononoke this is not a film that “needs” to be animated given its subject matter.  There’s obviously a fantasy element in its concept but it’s set in mundane contemporary locales and doesn’t have any monsters or anything but I also doubt that a live action version of this script would have made one third of a billion dollars.  I think one of the biggest advantages of the animated format here is that it makes the body swap concept a bit more organic than it would in a conventional film.  In live action films like Big and Freaky Friday these high concepts get gimmicky fast and turn into these actors’ showcases and the whole thing becomes about the performers acting strangely and nothing else.  Your Name isn’t devoid of the kind of gags that this scenario would invite but they don’t overpower it and the film does organically “get over” the basic strangeness of the situation and move on past the obvious jokes.  Additionally, the animated format helps to get past a few narrative conceits that are required to get past a few inconsistencies that occur in the second half.  I can’t get into too much more detail on this but there are a couple of aspects to this that would definitely be considered plot holes if you’re not able to accept that the time these two spend in each other’s bodies are experienced almost like dreams and the fact that the film has the extra layer of unreality that animation provides makes this work a little better.

There is a bit more going on here than initially meets the eye and there is a twist in the second half that does raise the stakes to the movie a little and take it in a bit of a different direction than it initially seems and this shift is pretty well handled but I won’t go into any further details.  Overall I did find this to be a fairly charming and entertaining movie, at least when taken in a certain spirit.  The movie is about teenagers, and to a certain extent it’s also made for them and you do need to put yourself into a bit of a “young adult” mentality in order to fully enjoy it.  People should not go into it expecting it to be the next Ghost in the Shell or something, but its relative lightness is also a big part of its appeal.  Anime is generally known to be made for something of a niche audience, but Your Name isn’t.  It’s more accessible to general audiences than the sci-fi/fantasy fare that anime is usually associated with in the west, but at the same time it’s a bigger and more notable film than the more tranquil “Josei” anime that often have trouble finding broader audiences.  That, I think, is a big part of why it’s managed to find such a wide audience.  The other part is that it’s just such a well-made and enjoyable piece of work with a nice blend of comedy and pathos.

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Personal Shopper(3/26/2017)

3-26-2017PersonalShopper

Throughout film history there are all sorts of movie that come to be seen as “companion films” whether the director intended them to be or not.  To cite a recent example, I have trouble thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan without relating it to his previous movie about performance based obsession The Wrestler.  That linkage was probably intention, but take another recent example in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Both are violent crime movies seemingly removed from the director’s horror roots and both star Viggo Mortenson, but are they really all that deeply linked beneath the surface?  Often these thematic companion films end up being parts of thematic trilogies like Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy or Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or Antonioni’s famed Alienation trilogy so it’s sometimes hard to tell if we simply need to wait and see what happens next when two films come back to back in a director’s filmography and seem like they’re each responses to the other.  I bring this up because the new film from Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper, seems to share an awful lot with his last film Clouds of Sils Maria and yet there are also a lot of differences too.

The film follows Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a young American living alone in Paris where she acts as a personal shopper for celebrities.  For those not in the know, a personal shopper is someone who goes out to boutique stores on the behalf of the rich and/or famous and finds garments they believe would be to their client’s tastes and buy them on their behalf.  As the film begins Maureen is in mourning, she recently lost a twin brother who had a heart attack as a result of a rare heart condition, a condition that she also has.  She’s been told that it’s entirely possible to live to a ripe old age despite this condition but you can tell it’s still a specter that weighs on her. What also weighs on her is that she shared a very close bond with her brother to the point where she almost felt like she had a sixth sense about him and believes that if he wants to he can reach out to her from “beyond” and give her some sign.  That sign seems to come to her one day when she receives a text message on her phone from an unknown number and comes to believe that she is indeed communicating with someone from beyond the grave.

The film’s common bonds with Clouds of Sils Maria are pretty readily apparent.  Both films are predominantly English language (albeit decidedly European) productions starring Kristen Stewart as an American who’s in France to perform as a servant of sorts for a famous person.  Both films also employ some similar tricks in terms of film grammar as well but there are also very clear differences between the two films as well.  Clouds of Sils Maria had two main characters and was just as much Juliette Binoche’s film as it was Kristen Stewart’s.  Also Kristen Stewart’s character here is quite different from the one she played in the earlier film.  Both characters could be said to be “punks” of some variety but the attitude is very different.  In the earlier film she maybe had some sadness beneath the surface but was otherwise a pretty confident and talkative character but here she’s kind of an emotional mess and has a deep melancholic streak.  Also, while there was a certain magical realism at play in Clouds of Sils Maria (if that’s even an accurate term for it) there’s an overtly supernatural element to Personal Shopper.  The film should not be mistake for a true horror movie by any means but from the very beginning of the film it’s made pretty clear that there is a ghost in it and much of the film is all about how much Stewart wants to believe in this ghost and how she interprets it.

I don’t think I liked Personal Shopper as much as I liked Clouds of Sils Maria but it does have a lot going for it.  Stewart is quite good in the film even if the role seems like less of a stretch for her than her previous role in an Assayas film.  The film also manages to find some excitement in some interesting ways.  Like, an awful lot of this movie actually involves watching someone type and receive text messages, which would seem to be a difficult thing to make cinematic but Assayas does somehow manage to pull it off.   The movie certainly establishes a palpable mood of melancholia but beyond that I’m not sure I ever really truly connected with the character at its center and found its occasional jaunts into the overtly supernatural to be a bit clumsy.  Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie I’d probably recommend to pretty much any cinema literate person but this one is a little bit iffier.  I’d probably still recommend it but I’d recommend Clouds of Sils Maria first and if that leaves you wanting more than definitely give Personal Shopper a shot too, but there’s a reason why I’ve hardly been able to write a sentence about the movie without mentioning the previous movie.

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