Watching Batman v Superman at iPic Theaters

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Well, I guess I ought to write something about this shouldn’t I? After all, the thing’s made well over half a billion worldwide already. It’s funny though. How life happens. I renewed this enterprise with the conviction of: ‘it’s only 30 min a week, how hard can it be?’ And now here I find myself already a couple of weeks behind. And because of what? A part time job? Working out? Taxes? It piles up.

But I digress.

WARNING: Herein lay spoilers for the end of Man of Steel and minor-ish spoilers for the actual movie we’re discussing. Please shut up about it already.

I did not mind Man of Steel. In fact, I found it funny that, after all the years I’ve spent watching movies where heroes and villains duke it out in metropolises (a literal one, in this case), crashing through buildings and levelling entire blocks, Man of Steel was the one where audiences finally developed a problem with that. Audiences (or at least movies nerds on the internet) thought it mighty callous of Superman (Henry Cavill) to smash General Zod (Michael Shannon) through a bunch of buildings, but it seemed pretty par for the course to me. I also did not have a problem with Superman being forced to kill Zod at the end, or with his parents’ repeated pleas with their son to not risk his identity to save others, lest his powers be discovered. I thought they were interesting ways to introduce shades of grey in a post-Dark Knight superhero world. Overall, I thought Man of Steel was an entertaining, inoffensive diversion.

What was most exciting about it was that it was the cornerstone of the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros.’ attempt to finally compete with Disney and Marvel’s now multi-billion dollar franchise of Iron Men and Thors and Hulks and Captain Americas and what have you. Now, three years after Man of Steel and nearly eight years after Iron Man kicked this whole thing off, Warner Bros. finally commits whole-heartedly with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, an epic of epic proportions. That’s not necessarily a good thing, mind.

What am I even being coy about? The fact of the matter is that Batman v. Superman is just not a very good movie. It’s messy, bloated, overlong, underwritten, overplotted, and takes itself far too seriously. Which is not to say I was made angry by this movie. I’ve been thinking about that distinction lately. It’s very rare that I watch a film so bad nowadays that I am actively upset. I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m a generous type and usually able to find something to compliment. But I think it’s more because I don’t see the point in getting upset at something when you know the risk you’re getting into. I remember watching Cowboys & Aliens in theaters when it came out, because it was directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, the upcoming Jungle Book remake) and because the initial trailer actually made it look kinda spooky (there is a neat idea in there, of a comparatively primitive culture trying to survive an onslaught from a species and technology even more advanced than us.) My dad saw it on a plane and was nearly apoplectic when describing it to me later. I agreed with his points and even pointed out some criticisms of my own. But again, the name of the film is Cowboys & Aliens. If it turns out to be stupid, you can’t really be surprised.

What was at risk here is director Zack Snyder. I try to be nice because, though the substance is often lacking, he truly is one of the best visualists in the business. He has real skill at using the frame to illuminate information; note how many times in this film the camera pans across a frame to slowly reveal a symbol, and then text. It sounds simply but it never loses its effectiveness. His film is chock-a-block with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual homages to panels from the comics that inspired it. His introduction of Batman is truly nightmarish. He’s one of the few directors who knows how to shoot action scenes that are almost entirely CGI and present them in ways that are compelling and (for the most part) comprehensible. He even managed to inject the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents – one of the most overdone sequences in any medium – with a few fresh visual elements. And in the rare moments where he lets himself calm down for a minute, he can find the occasional grace note. In a sequence where Superman goes to testify before Congress, there’s a brief close up of his hand slowly, politely opening and closing the gate between the audience and the tribunal. It’s a nice moment, the image of an all-powerful deity on a human level.

And yet the one thing Zack Snyder does not possess is a sense of subtlety. Snyder doesn’t make his points on the nose. He takes a hammer to the nose and smashes clear through to the other side of the head. This is the man who, in his film Legend of the Guardians, an animated film about warrior owls who reside in an avian city, scored a montage to a band literally named Owl City. Superman is a god amongst men? Cue one messianic image of the dude after another after another after another. The destruction of Metropolis is kind of like 9/11? Let’s hammer home homages to the devastation we all witnessed! Do you get it? Does it strike a chord with you? Isn’t it relevant? When the fight between Batman and Superman comes – and when it is resolved for the flimsiest of reasons – Snyder will make sure understand the reason for it five times over.

Of course, the script here does him no favors. I mentioned how the script for this film is bloated, but that doesn’t really cover it. This film tries to encompass, amongst other things: a kidnapping plot, corporate espionage, congressional inquiries, a civil war in Africa, romance troubles, spaceships, a mutant monster thing, time travel, several dream sequences, several bombings, several funerals, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. All this without even touching on the attempts to start laying the groundwork for the inevitable Justice League movie – each of which bring the momentum of this film to a screeching halt – or, y’know, the actual fight between the two guys we paid money to see? There’s something to be said for ambition, but each storyline is so fragmented, and each character’s motivation so plot-driven, that events that should majorly impact the story don’t, emotional beats that should register don’t, and I’m serious when I say I don’t even remember what the reason was for these two to fight in the first place. Like, seriously, why did the bad guy want them to fight?

Which brings us to perhaps the weakest link in the proverbial fence: Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Which is truly a shame, because Eisenberg is a talented actor, and I embrace it when actors are given the opportunity to play against type. I thought he was going to do a spin on his Mark Zuckerberg portrayal from The Social Network, an intense, snarky genius who oozed intelligence and menace. Instead, we have an entirely misjudged performance; high-pitched, snickering. Joker-lite, basically. His dialogue consists almost entirely of ham-fisted speeches, seemingly extolling the virtues of power… or how bad it is… or something… about God? “You know the oldest lie in America, senator?” he says in a line oft-quoted for the trailers. “It’s that power can be innocent.” What does that even mean? I expected the answer lay somewhere in the context of the film, but if you can find it, please tell me, because it seems like he speaks in these cryptic riddles just to sound smarter than he is. (Maybe that’s the point?) Perhaps most depressingly, his final lines in the movie fall completely flat. What ought to be an ominous warning from a man whose sanity has completely fractured – something that should feel deeply disturbing – is instead unintentionally hilarious. It’s unfair to compare the performance of the actor you have to actor you wish you had, and casting the relatively young Eisenberg seems like an attempt to potshot the ‘wunderkind’ techno-billionaire trend going on right now (again, reminiscent of Zuckerberg.) But when you recall that Bryan Cranston and Denzel Washington were rumored to be cast in this role, and you know the depth of their talents, and you know how they would take each and every line and spin it into something unexpected yet perfect – well, it’s hard not to be disappointed.

So what was cool about this movie? Batman, DUH!! Two years ago, all the goodwill Ben Affleck garnered by finally winning an Oscar for directing Argo was undone when he was announced as the new Batman because… reasons? I dunno, the Internet was mad. But as you’ll see in almost every other review, Affleck’s Batman is pretty much the best thing about this movie, and in my estimation the best live-action Batman yet. Instead of the blank slates essayed by the Keatons and Kilmers and Clooneys and Bales of the of the past, Affleck is a barely contained fount of rage, not only still stuck in his parents’ death, but compounded by two decades of fighting the unending slew of criminality the lurks in Gotham City. So resigned is he to his vigilante status (“We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals,” he says wearily in an early scene), this is a Batman who doesn’t try to play the high-and-mighty card so much as one who straight-up MURDERS people. A bold choice, I know, considering the vast majority of modern Batman stories are about the dilemmas caused by the character’s staunch commitment to not killing anybody, but one that pays off spectacularly, most notably in a late action sequence where Batman takes on a warehouse full of goons. Again, credit must be paid to Snyder’s visuals here, as this feels like a Gotham-flavored reskin of The Raid, one of the most exhilarating and brutal action movies in modern memory. Note how the camera zooms and swerves with Batman’s movements to make you feel the impact of every hit. It’s a badass sequence. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is no slouch either, and is so entertaining it’s a(nother) disappointment that he isn’t given much to do. So exciting is the Batfleck that it makes the prospect of the much-rumored stand-alone Batman film, to be written, directed, and starring Affleck that much more of an enviable proposition.

The other good thing about this movie? How I saw it. iPIC is a luxury theater chain that specializes in comfy seats and gourmet finger food! I got a blanket and a pillow with my recliner and free popcorn! And yes the drinks we’re $15, but when the waitress discovered I’d been undercharged by a dollar they gave me a whole other drink to make up for it! You have to enter it from an alley and then a woman behind a polished mahogany desk directs you to descend two sets of escalators into a dimly-lit, golden hued room with old books and modern art and shit. It’s like entering a secret movie club from Eyes Wide Shut, minus all the weird sex stuff! ‘But Grant,’ you say, ‘was Batman v. Superman worth the $32 you paid, before concessions, to see it in this venue?’ Of course not! But if you’re going to subject yourself to two-and-a-half hours of event movie, would you want to see it any other way?

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Watching Death Wish at the New Beverly

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Quentin Tarantino, being the absolute movie fanatic that he is, couldn’t be content with just making movies that are pastiches of the ones he loves. No, he had to build a theater to show them. The New Beverly is located in the heart of Hollywood, right on Beverly Blvd, and specializes in showing genre films of all stripes, but especially the exploitation and kung-fu movies that are Tarantino’s first loves. He curates the monthly selection of films himself, and the preshow is made up of interstitials from old drive-in theaters and trailers for films of bygone eras (usually from the 70’s,) aiming to help create the mood for the film you’re about to see. That said, if you’re the kind who prefers forgotten family films or romances, weekend matinees are usually devoted to such features. If you ever wanted to spend an afternoon with a double-feature of The Other Side of the Mountain and its sequel, the aptly-titled The Other Side of the Mountain 2, the New Beverly is the place for you.

Death Wish is a movie I’d been interested in seeing for quite some time. Released in 1974, directed by Michael Winner, and starring Charles Bronson in perhaps his most iconic role, Death Wish is, as I understand it, the blueprint for the modern vigilante anti-hero, the cornerstone on which the likes of The Punisher and the Taken franchises were built. In fact, Death Wish is so influential it got its own loose kinda-sorta-remake in 2007 with the Kevin Bacon-starring Death Sentence, based on another of the Brian Garfield novels from which the original was based. It’s a simple yet effective setup: man’s family is raped and murdered by criminals, man buys gun, man shoots criminals with said gun. I was up for that, and if I was going to see it anywhere, I might as well see it at a midnight screening in a temple built to honor the kind of grungy cinema it both came from and influenced.

Seeing Death Wish at midnight at the New Beverly truly is like entering a pseudo-nightmarish dreamzone of cinema. The building itself is nice enough, utilitarian. The lobby is small, the bathroom smaller. The theater sits about 300 people, the chairs are nothing fancy. But once the film started rolling, it embodied the ‘grindhouse’ experience that Tarantino loves so much it drove him to make a movie called Grindhouse. Trailers of the 70’s are truly something else. A trailer for Drity Harry seemed to transplant entire scenes – what felt like minutes of characters just talking, one location after the other – before ending on a frame of Clint Eastwood jumping onto a moving truck, leaping right towards the camera, the title freeze-framing on his trademark grimace. The trailer for Hardcore spends a whole minute lingering on the weeping visage of George C. Scott, screaming at the unseen porno theater projector to ‘Turn it off!,’ presumably to no longer see his daughter debase herself on the big screen. Hardcore is written and directed by Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver, so presumably Hardcore is a pretty good movie. But you wouldn’t guess it from the reaction of the audience, who laughed their asses off, and I couldn’t blame them, because the emotion of that scene is not given context and it’s preceded by bizarre back and forth jumps in narrative and bad synthesizer music and sound that doesn’t sync up. It’s like watching a trailer for a movie from Japan and wondering how on Earth anybody can be excited by what they’re seeing, and it certainly drives home how much more complex the language for film marketing has become in the past couple of decades.

This is without even touching on the experience of watching Death Wish, a truly unnerving experience. On the technical side of things, the New Beverly certainly achieved its grindhouse aims by showing a pretty scratched up reel. It reminded me of when I used to see movies as a kid, when the print would generally look fine until the projector began to prepare for the shift from one reel of film to another, and the screen became awash in scratches, spots, dirt, blemishes. Many film buffs bemoan the fact that filmmaking and film projection have become almost entirely digital processes, that they are no longer ‘authentic,’ and I increasingly find myself on the side of ‘Fuck Authenticity.’ Say what you want about the fidelity of digital cameras, but at least digital film is unlikely to skip ahead a couple of minutes, seemingly starting in the middle of a scene we weren’t in previously, just because the reels changed over. But again, this is in keeping with the spirit of grindhouse, so who am I to complain, really?

Death Wish has also simply not aged very well. The 70’s are frequently heralded by critics as the Golden Age of Cinema, but Death Wish exemplifies a style of pop filmmaking that simply doesn’t work anymore. Quick cuts of simple actions that are supposed to go in time with the music – say, a man hammering a post with a shovel – instead feel oddly static, knocking you out of the experience. And said score, courtesy of jazz legend Herbie Hancock, is frequently at odds with what is happening on screen. When the just-brutally raped daughter of Charles Bronson is crawling over her mother’s dead body to grab the phone, and what you’re hearing is not ominous but some sort of jangly acoustic guitar tune, something is askew. Again, the language of cinema has evolved.

Of course, none of these are what really ruined my experience, since these are to be expected as part of the New Beverly experience. These imperfections are precisely part of the charm. What ruined my experience is that Death Wish is a morally reprehensible movie. I’d heard a little beforehand that the film faced controversy upon its release for glorifying vigilante justice, but little did I understand how true it was: this is a movie for gun nuts. Not only does feed a vivid fantasy for older white men to imagine how they ought to ‘take back the streets,’ but it shits on basic human principles like empathy. At the start of the film, we find Bronson overseeing a model of a proposed New York luxury apartment block. When he rightly asks how members of the working class are expected to deal with being priced out the area, his coworkers cow him as a ‘bleeding-heart liberal.’ When he visits a ranch in Texas, the man who runs it takes him to a shooting range, chiding him for thinking that guns ‘must be extensions of our penises,’ saying that they are merely a tool – never mind a tool whose only use is to murder as quickly as possible. This is not even mentioning the actions that Bronson takes once he actually gets his gun. Twice he happens upon a crime in progress and produces a firearm. In one instance, he shoots the criminals in the back as they start to run away. In another, he shoots a guy before he even has a chance to react, leaving him to writhe on the ground in agony.

In one sequence, before he has gone full vigilante, Bronson walks down a street and is startled when, in a dark alley, a black man lights a cigarette and makes eye contact, his face underlit menacingly with the match flame. Let me reiterate that: a black man lighting a cigarette is something to be feared.

The point where I walked out, where I couldn’t take anymore, comes about an hour into the movie. Bronson’s son-in-law comes to visit his apartment, where he has repainted the walls bright orange and is playing some chintzy new music, loudly. By this point, Bronson has murdered at least seven people, and his exploits have become the subjects of the local news and a city-wide manhunt. And yet he is jovial and dancing. Despite his wife being dead and his daughter so savagely raped she’s become virtually catatonic, he seems to have renewed his vim and vigor for life. Owning a gun and killing people, it seems, serves much the same purpose as a Viagra.

There’s only so much a man can take.

The more charitable part of me wants to say that the film is being more objective than I’m giving credit for, highlighting the ignorance of the character’s worldview by simply presenting the world the way he sees it. I shouldn’t need that spelled out for me, should I? Is Death Wish actually satirizing this extreme-right world view by showing it play out? Am I missing a much subtler point?

I remember when American Sniper came out and the controversy that surrounded it (or indeed the string of military conflict movies that have come out in the past five years.) I remember seeing a scene in the movie, early on, where a young Chris Kyle is having dinner with his family, and his evangelical father lectures his children on how their family are shepherds, and the American populace is sheep, and it is their job to protect them from ‘Wolves.’ In almost the same breath, he slams his fist on the table and screams at his children for breaking a minor rule. I thought, watching the movie, that it was very obvious this man was crazy, and that his views ought to be seen as such, and how this might have influenced Chris Kyle. I felt the scene was objectively showing an unstable family, but it struck me how someone with those beliefs could see the same scene and have them affirmed, or how someone else on the opposite end of the political spectrum could see that scene as propagating those beliefs and be offended by that. I read somewhere that American Sniper was essentially a modern litmus test for American politics: you see in it what you want to see. Maybe in Death Wish’s case, I’ve finally tipped over into the fuddy-duddy left wing critic who can’t see the objective forest for the trees and needs to have my beliefs recited back to me, lest a film be right-wing propaganda.

But I don’t think I am.

Still, credit where credit is due: one has to acknowledge the power of Charles Bronson’s performance. If there’s any reason Death Wish has managed to keep a hold in the annals of cinema history, it’s because of the gravitas Bronson brings to the proceedings. For all the faults I must give to script, Bronson’s transformation from the soft-hearted to the hard is not one of them. And if for whatever reason you still find yourself compelled to watch this, notice how often the camera rests on his face, his eyes, letting them tell the story. Bronson has a handful of solitary scenes, and they all play out in long shot, the camera merely following his movements. Notice his physicality, the character that comes through his body language when practices hitting a thug with a sock full of quarters on a houseplant, or when he stumbles home from shooting a man for the first time. He even supplies what few genuine laughs are to be found here through some inspired line readings (“I’m… good,” he stammers nervously to one of his staff as they leave the room, trying to hide his exhaustion from a night of vigilantism.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all the other actors are extraordinarily bad – especially his son-in-law – but that makes the weight Bronson carries on his shoulders all the more impressive. I guess there’s a reason they made five of these things…

Also, don’t let this put you off going to the New Beverly. If nothing else, it has the cheapest concessions I think I’ve ever seen. I got a small soda and medium popcorn for $4. I could’ve gotten a hot dog for $2! On that basis alone, you can bet your ass I’ll be back at the New Beverly one of these days! (Just not to see Death Wish.)

Anime Double-Feature!: Only Yesterday and The Boy and the Beast

ONLY YESTERDAY

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Only Yesterday has, until recently, been the only Studio Ghibli film not to see some sort of Stateside release. When Studio Ghibli finally hit the bigtime in the West in 2001, their instant classic Spirited Away winning that year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, Disney (who dubbed and distributed the film) brokered a deal with the legendary Japanese animation studio to release all of their films, past and future, in the West, uncut and with quality English dubs studded with celebrities. The only two left off the list were Grave of the Fireflies, a drama about two children trying to survive in the final days of WWII that had been readily available on video for some time (and is also really, really depressing) and Only Yesterday. No real specific reason could be discerned for Only Yesterday’s absence, though many fans speculated that it was because it was a more deliberately paced drama made primarily for adults, and maybe also because there was a prominent subplot about grade school girls learning about getting their periods and who got theirs’ first and… y’know, girls’ bodies. Gross, right?

It’s interesting that both of those films are directed by Isao Takahata. Though Studio Ghibli is often seen as the house of Hayao Miyazaki, its’ most prolific and influential director, frequently cited as ‘The Walt Disney of Japan,’ Takahata is a co-founder of the studio and has directed some of its most fascinating features. Whereas Miyazaki’s features are typically preoccupied with mythology and folklore and the mundane giving way to the fantastical, Takahata’s oeuvre is more broadly concerned with character drama. Even his most recent (and ostensibly final) film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was a Japanese fable presented as a slow-burning character study about patriarchy, feminism, and individuality. (It’s really good, you should go and see it!)

In any case, Only Yesterday is finally here, courtesy of the arthouse animation distributor, GKids (who have also handled the last couple of Ghibli films.) I tend to prefer to see anime in Japanese with subtitles, but there are times I make exceptions, and Ghibli tends to be one of these. Since Disney handled so many of the previous dubs, they put an emphasis on quality voicework. Spirited Away still stands as one of the best English dubs ever produced, but the sheer number of celebrities roped in to pull duty on the entire range of Ghibli’s projects is staggering, from Christian Bale to Liam Neeson to Tina Fey, to name just a sliver of the talent involved. I had the pleasure of seeing Only Yesterday in Japanese in high school, but when I heard it was releasing in theaters with a dub featuring the likes of Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel, I knew I had to get on that!

It’s 1982, and Taeko Okajima lives in Tokyo. She works an office job, takes long summer vacations working as a farmhand in the countryside, and, much to the consternation of her family, is unmarried at the age of 27 (she’s not even dating!) On the night train to Yamagata, Taeko begins flashing back to her year as a fifth grader, the year that seemed to signal her transition out of childhood, and recalling all traumas, explicit and implicit, that drove her more and more inside of herself. While harvesting at the farm, she meets and begins a gentle, gentle courtship with Toshio, a young man passionate about obscure music and this newfangled agricultural approach called ‘organic farming.’ Might love bloom?

The movie runs two hours, and it’s pretty evenly split between the adult Taeko and her self-described ‘fifth-grade self’ (voiced by Alison Fernandez.) And to be honest, I found the adult part of the story pretty boring, at least this time around. That may in part be due to Ridley and Patel’s performances. Ridley adopts an American accent here, but it’s as flat and as monotone as her performance in Star Wars was (ooh, BURN!!). Taeko’s dialogue suggests a character who is humorous and very at ease with herself, and though there’s no line reading that’s objectively terrible here, her performance doesn’t bring a lot of color either. Similarly, Patel gives Toshio his native British accent, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but also fails to really give much in the way of vitality or enthusiasm to the role, the characteristics that presumably draw these two together.

Then again, this might just be an issue of pacing. Try as I might, it’s difficult to find a 10-minute conversation about organic farming compelling, even when trying to draw parallels between it and Japan’s corrupt infrastructure… actually, no, that’s just boring.

Where Only Yesterday excels – indeed where most of my memories of it come from – is from the flashbacks to Taeko’s childhood, and all the pain and awkwardness that comes with that time of life. Whereas Taeko’s adult self seems calm and collected (on the surface at least), her childhood self is intelligent, creative, selfish, sensitive, and deeply insecure. Matters are not helped by a family and a school system that keep telling her, in one way or another, that she is not playing her assigned role, that she is simply not ‘good enough.’

“A normal kid wouldn’t get a score this low,” her older sister shrieks to their mother when asked to help her with her math homework. “Well, she’s not a normal kid, is she,” she shouts back, only to realize her youngest daughter has come down the stairs.

It’s moments like these – painfully real – that fill out the psychological profile of the woman you see in the future. There’s the teasing at school, the cold refusal of personal goals, and in one shocking moment, a childish act of defiance that suddenly escalates to a moment of physical abuse.

Taeko’s childhood is also where the film indulges its few surrealistic touches. Upon the joy of reciprocating a childhood crush for the first time, Taeko floats all the way home, landing softly on her pillow. When approached by a local college after giving an exceptional performance in a school play, she imagines her visage on the covers numerous fashion and lifestyle magazines.

To me, the childhood segment of Taeko’s life is the more emotional, more lively, more authentic storyline of the film, but that me be because I relate to it just a little too much. (Also, the voice acting is noticeably better here.)

The image that stuck out most to me, this time round, takes place near the end of the film. After her dreams of semi-professional thespianism are crushed, Taeko protests the unfairness of it all to her mother in an outdoor market. Her mother tells her, with quiet frustration, to just give up, please. What follows is a shot of mother and daughter – two generations of women – walking silently in line. Until, in one last dash of surrealism, Taeko walks defiantly to the beat of her own vibrant, childish, distinctly unique drum. It’s not as triumphant in action as I make it sound, but the willpower, the drive – what is inside of this person that makes her special – is there. There is a thread of feminism that runs through Takahata’s – for that matter, all of Studio Ghibli’s – work, and it is in this scene that it is most expressive.

(By the way, that menstruation subplot, if you’re still stuck on that: totally tasteful. I can’t speak to the experience of actually having one, but I imagine it’s as authentic to the circumstances it depicts as it could be.)

THE BOY AND THE BEAST

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Whereas Takahata is a peer of Miyazaki’s, Mamoru Hosoda is frequently hailed in some circles as the new Miyazaki. Bursting onto the anime scene about a decade ago with his directorial debut, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda has developed a brand of his own of stories that marry high-concept sci-fi and fantasy with a heaping helping of emotional angst (typically of the high school variety), and some pretty good slapstick sprinkled throughout. In simpler terms, crowd-pleasers. So far, he’s four-for-four, with his debut, follow-up Summer Wars, the adorable Wolf Children, and now, his latest: The Boy and the Beast.

Starting in a modern day Tokyo, nine-year-old and newly-minted orphan Ren (Aoi Miyazaki) runs away from his uncaring guardians to the streets of Shibuya, whereupon he meets a cute, miniscule ball of fluff he names ‘Chiko.’ He also is harassed by a couple of ominous figures in trench coats, neither of which seem to be completely human and who mention something about an ‘apprentice.’ Following these two whilst also evading the cops, Ren finds himself in the realm of Jutengai, home to a species of humanoid creatures who all have the features of animals (monkeys, wolves, pigs, oh my!) It turns out that the Lord of the realm (Masahiko Tsugawa), a rabbit with a penchant for riddling his subjects like a cross between Yoda and the Cheshire Cat, has decided to retire and become a god. That said, he has yet to decide exactly what kind of god he’d like to be, let alone pick a successor.

The two frontrunners for succession are Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji), a golden-maned boar who’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes, and Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), a bear who is arguably more powerful than Iozen but who is loud, selfish, lazy, and an out-and-out louse. Still, he resolve to become the new lord is like steel, and the boy has a juvenile anger that’s more similar to the beast’s than not. Kumatetsu takes Ren as his pupil, re-christening him ‘Kyuta,’ and a pseudo-paternal relationship begins.

Within its brisk two hours, The Boy and the Beast manages to stuff in a globe-trotting journey through the spirit realm, a massive jump forward in time, reconnections with long-lost family members, a none-too-subtle visual metaphor for emptiness, an even less subtle allegory to Moby-Dick, strained father-son relationships, that typically Japanese way of coyly suggesting a romance that’s never made explicit, a cute animal sidekick, kung-fu, sword fights, death, angst, identity crises, math exams, and yes, explosions. It throws so much content at the screen that it feels as though some parts of the story don’t fully get the treatment they deserve, but the one thing you can’t accuse this film of being is boring.

Personally, nothing has quite matched the highs of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but I’m a sucker for slice-of-life dramdeys and Girl is basically a high school love triangle with ethical questions about time travel pasted on top. Still, with a film as handsomely made as The Boy and the Beast, it’s hard to pick on it. Awash in bright colors, the film features some of the best character animation this side of Pixar; these characters truly feel as if they’re acting. Of course, that’s probably helped in no small part to the excellent voice-work (yes, even in Japanese), led by Yakusho’s exceptionally spirited performance as Kumatetsu.

The film still falls into the trap that many anime films tend to near the end where characters spend a lot of time making bold proclamations to the bad guy about truth and justice and love and friendship when those circumstances, and the stakes attached to them, are already implicit in the story, and really, shouldn’t these guys just be fighting already? But in a film where the emotions run as high as they do in this film, it’s hard not to get verklempt at least once, especially if you have a weakness for parent-child relationships (as I do.)

Frankly, when it comes to what blockbuster cinema should aspire to be, Hollywood could stand to take a few pages from Hosoda’s handbook.

Drunk Review: Zootopia

So, sometimes when it comes to movies that I like, I have difficulty finding a distinct way to write about the things that are good about it. Those things, I feel, are usually self-evident. So I thought I’d try something fun with this one: getting drunk for an hour before writing and then just stream-of-consciousness-ing it as quick as I could! I cleaned up the spelling, but if you’d like I can put the undoctored results up in a separate post…

Enjoy!

ZOOTOPIA

So I’ve been reading these articles about restless leg syndrome and how it’s exacerbated by alcohol and caffeine, which is real bad because I’ve been drinking Jack & Cokes and I need to wake up for work in about 6 hours.

BUT, Zootopia. What about Zootopia?

The fact of the matter is that it’s pretty badass. Disney is probably the last place you’d think of in terms of films that could headline the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but that’s basically Zootopia in a nutshell.

Zootopia follows the story of Judy Hopps, the first bunny (read: female) officer of the Zootopia police force, as she solves a case that rests on the prejudices of society against predators (read: people of color), prejudices that might also reside in herself.

GODDAMN, Social Justice!

Seriously. I’ve seen some criticism that the predators as black people comparison is not an apples-to-apples metaphor; that it falls apart under scrutiny. Of course it does! But I don’t think an animated film that’s bringing this issue to the forefront needs for it to be perfect. The fact is that it opens the door to this conversation in a way that most other films can’t without some form of familiarity with the subject , especially in breaking down these fairly complex ideas of racism that exists without being a quote-unquote ‘racist’ to young children. The idea that even though we know rationally what we shouldn’t feel but feel anyway, and how to process that.

Trust me, you’re gonna see a lotta thinkpieces on this film in the coming months.

That said, Shakira plays a popstar named Gazelle in this movie, who is basically Shakira, and it is implied that people (mammals?) in the world of Zootopia give a fuck what Shakira thinks, which is weird. But I guess it’s a metaphor for celebrities talking about things that they know nothing about. If you look at it that way, it makes sense.

Goddamn, there are flashbacks in this movie that get RAW! You don’t really see a lot of family films that handle racially-charged bullying in such a direct fashion, but fuck me dude, it made me uncomfortable. That’s a good thing. If you plan on taking a young child to see this movie, it’s a good starting point in talking about these issues.

The voice acting in this film is excellent. Like, really, in a way I didn’t expect. Ginnifer Goodwin makes Judy naïve without being stupid. Jason Bateman sounds like perfect casting as a sly fox, but seriously, he is perfect casting as a sly fox. Even though they were most likely recorded in separate booths, these two characters have so much chemistry with each other that I wanted them to bang by the end. I would have believed it and so will you.

Speaking of sex, comedienne Jenny Slate plays a sheep in this movie and she has one of the sexiest voices to me. I loves that sort-of deep, not really, cracks a lot like it’s in puberty voices on some women, the one that suggests a lot of smoking and drinking but still not completely. Maybe she likes going to metal concerts? Does anyone have her number?

This film is gorgeous to look at and brilliantly composed in every conceivable way. But this is Disney, and they have money, so what else did you expect?

I’m a fan of the ‘experimental’ phase Disney went through in the early 00’s, where their only real hit was Lilo & Stitch, but they produced such works as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Treasure Planet. All financial failures, but noble, worthwhile experiments in storytelling that don’t always fire on all cylinders but had great ideas (and moments). But in the past few years, barring Frozen, Disney has had great success in trying out stories outside of the typical fairytale realm (although Tangled is fantastic, not enough people talk about that one.) I feel Zootopia might the be the first real classic of this new generation of Disney films (again, barring Frozen.)

Christ Almighty, I’ve had too much to drink. The point is that you will enjoy this movie. In fact you will very likely love it. It’s consistently clever and creative, both in humor an artistic presentation. For animation fans, this is a true blue case study in animation as ‘performance’, every action, gesture, and expression a character makes informing the story. And even though Disney is a conglomerate – a ‘problematic’ entity that elicits mixed feelings – they truly do deserve credit for having the balls to make a film that has such a progressive stance – and an educational one – towards evolving race relations.

I drank to write this review because I couldn’t think of how to explain my feelings about the film in 30 mins. Seriously, just watch the fucking thing. You’ll see what I’m talking about and thank me later.

Oh, and it’s funny. Really, really funny. That should go without saying but I felt the need to clarify this.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

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16 years on, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest-grossing foreign language film of all time in the US. An impressive anomaly not only given a market that grows more risk-averse to subtitles with each passing year, but also because Crouching Tiger isn’t exactly the Western mold of an action movie, deliberately paced and spreading its fight scenes pretty far apart. Really, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a romantic tragedy in kung-fu garb, the story of one young couple star-crossed by geography and class, and the other of two adults too stupidly bound by honor to do admit their feelings to themselves.

Well over a decade later, a sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, arrives exclusively on Netflix, and is the opposite of its predecessor in every way. I counted three fight scenes in the first ten minutes, and instead of a character drama framed in a broader conflict, the conspiracy to steal the legendary sword that caused so much trouble in the first film, the Green Destiny, takes front and center stage. ‘Restraint’ is not the name of the game here.

Stepping in for Ang Lee, Sword of Destiny is helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary fight choreographer who not only staged the battles of first film and Stateside fare like The Matrix and Kill Bill, but also has an extensive career as a director, including classics like Iron Monkey and Jackie Chan’s Legend of the Drunken Master.

Right off the bat, Woo-Ping’s visual style is completely different, all high-contrast colors and symmetrical framing, as opposed to Lee’s more muted, slightly off-kilter approach. And as you would expect, Woo-Ping knows his way around a fight scene. Neat the end of the second act, a snow-set battle on a frozen lake stands out as particularly compelling and gorgeous to look at (even though it seemed like it was spring just a few scenes earlier.) But when it comes to character – at least in this film – Woo-Ping shows some deficiencies as a filmmaker. (Though to be fair, John Fusco’s script does him no favors.)

Say what you will about the first one, it’s pretty slow, and for the most part humorless. But it does have characters and motivations that are always clear and relatable. When a fight breaks out, rare as it is, the stakes are always understood. Plus, other flourishes of Lee’s filmmaking help push the story forward without banging it on the nose. When one character finally gives into desire, and skin is shown, it’s even more startlingly erotic because of how literally buttoned-up they’d been before. Here, acting mostly consists of a bald-headed Jason Scott Lee glowering with the silliest bad guy smile you’ve ever seen, and writing consists of bragging about how he’s going to use the Green Destiny to… conquer something, I guess?

But perhaps the most surprising casualty of this transition from one sequel to the other is the mishandling of Wuxia, the style or cinematic kung-fu where actors are attached to invisible wires and leap to ridiculous heights, jumping from rooftops, running up walls, and sending enemies flying. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the original Crouching Tiger is that it somehow found a way to keep these fights visually grounded, and it was a core component on every confrontation in the film. Here, it seems almost like an afterthought, and when it appears the CGI enhancement is pretty garish, not used to simply erase evidence of the wires but try and amp up the action in mostly hollow ways, since the character motivation is rarely there and seeing a sword split a roof in half doesn’t really make a lot of sense visually if your heroes aren’t superheroes or imbued with some God-like power (which none of the characters here are.)

It feels almost unfair to compare the two films, since they are so utterly different in so many ways. Frankly, Sword of Destiny is at its best when plays as an action comedy. Some early fight scenes are almost Buster Keaton-esque in their slapstick creativity and timing, such as a fight between two ninjas who are trying not knock over any vases in room filled with nothing but vases, or a bar brawl between Donnie Yen’s Silver Fox and his own ragtag crew of kung-fu Avengers where feet are literally stepped on and soup ladels are put to good use. If you can give yourself over to its goofy charms, Sword of Destiny gets more endearingly silly as it goes along. As a 90-minute distraction on Netflix on a slow Sunday night, Sword of Destiny actually does its job pretty well.

But a spiritual successor to its predecessor this ain’t. Sword of Destiny actually begins to approach something resembling substance when – after several characters you may actually like die – Michelle Yeoh (our hero, by the way) ponders aloud what good is all this adherence to words like ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ when all it does is seem to get a lot of people killed. Of course, 30 minutes later at the end of the movie, Yeoh rides off into the sunset, most of the main characters alive, her voiceover telling us how deeply she believes in the concepts she was just doubting earlier. It certainly undercuts the tragic nature of the first film. And nothing here quite matches the grace of Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi fighting in actual bamboo trees, swords in hands and feet on branches, seemingly light as air.

(NOTE: I watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny in Chinese with English subtitles, an option I had to go out of my way to select. I assumed that, like the original, Sword of Destiny had been produced in Chinese, and I didn’t want to watch a cheesy English dub. As it turns out, Sword of Destiny was written and performed entirely in English, which explains why at times the lips didn’t seem to sync in the Chinese audio track! I thought it was about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese dialects! You can choose which audio track you would prefer, while I wonder if my assumption was a bit racist…)

Some Thoughts on the Oscars While I’m Still Awake

I’m drunk. I have to get up at 7:30 in the morning. BUT it’s my first Oscars in LA, the land of Hollywood and broken dreams and where these goddamn things take place!

It was a cool experience! I had made plans to meet a friend of mine at an Oscar party he invited me to. I’ve never really been to an Oscar party that I can recall. It’s 12 hours removed overseas and the Academy doesn’t really carry a lot of weight in Olympia, WA. In any case, I did not receive the location of this party until about halfway through the broadcast, so in the meantime I found a stream online to peek at.

I had my snubs. I was disappointed that Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs – possibly my favorite movie of last year – didn’t get much love. Not just in the Best Picture category, but a glaring omission in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (Aaron Sorkin is the reason that movie works) and Seth Rogen for Best Supporting Actor. Look, anybody who saw Steve Jobs remarked on how good Rogen was, and if Jonah Hill can get two Academy Award nominations, there’s no reason why he can’t get one too! I was similarly disappointed by the absence of Chi-Raq (Spike Lee for Best Director, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay), Benicio del Toro for Best Support Actor (Sicario), ANYTHING for Beasts of No Nation, and honestly, the movie that probably made me smile most last year, The Peanuts Movie for Best Animated Feature.

Still, all in all, I’d say this was a year to remember. What’s to remember?

  • GODDAMN, CHRIS ROCK!!! That opening monologue could be classified as ‘Scorched Earth!’ Every criticism was on point. He took it past the point of people laughing to people getting uncomfortable and I loved it! He was just short of calling out celebrities in the audience of taking whitewashed roles (like, say, Rooney Mara in Pan), a move that would have been well deserved…
  • GODDAMN, MY BOY LEO!!! He should have won for Django Unchained and/or The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’m glad he’s finally received something for his efforts! Sweet, sweet speech too: concise, grateful, and articulating everything about global warming that’s been keeping me up at nights.
  • GODDAMN, MY POOR BOY SLY!!! Talk about an upset! I’ll be honest, I don’t even know if his was the best performance of the year, I just know I would have beamed with pride to see him win twice for playing a character he created 40+ years ago. Besides, Creed is probably my other favorite movie of last year, the only one I went out to see twice. Still, Bridge of Spies came out a month before Creed, and I remember during that month that Mark Rylance seemed like the frontrunner for the award, so I guess it was a ‘Tortoise-and-the-Hare’ situation. Or something. I’m tired.
  • Glad to see that The Big Short got some love this evening, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. Honestly, I think it’s the most deserving. It’s a film that’s gotten some flak for being to ‘clever’ for its own good, but you try turning the financial meltdown of ’08 into something relatable and comprehensible. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
  • Also glad that Brie Larson won for Room. Again, a case of the most popular also being the best. That happens sometimes!
  • I’m probably the only person disappointed that Inside Out won for Best Animated Feature. I was pulling for Anomalisa, not because it rocked my world, but because it’s an adult movie dealing with adult concepts, and proof-positive that Western animation can cater to broader audiences than families or stoners. Anomalisa‘s nomination bodes well for the growth of the category. In fact, this year’s crop of animated films was one of the most well-rounded. But still, Anomalisa‘s nomination is still a… well, anomaly. I keep waiting for the day when an animated film made by adults for adults wins the award and helps people recognize just how powerful and expansive this artform is. As it stands, I find it really frustrating that a big-budget family film with the balls to explore the intricacies of the human mind still needs to imagine it as a place where trains crash and buildings collapse in order to be interesting. (Also, I’m sorry, but Bing Bong is stupid.)
  • George Miller should have won for Best Director. I mean, c’mon, there is no discussion. I’m sure shooting The Revenant was hard, but a 70-year-old man directed the most kinetic, unique action movie you saw all year. That’s worth more than freezing your balls off.
  • I am 100% cool with Spotlight winning for Best Picture. The Revenant is okay but the story is just not there, and before it came out there was a dead heat between Spotlight and Room as the Best Picture contenders. Are they favorites of the year? No, again those honors belong to Steve Jobs and Creed (or even The Big Short.) But though potshots may be taken at Spotlight in years to come for fitting too close to the Best Picture ‘mold’, they will mostly be undeserved. Spotlight is excellent filmmaking: unshowy, graceful, and about something real and powerful.

The Witch

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What is scariest to me – at least when it comes to film – is not always blood and gore. Nor is it always a jump scare, thought I’ll be the first to admit that I fall for many of the most obvious ones. No, what scares me most is often a still image. Knowing a threat is there, and then seeing it. A shape, far away, dimly lit, but staring straight at you. Incomprehensible, fleshy masses that twitch and writhe. The mundane giving way to a dimension that physically manifests a true, unknowable evil. Fear made flesh.

When I first saw the trailer for The Witch (or, as it’s spelled on the poster, The VVitch,) it seemed like it would be right up my alley. There seems to be something of a renaissance of sorts going on in independent horror, with the likes of The Babadook and It Follows (and to a lesser extent more mainstream films like The Woman in Black and the Insidious series), relying less on out-and-out gore and creatures and more on sound design, empty spaces in a frame, and the context and relationships between characters and their environments to terrify audiences. I think this is a trend that is all for the better, and with images of goats giving blood instead of milk and quotes from critics like, “It feels like we are watching something we should not be seeing,” I was ready for The Witch to give me several sleepless nights.

(Fun aside: you don’t want to try and sleep through a fever two days after watching Jacob’s Ladder, as I did.)

Interestingly, The Witch doesn’t describe itself as a horror film, but as a ‘New England Folktale.’ Furthermore, The Witch doesn’t really focus very much on its titular threat, though she certainly makes her presence known. Really, The Witch is more akin to a character study, the story of a family beginning to collapse in on itself with heavy horror elements layered throughout.

Set in the 1630s at the dawn of the European settlement of America, the film opens with farmer William (Game of Thrones veteran, Ralph Ineson, who in certain moments resembles Geoffrey Rush) standing trial before a jury of Pilgrims. He states they cannot judge him for they are not Christian enough. When told he will have to leave the settlement to brave the woods if he will not face trial, William essentially says “Fuck you, you can’t fire me, I quit!” and moves his family a day’s ride away. Several months later, things are not going well. William’s crop of corn is consistently blighted, and he doesn’t know how to hunt. In the midst of puberty and miles away from other girls his own age, eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) finds his eyes constantly floating towards the neckline of his older sister, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy, a spitting image of Elle Fanning.) Toddler twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson, respectively) spend their days talking to a goat named ‘Black Phillip.’ And worst of all, one afternoon when Tomasin is playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with newborn Samuel, she opens her eyes to find he has literally disappeared from under her. Their mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie, another Game of Thrones alum, so good I didn’t recognize her here,) blames Thomasin for Samuel’s disappearance. William claims that a wolf must’ve stolen Samuel. Mercy cruelly teases Thomasin that Samuel disappeared because of her, that she is the fabled ‘Witch of Woods.’ Caleb wonders why God would take Samuel away when he was only a baby, and is he in Hell because he wasn’t baptized in the Church, and what do you mean this happened because we were ungrateful of God’s gifts? Clearly, the seeds of dissent have been set.

The Witch is the debut feature of writer-director Robert Eggers (a former production designer, which explains the film’s extraordinary historical detail), and it is confident, assured, and very ambitious. A title card after the feature says the film is directly inspired by the transcriptions of many witch trials of the era, and that is reflected in the dialogue itself, filled with thy’s, thou’s, thee’s, and sentence structures that no longer reflect how audiences speak today. Like good Shakespeare, the actors deliver these lines with absolute authenticity. They sound like actual people from the actual time actually saying these things. The unfortunate side effect of that is their New England accents are still very much ‘England,’ so thick that you’ll miss what they’re saying at times. Still, the intention mostly shines through.

Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is suitably bleak, making Massachusetts (I assume) look like a gray, irradiated fallout zone. It feels like a more restrained version of The Revenant, seemingly shot using natural light, and using negative space to frame the characters in positions that make them seem frail and vulnerable, both to the supernatural threat around them and their fracturing sanity.

The actors deserve a lot of credit for carrying The Witch through its middle half, where things slow down considerably. The film starts off incredibly strong, swiftly moving from the initial setup to ominous shots of the woods, Mark Korven’s minimalist, discordant score swelling with intensity anytime a character so much as glances at a treeline. It hits its first horror beat within the first ten minutes, and it’s suitably gruesome without being exploitative. But at around the 45-minute mark, I realized the spookiness had slowly taken a backseat to the characters pontificating about their ‘Job of the Bible’ circumstances, and try as I might, the film began to drag me. I feel bad for complaining that The Witch is not exactly the movie I expected it to be, and I would like to give it a second viewing. Eggers clearly has a lot on his mind, not just trying to scare the pants off you but also trying to say a lot about the dangers of evangelicalism, and about the patriarchal strictures placed on women at the time and how they’re reflected today.

On the other hand, I suspect The Witch might just work better as a flat-out horror movie. When the scariness returns, it does so in a spectacular fashion. At its most transcendent – which is to say its most terrifying – The Witch truly taps into something primordial on the fear scale. More than once, I sank into my chair, trying to back away, whispering to myself, “What in the fuck am I even looking at?!” That Eggers accomplishes this in his first feature is a sign of only good things to come – and hopefully something that makes me afraid of turning out the lights at night…