Rocketman(6/1/2019)

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world.  Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks.  But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist.  When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument.  To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better.  I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel.  Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him.  I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.

Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group.  This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume.  From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).

This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering.  Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies).  Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into.  For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did.  It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way.  It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.

Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on.  I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that.  Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon.  The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology.  For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point.  This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.

Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks.  For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal.  At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation.  In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen.  The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping.  This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious.  It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally.  It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.

I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent.  It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form.  In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.”  However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars.  So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project.  If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.

***1/2 out of Five

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night(5/4/2019)

The first half of 2019 has proven to be something of a landmark year for Chinese arthouse films.  Earlier this year we got Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on a modernizing China Ash is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still played in very limited release (missed that one), and soon we’re going to see the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film Shadow.  We’re also getting the release of the sophomore effort of a promising young filmmaker named Bi Gan called Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  For the record the film has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and I’m not exactly sure why Gan opted to jack that title other than the fact that the film is quite literally set over the course of a long day and it eventually journeys into the night.  The film generated a lot of buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival both for its cryptic nature and for the fact that it has a fifty five minute long unbroken shot which is, unlike the rest of the film, in 3D.  That was enough to peak my curiosity even though it was almost too arthouse for the arthouses and instead played at a local modern art museum.

The film is set in a city called Kaili, which is a somewhat remote city located in Southwestern China and follows a guy named Luo (Huang Jue) who has returned to this town after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral.  We get only the vaguest details of what his life was like back in the town.  We know he had a friend named Wildcat (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi) who was killed over some criminal activity involving a gun in a wagon of apples.  We also know that there was a woman in his past named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei).  And that’s about all we really get in the way of conventional plot as much of the movie simply follows Luo as he goes through the city seemingly searching for Wan Qiwen but doing so in ways that don’t always fit conventional logic.  We see certain things which are ostensibly flashbacks, but don’t necessarily announce themselves as such and weave into the film in ways you don’t suspect.

I don’t know much about Bi Gan but I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he’s really into David Lynch because this is definitely a movie trying to channel a similar kind of dream logic.  The film isn’t in exploring some of the darker depths and extreme imagery that Lynch occasionally dips into but he certainly shares his willingness to eschew conventional plot coherence in favor of mood. This certainly came as a surprise to the film’s opening weekend audience in China, who were actually drawn to the movie in large numbers because of an unconventional and wildly misleading marketing campaign that made the film seem like a romantic comedy that couples should see at one of several event screenings on New Year’s Eve.  It was a move that earned the movie $37 million during its opening weekend and also reportedly causing several walkouts and angry posts on Weibo.  I haven’t exactly seen those advtisements, but if they’re anything like as misleading as the stories in the trade publications make them sound I can see why people would be pissed.  It’s kind of like the people who went to see Drive expecting it to be like a Fast and Furious movie, but at least Drive did have some car stunts in it.  This movie, by contrast, is about as oblique and “arty” as a movie can be and isn’t much of a romance at all outside of the way it explores the depths of how much Lou misses Wan.

The part of the film that has gotten the most attention, by far, is the last fifty minutes which are a single continuous shot and unlike the rest of the film are in 3D.  Of course making a movie that’s only half in 3D is pretty strange and means that you find yourself sitting in a theater with a pair of 3D glasses sitting awkwardly on your lap essentially “burning a hole in your pocket” so to speak.  In some ways you can’t help but view the first 78 minutes as something of a prologue for whatever wild tone shift that last shot will presumably involve.  Indeed there is some truth to that as the 2D elements, while oblique and difficult in and off themselves do feel in some ways like they’re meant to give you the context for that final shot, which takes the film from being “dreamlike” to being what is almost certainly a literal dream sequence.  As a technical and logistical accomplishment this shot is certainly impressive and it manages to maintain a tone of melancholy reminiscent of the last episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” even when it occasionally stops to show off by indulging in 3D Ping Pong or Billiards.

I will say, however, that the whole promise of a 55 minute single take 3D shot had kind of led me to expect a movie that was a bit more visually adventurous otherwise.  Instead the movie actually has fairly drab digital cinematography that never quite captures the noir vibe that Gan is going for.  There are actually a lot of little things like that which hold me at a bit of a distance from this movie and truth be told I don’t feel ready to make a final judgement on it on a first viewing.  It’s a movie that is attempting to capture a certain state of mind and dream more than it’s trying to tell a story or make any kind of real statement about anything, so as an exercise I suppose it succeeds but as a viewing experience it can be frustrating.  It feels like it’s almost impossible to really “get” the movie after a single viewing, and yet its 3D gimmick almost discourages attempts at repeated viewings outside of theaters.  Maybe this is the Last Year at Marienbad of the 2010s or maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Honestly I’d probably be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if it had been made by an old master rather than a 29 year old who frankly comes off as being a bit pretentious in interviews.  It’s not a movie I’m terribly comfortable about giving a traditional “verdict” on with a star rating.  I’m not prepared to declare the movie some kind of profound accomplishment today and it’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average viewer, but it certainly intrigued me and for the dedicated film enthusiast it deserves a viewing.

***1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Endgame(4/26/2019)

Review contains spoilers

Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste.  No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work.  And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do.  Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.

Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year.  That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy.  That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more.  It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie.  Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.

At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out.  To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead.  I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through.  In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that.  It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it.  It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings.  Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.”  I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character.  Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome.  You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability.  Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer.  Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters.  Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation.  The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence.  Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.

Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie.  There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie.  That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to.  I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be.  I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off.  Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.

I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula.  Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them.  Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story.  Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones.  One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before.  It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible.  All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative.  The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.

***1/2 out of Five 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse(12/30/2018)

2018 was generally a pretty bad year for humanity, but it was a pretty good year for one fictional character: Spider-Man.  The character was going strong coming off of his successful Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and also played a prominent role in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War.  On top of that he had a hit video game come out for the Playstation 4, which was a huge seller and one of the most acclaimed superhero games since the end of the Batman: Arkham series. Hell, even the dude’s villains are now getting majorly successful movies made about them.  With all that web-slinger content to go through I must say I wasn’t exactly doing much to anticipate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated feature film that Sony was planning to release late in the year almost as an afterthought separate from all the other Spider-Man related releases they were cranking out.  Was it based on some Saturday Morning cartoon I wasn’t familiar with?  Was it going to be something that was strictly for kids?  Was it going to be more like the dozens of animated movies that DC puts out for whoever it is buys those things?  Well to my surprise it’s being treated as something more substantial than all those things, in fact among critics it’s become one of the more universally liked animated movies of the year and something I probably couldn’t just ignore.

This Spider-Man film is set in an alternate universe from the one we’re used to seeing Spider-Man in.  In it Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is a blond guy who has been fighting the good fight as Spider-Man for many years and is pretty widely accepted as a superhero, but this film isn’t told from his perspective.  Instead it’s told from the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle school student who’s recently been accepted to a top end charter school but who feels stifled by his parents’ expectations.  One day his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) takes him to a hidden subway where he is (for reasons unexplained) bitten by a radioactive spider.  Soon he begins to obtain Spider-Man like powers that he doesn’t know how to control, and he’ll need them because shortly afterward he stumbles upon a giant particle collider that The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has built while Spider-Man is trying to take it down.  Spider-Man does damage it but is injured in the process.  He warns Morales that this collider could cause a full on apocalypse and gives Morales a USB drive that can be used to bring it down for good.  Unfortunately Spider-Man is found by The Kingpin and unable to help, Morales watches as Spider-Man is killed.  Morales escapes, but feels ill-equipped to finish what Spider-Man started, that is until he realizes that this collider has opened up some sort of inter-dimensional rift and he meets another alternate version of Spider-Man, and another, and another.

This highlight of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is almost certainly its screenplay by Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman.  In it they do a pretty good job of doing a new take on Spider-Man that feels quite distinct from the many other iterations of the character without feeling like it was trying to tear those versions down in any way.  The film also does a good job of having a rather sarcastic wit without constantly feeling more snarky and self-referential than it needed to.  I especially liked the creation of Peter B. Parker, an alternate universe Spider-Man voiced by Jake Johnson, who appears to be a perfectly competent superhero despite sort of being a fuck-up whose personal life is a mess and who just sort of “wings it” while out on missions rather than meticulously planning everything.  I love the way the film manages to pretty much mock this guy while still making him very clearly a hero in all the ways that count.  The film also does a good job of getting kind of serious when it needs to and prioritizing Morales’ character arc over gags.

So there’s a very solid stand-alone Spider-Man story here to work with, but I found the way that it was executed to be a bit… all over the place.  In particular I found the animation style they landed on to be quite the mixed bag.  Now before I get too deep into this I do want to say that I’m glad the people making this did at least try to use a somewhat experimental animation style for this relatively high profile film.  That kind risk taking is necessary and that kind of variety is necessary in the film landscape.  That having been said, I think what mars the look of this film is that it kind of has a whole lot of ideas and never really settles on a specific set of them.  It’s over-riding goal is seemingly to take on something of the look of a silver-age comic book but it also doesn’t want to go all the way and use traditional animation so it instead takes the form of a CGI animated film but one that uses cel-shading, kind of like a Telltale game.  The result really doesn’t look that much like a vintage comic book to me so I’m not sure why they still bothered with certain filters to try and give it that four color look.  Occasionally the film will use some overt comic book techniques like word bubbles and panel divides, but it never really commits to this and or consistently uses it as part of its film language.

On the positive side, the film does have its characters move in a way that feels unique and it also has a bit more of a sense of depth within the frame, and almost gives the illusion of the film being a work stop-motion at times, which is interesting.  I will also say that the film does a very good job of blending in the divergent styles of some of the alternate universe Spider-people and making them all cohere on screen, which was probably an even harder task than it appeared given that a couple of the characters really take on the features of traditional animation in ways that most of the film doesn’t.   On the less positive side, while this is still a movie that was made for $90 million dollars that’s still kind of low budget for a feature length animated movie like this (by comparison The Incredibles 2 cost more than twice as much), and at times that budget does show.  Certain elements of the movie like the cityscapes and the backgrounds during a scene set in a forest seem to really use their stylization to conceal corners that are being cut and certain elements just look kind of unfinished.  I must also say that for all of the film’s success in designing the alternate universe spider-people I think the film really dropped the ball in their designs for some of its villains.  The Kingpin just looks silly with his insanely large bulk combined with a sort of hump on his back, when the Green Goblin is briefly present he looks like an indistinct snarling monster, The Prowler almost seems to be hard to see on screen at times, and their makeover of The Scorpion just looks plain ridiculous.

That’s not to say I dislike the movie because of any of this.  Again, the writing in it is very strong and despite my misgivings the animation does have some things going for it.  The movie is certainly a whole lot better than it needed to be given that it looked like something of a weird side-project by Sony Pictures to exploit the one franchise they have that still seems to be working for them.  All that said I think I am a bit less into this movie than some people are, in part because I’m sort of part of a second wave of people who went to see it.  Unlike the first round of critics who were blindsided by it, I was going into it with higher expectations because of the hype and that probably made its shortcomings stand out a little more to me.

***1/2 out of Five

Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion.  Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason.  That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works.  For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood.  Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling.  I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional.  His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg.  I thought that movie was… alright.  It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me.  I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters.  But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters.  I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.

Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores.  Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband.  These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside.  They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.

I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation.  It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting.  This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections.  Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son.  The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue.  The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.

That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me.  The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that.  The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.”  Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made.  The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain.  Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.

Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters.  I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph.  Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child.  Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout.  It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large.  I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.

***1/2 out of Five

Suspiria(11/3/2018)

The fall of 2018 has been notable for a lot of reasons to a lot of people.  One of the things it might be remembered for a bit less than others is that it was the year when two remakes/reboots of classic horror movies from the late 70s went head to head against each other.  One, Halloween (2018) was a remake of an American slasher classic that had become a household name after several sequels and numerous imitators.  That reboot (technically sequel) was made with the backing of horror super producer Jason Blum and has now made more a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office.   The other film I’m thinking of is a bit of a different beast.  That film would be the movie Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 Italian film of the same name.  The original Suspiria is very well known among horror aficionados but to most average movie goers it’s a pretty deep cut and even if it was more well-known I’m not sure that Luca Guadagnino’s new interpretation of it is probably not made for the masses, which is probably part of why it’s looking like it will leave theaters without so much as making two million dollars.  For film/horror fans Guadagino’s film may be the bigger must-see of the two films given that it’s coming hot off the heels of Guadagino’s Call Me By Your Name and it seems to be doing some pretty radical and interesting things with Dario Argento’s original film.

Like Argento’s original film this remake is set in West Germany in 1977 and focuses in on an American teenager named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who has been accepted into a prestigious German ballet academy called the Markos Dance Academy.  As she arrives the school is in a bit of tumult because of the disappearance of a student named Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz).  As an audience we know a bit more about Hingle than Bannion does as we saw her confiding to her psychologist Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup) prior to her disappearance that she has seen a whole lot of really strange things happening at this academy.  Bannion, oblivious to all this, begins trying to impress her teacher Madame Blanc (also Tilda Swinton).  Meanwhile, she meets other students named Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina) and Sara Simms (Mia Goth) who are suspicious about what happened to Hingle and begin looking into their teachers who we increasingly come to realize are part of a coven of witches that are in the midst of some sort of internal power struggle that their unsuspecting students are in the middle of.

When you think of the original Suspiria the first thing that will come to just about anyone’s mind is Luciano Tovoli’s gorgeous cinematography, which used a very wide frame and some rather extreme colored lighting to create a sort of dream like (or rather nightmare like) vision.  For his remake Guadagino has opted not to even try to match that look and has instead gone for more naturalistic cinematography.  He also isn’t using Goblin’s famous score and has instead tapped Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to do a distinctly different though certainly interesting in its own right score.  So we basically have a remake of a movie that is largely known for the way it looks and sounds which doesn’t retain either the look or the sound.  Instead the main thing the movie seems to retain is actually the story and concept, which is a pretty bold choice given that the script was easily the weakest element of that original film… or from another perspective it was the element most in need of improvement.

The plot of the new Suspiria is told in a more straightforward way than that of the original, which was rife with strange character motivations and at times felt like little more than an excuse to show people being murdered in elaborate ways, but it adds to the mix a certain amount of its own brand of convolution.  While watching it I found myself a bit lost as there are a lot of characters here and a lot of names that you need to attach faces to.  By the film’s finale I was pretty actively confused by what was going on in the plot, though reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia after the fact did clarify a few things.  I also found that some of the thematic additions that Guadagino added did not really add up.  Guadagino for example seems to be way more interested in the fact that this story is set in Germany than Argento was.  Guadagino goes to great lengths to point out that the film’s events were happening at the same time as the “German Autumn” in which the Baader-Meinhof group had hijacked a plane resulting in a great deal of political tumult and the film also deals with the German generational guilt over the events of the second world war through the Klemperer character… which is all plenty interesting but I haven’t the slightest clue how any of it really ties into the film’s main plot about a witches coven killing running a demonic ballet school.  In fact I’m not terribly clear why the Klemperer character is in the movie at all.  He ultimately has basically no effect on the plot and I haven’t the slightest clue why it was decided to have him be played by Tilda Swinton.

So, this new Suspiria is a rather curious piece of work.  Few people who are unfamiliar with the original movie will find themselves interested in this one, and it’s also so different from that movie that it may very well also alienate the hardcore Argento fans.  It also manages to be a too gory for the arthouse crowd and too artsy for the grindhouse crowd.  So there’s already a pretty limited audience for the thing, and even someone like me who sort of fits into that small audience still found myself kind of confounded by a lot of it so it’s sort of apparent why this thing is more or less tanking at the box office.  And yet, there’s a certain something to it.  It’s various ambitions and over-reaches make it kind of fascinating and there are certain elements of the production that are kind of amazing.  Swinton certainly does some impressive work in her triple role and if there’s any justice the movie will earn itself at least a nomination for best makeup effects at the Academy Awards.  It’s also got some really well staged set pieces like a dance/murder scene early in the film and its gory finale is an amazing piece of filmmaking even though I kind of didn’t understand what the hell was going on.  I can see this thing getting a bit of a devoted cult following in the years to come and I may well warm up to it myself over time, but for now I’m not quite ready to commit to any sort of strong support for it.

***1/2 out of Five