That said, I do have one announcement I have to make and it's big one and I've been keeping it from a lot of you, although if you've seen my Twitter or Facebook pages periodically, then you're probably aware of this already, but only recently have I become able to talk about it. So, a lot of what kept me busy over the last year or so, especially when, like this edition, I've been unusually late with blog posts, particularly Movie Reviews, is that I was helping someone write a book. I was hired to be a Contributing Writer on a collection of short stories, and that was what's been taking up a great deal of my time, and for legal reasons, I couldn't expressly talk about it until now. The book is actually out now, on Amazon, as an E-Book, or as a paperback, it's called "BEHIND THE STAIRCASE", it's written by Christopher Eagan, and it's a collection of short stories done in the vain of something like "The Twilight Zone". I think it's a good collection, I was proud to have worked on it, and I hope some of you guys check it out. I think a lot of you will enjoy it.
Alright, that's enough of me. Let's get to it, here's this, long-delayed edition of our MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with the Oscar-winning films, "Call Me By Your Name" and "Coco"!
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) Director: Luca Guadagnino
After I watched "Call Me By Your Name", I made a slightly half-joking tweet about me being okay with the movie, up until a scene involving a peach. Others who have seen the movie before I did knew the scene I was talking about immediately and I jumped into a conversation. That conversation thankfully evolved to other aspects of the movie, one of which was the music. I'm not familiar at all with Sufjan Stevens, at all, until this movie; I'm told he's really good, but just hearing the two most noted songs from the movie, one of which earned him an Oscar nomination, my first thought about him was that there was a lot of Paul Simon in him. This surprised some people when I said that, but I can't imagine off on that comparison musically, and that's by no means a criticism of him; I think generally we don't have enough Paul Simon influence in modern music today. I think where I was off was to compare "Call Me By Your Name" to "The Graduate" because of this; sure there are definitely music motifs that make this comparison understandable, and for as American as that movie is usually considered, it's directing style is heavily influenced by a more European directing sensibility even back then, especially Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the greatest of Italian directors of all-time and during that era. (Seriously, next time you watch "The Graduate", count how many times Benjamin Braddock goes through a door or entrance-way and you'll see just how much Antonioni's in that film)
"Call Me By Your Name" is directed by Luca Guadagnino, one of the best Italian directors working today, most notably, "I Am Love", and "A Bigger Splash", his biggest international hits. Those movies are about romance, in one way or another, however, there is a big difference between those films, as well as "The Graduate" and this film, there's no real conflict. Stakes. Those films, center around a romance that can and does have disaster and unexpected effects, in each of those, sometimes multiple romances, "Call Me By Your Name", doesn't have this conflict that we're conditioned to seeing, at least in America, but it's common in European cinema as well. It is a May-December romance, by age difference, young Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is seventeen, a Jewish-American whose family lives in Northern Italy, mostly because of his father's, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) job. It's a professor job that requires a live-in graduate assistant an this is Oliver (Armie Hammer) and at first, they don't quite connect. However, he's around enough and while Elio is mostly an extrovert who takes in the scenery, both literal and metaphorical, as he flirts with the locals. they do begin to have a connection. They have similar interest and they slowly but surely start to have a relationship and that relationship grows.
For a young romance between an older, although still young guy who's seen the world and has experience, and the young inexperienced, literal teenager who's still examining who he is, and a gay relationship at that, it's amazing touching at how little else there even is to this film. The best scene actually involves a speech by Stuhlbarg late in the film, and it's the scene where you'd think there'd be conflict, but without giving too much away, it's just a touching scene, and one that really pulls the movie together. Screenwriter James Ivory became the oldest person to win a Screenwriting Oscar, long, long overdue of course, with the great career he had as a director with his Producing and real-life partner Ishmael Merchant, and perhaps it plays more idyllic, but for a classic tale about first love, maybe it's best that it's got this and not so much, some artificial conflict that wouldn't seem natural anyway. Wouldn't seem real, and so few movie flings ever do seem that way, that it's nice to see one that truly does.
COCO (2017) Director: Lee Unkrich; Co-Director: Adrian Molina
I must confess that I'm not as adept at my own personal family tree as I'd like to be. Perhaps it's because there's no real Italian version of the Day of the Dead celebration,- well technically, we do have "All Saints Day" and "All Souls Day", but those aren't as rich in tradition as Day of the Dead. But,- I don't know, for whatever reason, it's just never fascinated me as much, although thankfully my mother has preserved a family tree on geni.com for me that I don't check nearly enough and I do have a general idea about much of my family history; being the firstborn of my generation in an Italian family also meant that I had a great deal of family around me, up to three generations above me for a decent chunk of my youth. So, perhaps it's just overexposure that I never really quite dived into the traditions. That said, I never really thought much about how important it is to remember my relatives and ancestors before. Memories, and the real fear of one day being forgotten.
That's the angle that got me when it came to "Coco". I don't why or how it did and did it so well, other than to just say "Pixar magic did it," but it did it again. Consciously, I know this story isn't that different from say, "Moana", which I also happened to absolutely love, and hell, this isn't even the first computer-animated feature I've seen that's centered around the Day of the Dead, and involved a character going into the Land of the Dead, that distinction belongs to "The Book of Life", which came out a couple years ago. It was okay, but "Coco" is vastly superior.
"Coco" is a curious title for the film, the titular Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Marguia) is the oldest surviving family member, and is young Miguel's (Anthony Gonzalez) Great Grandmother. His family, the Rivera's have a long proud tradition of being shoemakers. However, Miguel wants to be a musician, which he discovers is not only a tradition in the family, despite their bizarre antagonistic hatred of music; it turns out that the town's great songwriter, the late great Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) might be Coco's father after a picture is shown with Ernesto's head cut off and showing a framed photo of Coco's mother, Imelda (Alanna Ubach). Eventually, this leads to him trying to steal Ernesto's guitar, which brings him to the Land of the Dead, 'cause you can't disturb the belongings of the Dead, or something, and now, he needs a relative in the Land of the Dead, to give him a blessing to come back. However, his family, and Mama Imelda, in particular, are vehemently against his musical career and ambitions, so he needs to get the blessing from Ernesto. He gets some help from Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) a musician who knows Ernesto and wants Miguel to put his photo up onto the family's ofrenda so that he can be remembered and survive. Once your picture no longer is on a wall, you're no longer remembered, and you suffer from the ultimate death in the Land of the Dead, which is just sad and horrifying.
I love a lot about this movie. Yeah, the story is familiar and somewhat predictable, but more than any American film I've seen, the movie gets something that I've seen in some of the best Mexican films; this historic tradition of the past and the celebration of family including those who've passed. I've noticed that family heritage and narratives are often a common thread in most of my favorite Mexican and Mexican-American based films, like "My Family/Mi Familia" a multi-generational sprawling epic that tells the complete history of a family from their older roots in Mexico to when they moved up and made new roots in California. Another of my favorite Mexican films is "Like Water, for Chocolate" a fantasy-realism fairy tale that also tells a multi-generational narrative and celebrates the past and where they came from. I bring those movies up in particular 'cause some smaller parts "Coco" are played by Edward James Olmos, the narrator character in "My Family" and Alfonso Arau, the director of "Like Water for Chocolate". I particularly like the clever casting of Arau as a family matriarch as you could consider him one of the fathers of modern Mexican cinema, as both an actor and director as well as one of the first big names to break into American film. (He was in "The Wild Bunch", and his career dates back longer than that; you should look him up.) It's a small behind-the-scenes touch, but that kind of detail is shown everywhere onscreen as well. I like some of the touches of the honored dead even, with cameos from Frida Kahlo (Natalie Cordova-Buckley) and even El Santo. It might just be good cultural appropriation, but it works on me, and sure it's another Disney/Pixar film about fighting your own family's roots and traditions only to find out that they're actually apart of you all along, but when it's done well, it's inspiring. "Coco" is really inspiring and makes you think not just about Mexican familial traditions, but helps you reflect on your own past and those who came before you and everything they did, that helped you get to become who you are.
You know, I should really look at that family tree Mom put online for me more often....
LADY BIRD (2017) Director: Greta Gerwig
At some point during, let's say high school, perhaps earlier for some, there's a moment I believe in most kids lives where there's a conflict that's in many ways created by the parents and other adults from years earlier, this thought that you can be and do anything you want, contrasting with the realities that, perhaps it's best not to go seek out the greatest and toughest of achievements. At least, I suspect a lot of my generation ran into this conflict; in the past I don't think it was as common, but at around 2002, after 9/11 and the Twin Towers and the continual effects of Reaganomics slowly crushing the Middle Class, if there is any such thing anymore, yeah, the dreams of going to your ideal college to study with the best of professors and start straining to achieve your most desired dream career, not-so-subtlely get shoved back to reality when your mother does nothing but keep pushing to you the cheaper, local state school in town that have just as good a theater program.
This complete shattering of the idealism we teach our youths and the suddenly more cautious pressuring and warnings that now come from those who had spent years earlier beating down those idealist dreams into one's head, that's what I believe "Lady Bird" is ultimately about. And to be fair, I can't think of too many movies that really deal with this issue, although is this even still a thing. I graduated in 2003, and I suspect I'm one of the last generations of people who a second thought they knew exactly what they wanted to be and began looking up out-of-state dream schools to go to, in my case, at one point somewhere in 8th or 9th grade, I thought I could be a sports broadcaster and began seriously thinking about trying to go to Syracuse because Bob Costas went there. This lasted, maybe a few delusional days. Christine (Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan) is a Senior in high school and it's in this shadow of seeking out college and planning on leaving one's hometown of Sacramento for somewhere out East where the culture is. (This is accurate by the way, the culture is more East) Meanwhile, her mother Marion (Oscar-nominee Laurie Metcalf) works a double-shift as a nurse and she's stressing to push her daughter to local college, especially after her father, Larry (Tracy Letts) a computer programmer gets fired from his job and struggles to get a new one, often having to compete with his son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) for some of the open jobs, and know that his profession is a young man's game.
Meanwhile, Lady Bird, as Christine insists on everyone calls her for some reason, has a tumultuous and moody Senior year. First, she's annoyed that she's not particularly good at math unlike her Dad and brother and she's inspired to take theater from one of the nuns, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) which she seems to like, although she's never given any prime roles and complains about that to her dumpy but cheerful best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who she usually pushes aside for some new boyfriend, or attempted boyfriend. She has one from theater class Danny (Lucas Hedges) which ends in the most predictable manner possible, and she later has another one named Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) who she loses her virginity too eventually, and that relationship ends at prom, although not in a predictable manner, but in an inevitable one. Meanwhile, she's applying to out-of-state schools on the sly and espouses about how horrible Sacramento is. Of course, by the end, she's informed about how magnificently she talks about it by a professor who she reluctantly trusts and she's pining for that city by the end, like a great local poet talks about their city like Carl Sandberg with Chicago or something. Writer/Director Greta Gerwig made this autobiographical piece is about her hometown as much as it is about her coming-of-age. I can't definitely relate to this notion and emotion, still living, basically within walking distance of my old high school....
So, there was a local news story recently about my old high school, apparently there was some particularly violent fighting going on there, and they interviewed this mother who talked about how, she couldn't imagine that our high school would have so much fighting int, and the TV news story got posted in my Graduating class's FB group, and the person who posted it, thought it was accurate but the rest of us, myself included how there was fighting constantly going on in the school. I think I mentioned somebody who I saw get in like three fights in a five months period, or something like that.... I mean, the footage was a little much that we saw, I'll grant it that, but was it once-a-year unique unusual incident, like God no, and I didn't go to like, the worst most notorious gang-ridden school or anything either, but it's a bunch of hormonal kids and teenagers stuck in an enclosed space for awhile, at some point a couple of them are either gonna fight or fuck, (Sometimes both) and eventually a few got into some fights. Anyway, I thought about that possible blindness to the perception that I suspect a lot of people in high school suffer from to some degree or another after I watched "Lady Bird", as well. I have no idea if Sacramento is the Midwest of California, although, from most of what I've heard about it, that description does sound accurate, but maybe the movie also has a lot to do with how we go through our homelife and hometown; all the growing pains and discomforts and emotional turmoils of that, only to look back upon and fondly realize how much you love such a time and place, or that, all this time, we've romanticized it so perfectly all along, and only when we go away do we realize that there's truly no place like home. Or something else corny like that, corny but true. (Shrugs)
I don't know, maybe I'm pushing it, but either I do realize that "Lady Bird" if nothing else is at least ambitious in all that it's attempting. I don't if it's the best or most perfect example of these kinds of films, we've been with some great ones lately, but I can believe this one's accurate and meaningful for Gerwig.
STRONGER (2017) Director: David Gordon Green
I'm trying to get a handle on "Stronger" and the one general through-line I seem to get from the majority of the positive reviews on the film is that this is not just your typical based-on-a-true-story inspirational narrative. (Shrugs) Well, it is, basically your typical one, but I do think it's a decent and probably better than it should be, and also probably the best film that could've been made on the subject. In this case, it's Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), one of the survivors of the Boston Marathon Bombing; he was at the finish line to cheer on his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) who was running the race. Had happened to be standing much closer to the bomb than he probably wanted to; in fact, he actually helped identify the bomber, after barely surviving the explosion after a double above-the-knee amputation.
Afterwards, at least locally in the Boston, if not nationally, he became a bit of an iconic figure, a symbol of hope if you will, for the town, something that he's ultimately not that comfortable with at first, which is an understatement;..., like the guy just had his legs blown off; maybe not idolize him and have him wave the flag before a Bruins game, just an idea?! Actually, come to think of it, a lot of these ideas feel reminiscent to me of how the soldiers of Iwo Jima were treated in "Flags of Our Fathers", having to try to sell war bonds afterward. I mean, not that bad, but you must feel a sense of absurdity to this kind of fame whiplash. The problem is that it's usually not compelling as a narrative. It was in "Flags....", but it was a part of that story, while saw, to compare to another Eastwood film, there was a little too much focus on that in "Sully". There's more going on though in "Stronger" and the focus is generally more on the day-to-day pains of, well, what happens when something like this completely upends everything you know about your life. One day, you're working at CostCo and the next, you got legs. How would you react?
How would your family react, how would your on-again/off-again girlfriend react? I mean that's basically what a lot of the movie is, and I guess it's good enough to recommend. Actually, it's better than that, I'm being mean, it's formulaic, but it's formula done well. Some of it's a bit cliche, I mean, it's a Boston movie, so you get a lot of Boston figures and accents in it, especially among Bauman's family. Miranda Richardson's performance seems to be the most divisive as a caring mother who, in some ways looks at this incident as though it's the family's rare time in the spotlight and it's befuddling to her that Jeff might pass up an interview with Oprah. The best scene in the movie though, for me at least, involved a car conversation with Jeff and Erin, as they have this huge fight about everything, including Erin having to explain just how everyone else's life has changed so much, which is hard-to-say to someone who lost their legs, but as someone who watches an autistic brother all day when not pounding into a keyboard, yeah, things like that, affect everybody around you, but it is still amazingly difficult to hear. I like Gyllenhaal and Maslany's performances here, especially Maslany's. Honestly, her arc is just as interesting and I maybe wouldn't mind if say this story was told through her perspective.
The film was based on Bauman's memoir though and the film was directed by David Gordon Green an interesting and curious choice as someone who I guess has been somewhat pigeon-holed as a southern gothic writer, mainly because his earliest work was so good and so heavily ingratiated in that style, but he's actually done just as much stoner comedy, television and other mainstream projects ever since, often splitting time between critically-acclaimed indies and more mainstream traditional fare. I guess this is in the latter, although I do get why he would be chosen for this, as his work at it's best like "All the Real Girls" has always been centered around focusing in on great character studies and focuses and he's also arguably one of the best out there and creating a true sense of location for the settings of his films. I feel like this is one of those movies that works mainly because there's just enough talent there to make it work, and between Gyllenhaal, Maslany and Green's skills, I think it ultimately does even if story-wise there's probably far less there then deserving of a film.
MAUDIE (2017) Director: Aisling Walsh
I thankfully didn't have much knowledge beforehand going into "Maudie"; obviously I try to do that with every film, but some are easier than others, but still, I genuinely had little knowledge of this movie, other than sporadic raves I've heard about, mostly centered around Sally Hawkins's performance. I'm glad I didn't, 'cause that probably helped a bit, but this is a really great film either way. The titular Maudie, (Hawkins) is Maud Lewis, a name I had heard of before, but didn't realize that's whose story was being told to me at the time. All I saw was this impish Hawkins character, that was sickly from rheumatoid arthritis and after a dispute with her family who was trying to put her in a home, she took a job offer to be a live-in maid for a rather slow but uncouth curmudgeon named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). She's never worked before and she's not exactly the best maid, but he's hardly the best boss. It takes awhile, honestly, I imagine most of this story is documented from something, but Everett mostly seems like he's just as bad if not worst than Maud's family.
That's not a criticism, that's the condition. This was a couple who kinda got pushed together, essentially 'cause they were the only two emotionally crippled aging loners around. The Lewis's lived in Digby, Nova Scotia, in a house so small that it actually now resides in a museum devoted to Maud Lewis's work. But yet, she cleaned and cooked as did what she was told as Everett made money as a fishmonger. She also painted occasionally and soon those paintings actually started selling a bit, originally just greeting cards on cardboard, but it eventually expanded.
Looking at her work, it's strangely cheerful. It pops with color, almost a childlike impishness to it; some of the painting could past as establishing shots on "South Park". There's a wonderful appeal to them, there's a wit and gleefulness there that you wouldn't expect considering her life. In my notes I originally compared this couple to the Loving couple in "Loving", she's outgoing and spry, he's inward with a rough streak, and the movie itself doesn't seem story-wise like much, but then there's a lot more going on. This couple has a dynamic that draws you in and fascinates you, not necessarily; it's a weird, awkward romance, if you can even call it that. Moreso, the performances are what stand out. Hawkins work here is utterly magnificent, somehow, and I don't think entirely makeup, but she has this strange way of concocting her face and body to make her look so much and uglier then she actually is. Hawke's very good here as well, but Hawkins is a revelation, this is an astounding performance for me. I'm not too familiar with the director Aisling Walsh, she's an Irish director who's only made four feature films in 30 years, her last was 2008's "The Daisy Chain", but most of her work is in British television, perhaps most notably, a BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters's "Fingersmith", that the book that "The Handmaiden" was adapted from, and she seems quite at directing in enclosed spaces and making it fascinating. Mostly, I'm infatuated with Hawkins work more than anything here; this is an astonishing performance that I don't think too many others could pull off, and more importantly, gives us insight into the world of an artist that's about as unique and well-done that I've seen on film in a long while at least.
LET IT FALL: LOS ANGELES 1982-1992 (2017) Director: John Ridley
(Sigh) Well, at least it's not another documentary about Syria? (Sigh) Son-of-a-bitch. Just when I thought I was done with depressing documentaries and films about shit I lived through; I've finally come to the start of the L.A Riots documentaries. Yes, plural, 2017 was the 25th Anniversary of them, and there were quite a few docs that aired on television about the incident and a few that got theatrical releases. "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992" from "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley is one that qualifies as both, with an abbreviated version airing on ABC after a short theatrical run. The best description I've seen of it so far is that it's a comprehensive oral history of the Riots, and a look at the events that built up to it, and yeah, yeah, that's about it. That's something that has been somewhat lost in all the Riots was the years of changes and actions that led to it, and it's actually quite complicated and very local. I'm not a Los Angelino so, coming at this movie as someone who knows too well the name Rodney King, and if pressured might remember Reginald Denny, but only vaguely recalls names like Soon-Ja Du and Latasha Harlins among several others, this movie is actually quite a fascinating document of a time and place and a city that's slowly-but-surely edging it's igniting itself on fire.
It's important to note that L.A. has a history of rioting long before this time period, the Watts Riots most notably in modern history, also unlike other Western big cities, L.A.'s been around long enough and is big enough to really have, not a community atmosphere, but several conflicting community atmospheres going on at once, and at some point they've all had moments that were pretty damn combustible. They're very conflicted as a town and the history of minorities in L.A. in particular, I mean, this movie touches on some of those details but there's so much going on that it's really difficult to explain all the intricacies and I'm not an L.A. expert, but there's been just as much if not more social injustice in L.A. as there's been anywhere in the South, really, it's just very backhandedly ingrained into the culture, and the law and it doesn't help when the head of the law enforcement at that time, Daryl Gates, is a bit of a....- (Sigh) how would I describe him, um, well, racist? Incompetent?
I want to start with Gates, but I think the undercurrent is that he's the head of L.A. Police in time period and it is under his vision that the culture of the modern-day negative vision of the LAPD that seems to be the big thing that puts in this motion, this dismissive, unjust and unchecked behavior of the Police, especially towards the African-American community that really is the catalyst. For instance the death of James Mincey, Jr., who was killed because of a chokehold that was applied to him by an officer after a stop purportedly because of a broken windshield. It was a technique that the LAPD were trained to do, and Gates got constant calls at the time to resign because of the Officer's use of it, Anyway, they stopped using it, and that's when the police were then encouraged to instead, beat suspects with batons.... (Sighs)
Also, Gates is a bit of a celebrity police chief at this time, which, yeah, that's stupid I know, but this is the guy famous for pioneering S.W.A.T. teams to-, well barge into Minority's houses, and also is considered one of the leading purveyors of figuring out how to attack gangs in L.A., which, at some point, just became, any time a few minorities hang around outside for a minute or two, they're a gang....- (Sigh) yeah. (Also, the movie doesn't get into this, but he started D.A.R.E. as well, which, yeah that worked in eliminating drug use forever. [You know, I won my fifth-grade D.A.R.E. essay contest. That's got nothing to do with anything, but I thought I'd mention it. I only submitted my first draft for that too. BTW, I think I'm the only person who's ever actually gone through that program and didn't take drugs afterward])
Apparently, this was supposed to be a live-action movie with Ridley even getting Spike Lee involved, but the more they dived into the complexities of the Riots, the less they were able to find a true center of the narrative and eventually Ridley decided it was best to tell the story as a documentary, interviewing anybody and everybody who was willing, alive and somehow connected to the events. There's a constant refrain in sociology that nothing ever happens in a vacuum. That's usually the narrative people want to express about major incidents that occur, but that's never true, and the L.A. Riots are no exception, it's a corrupt police force running within the bounds of a failed Justice System that ostracizes the minority, and it's years and years of daily abuses that are finally coalesced into major events after major events and all of them, slanted the wrong way and against a group of people who they should be protecting the most. I can see why documentaries and probably several of them are going to be needed to fully examine the L.A. Riots, but this is one of the best. Structurally, in how it examines and explores the effects on the community and local area as intricately as it does, it reminds me a great deal of "The Times of Harvey Milk", another documentary about a community that lead to a complete failure of the justice system, and it's overall impact on a major Metropolitan California city, that one was San Francisco, but still.... L.A. has a way of connecting everybody through situation and circumstance those towns don't always have. One kid who grew up in a nicer area of town reflected on how the only time he ever saw areas like Compton or South Central was when his family would drive through them to get to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood to watch the Lakers games, completely unaware of some of the atrocities and hells that the community deals with every day, until the worst happens and they make damn sure everybody hears about it.
"Let It Fall..." is one oft-forgotten but critically important document of recent American history that should be shown and taught for years and now that it seems more relevant than ever, hopefully, it will be. Be warned, the next riot will probably not be in Los Angeles.
MARJORIE PRIME (2017) Director: Michael Almereyda
Michael Almereyda's one of those that I find myself utterly fascinated with and yet, just often befuddled by. I need to see more of his work, like I still have "Cymbeline" still stuck in the 120s on my Netflix queue after like, however many years it's been, which is unfortunate but that happens sometimes. Happens with him a lot though, 'cause, while he is fascinating, it's hard to call him "great", and I think it's debatable whether he's a good director. I mean, what I've seen I've liked, which isn't always the case. The first film of his I saw was this experiment indy version of "Hamlet" that he made, the one with Ethan Hawke that took place in modern-day New York. I think I'm one of the few who really likes that version of "Hamlet", but I do get why it's kinda forgettable and somewhat strange. He constantly worked before and since, although he often works in documentary and shorts, as well as sporadic TV work since, it's actually a little amazing to me how much work he's getting now, not counting docs, he's made like four feature films in five years, counting his latest completed project, "Tonight at Noon", which is about to enter the editing stages. The last film of his I saw was "Experimenter" a biopic on Stanley Milgram, which, was an interesting, but definitely an odd choice for a biopic; I mean, I'm fascinated by the Milgram Experiment and some of his other famous pop psychology experiments, but he's an odd choice to make a biopic on, and it's a weird biopic too. It's not really a biopic in the traditional sense, it's almost like an experiment itself on how entertaining one could make a movie by simply visually telling us about him and what he did and you know, not much more. I get the sense that he's talented, but I have a hard time figuring out what's he aiming at. I guess there are a couple themes that keep coming up in his work, death and inner emotions for instance, but I feel like he's mostly just interested in toying and playing with genre more than anything. I kinda have a similar complaint with most of Claude Chabrol's films, I always felt Chabrol just wanted to bait-and-switch us, which usually pissed me off, but Almereyda, I keep waiting to see what his vision is, and usually I think it's just, "Let's take a genre, and kinda toy and twist with it enough until he's come up with something-, not different per se, but just, like it's a toy that he's played with enough and then left in the middle of the room and didn't bother to put away or put back together.
Again, none of this is negative, it's just how I keep seeing him, and this latest film of his, arguably his most critically successful and noteworthy to date, "Marjorie Prime" it's-, well it's got me even more confused. It's an adaptation of a sci-fi play by Jordan Harrison, that's gotten several positive acclaims and reviews, and for the most part it feels like he didn't do too much to change it. It takes place in a near future where a form of artificial intelligence has become popular in which artificial intelligence has been designed, eh, to-eh, replicate the dead, essentially. I think it's intended as a grief mechanism but it's also to, essentially remember our loved ones who have passed by designing an A.I. that replicates them as best we can. If this kinda sounds like "Alps" meets, the ending of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence", ehh, well, yeah, but it's done like a play. At first it's a two-hander with Marjorie (Lois Smith, who originated her starring role on stage and has performed it on both coasts) who's suffering from Alzheimer's and her husband Walter (Jon Hamm) who passed away a while ago and she's now programmed into an A.I. that constantly helps remind herself about, who she is. (Yeah, it's throwing "The Notebook" into this too.) Later, we meet her daughter Tess (Geena Davis, who I swear must be doing the Brando thing and is just barely mumbling her dialogue on set and has to loop it all in ADR now,- is that me, or did I watch a stream with the sound a little awkward?) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins). She isn't as comfortable with the A.I., although he's getting along quite well, despite the odd choice by Marjorie to make Walter in the image of his younger self, as opposed to how he was at the end. There's an occasional flashback scene as well, where a Younger Marjorie is portrayed by Hannah Gross that are pretty good.
Then the movie, takes an interesting turn, and I'm not gonna give it away, although it's not the most unpredictable even if you're familiar at all with other forms of sci-fi that involve A.I.'s usage as replacements for death but, it's done in an interesting Pinteresque or Ionnescoesque, kind of way. (Huh, the Grammarly's letting me get away with Ionnescoesque? Really? Oh-kay, even I think that seems wrong, but I'll go with it.)I don't know what exactly to make of it; which I think is an issue with most of Almereyda's work, but in this case, despite him writing the film adaptation, I don't think this one's on him. It feels accurate to the play, in fact, directing-wise, this is one of the few movies I can think of where I can actually imagine this film taking place in a theater-in-the-round kind of setting, which, I'm not sure how he did that, but that was very well-done. I just wonder if there's as much as much to the material as some may think. I guess it's supposed to feel like, what it might be like for our relatives in the future to visit our old FB profiles or something of that sort, metaphorically at least. I guess it's interesting and different enough to recommend and I suspect done well on stage, this material could be really powerful.
MEGAN LEAVEY (2017) Director: Gabriela Cowperwaithe
Ah, Christ; I can see the comments now. I'm panning another movie about a relationship with a person and their dog. (Sigh) I have a bit of a history with this; I didn't like "My Dog Tulip", one of the critically-acclaimed landmark animated feature about, a dog and his owner. More than that, I'm one of the few people who not only panned but outright hated Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy", a movie that I've seen some serious film critics that I respect a great deal, list among the very best films of the century so far, and as much as I like Kelly Reichardt, and I do, I really get annoyed at this movie about an idiot homeless girl who, for some reason, can't seem to give up her damn dog, even when it's really clear that she's not in a good enough position to take care of her and there are other reasonable options. I mean, it's not the movie, gives us a lot of context, Wendy and Lucy show up and were supposed to suddenly really care about their relationship to each because, I don't know, dogs. (Sigh)
Well, I can't use that excuse for not liking "Megan Leavey", this film is all about the context of the relationship a human has to a dog. The titular Megan (Kate Mara) after a troubled youth and an otherwise inauspicious early adulthood, decides to sign up for the Marines. Not what I would've done during the mid-2000s, but okay, my best friend joined the Marines around that time and last time she was mad at me, she almost pulled my arm out of my socket. (Shrugs) I don't know quite what that's worth, but my shoulder's still tweaking a bit, so it's on my mind. Anyway, she gets into a bit of trouble there and gets assigned to cleaning the kennels where they keep the bomb-sniffing dogs that are trained to search for IEGs. It's apparently an Air Force run program, but she immediately desires to have a dog and join the program and just remains persistent until finally, she's given the most aggressive and hardest-to-control dog, Rex. She gets along well with Rex, and once deployed to Afghanistan, Rex actually saves her life and both of them get injured. It's a good story up to there.
Oh, Megan's also got a piece-of-work for a mother Jackie (Edie Falco) that's more-than-willing to escape from, and that stuff is pretty good; her family dynamic is interesting and that's only part of her tragic backstory. However, the main story comes when she doesn't reenlist and because of some behavior technical crap, she isn't able to adopt Rex, and she has to actually go up against the military in order to own her dog, and that's after Rex has a second tour of Afghanistan. I've never heard of this story beforehand, so I kinda was shocked that this was such a big deal that the real Megan Leavey was actually like, got news coverage of her attempts to adopt Rex and whatnot, so that threw me for a loop. I mean, I'm not surprised, I'm just befuddled. For the record there are dog movies and stories I like, hell, I gave "Marley & Me" 5 STARS, but-eh, as much as I like a lot of "Megan Leavey", yeah I can't really recommend it. It's well-made as a movie, very well-acted, but it feels hollow and very much undeveloped at worst, and at best, this is probably just not a great story to make a movie out of, to be honest. I mean, they tried valiantly, it's got talented people behind it, it's the first non-documentary feature from Gabriela Cowperwaithe who's most known for "Blackfish", but I think this was such a limited story that there's just not enough for a feature film here no matter how well it's attempted.
But maybe I just don't like dogs, so whatever. I liked how much Megan cared about Rex and why a lot more here than, say how and why Wendy cared for Lucy, but...- (Sighs) Sorry, I'm not a dog guy, I guess.
GOOK (2017) Director: Justin Chon
So, for those curious, I watch and wrote the review for "Let If Fall...", before I saw "Gook" and genuinely didn't know what it was exactly about going in. That probably opened up my thoughts and perspectives on this film, which takes place on the first day of the Riots. It begins benignly enough, with two Korean-American brothers, Justin and Daniel (Justin Chon, who also directed the film, and David So) as they run their family's shoe store in Paramount. Okay, my L.A. County is geography is a little rusty, um.... (Google search) okay, Paramount is like, next door to Compton. There's a bunch of weird little cities in L.A. County, outside of Los Angeles, and there's a lot, but anyway, Compton and Lynwood are to the West of Paramount and Paramount's it's like stuck between Downey and Long Beach...- Anyway, the important thing is that this shoe store is basically near the borders Compton, and when the riots break out, they become worried, quite reasonably that the could bleed into the town at night. That's later on, right now, it's basically, West Coasts, "Clerks", as in the Kevin Smith film. It's a low-budget film taking place over one day and night, shot in black-and-white and most of the exchanges are between the brothers and the brothers and some of the customers and there's tensions between the African-Americans who mostly populate the neighborhood and the Koreans who predominantly owned a lot of the stores.
(Sigh) Again, I just watched the damn L.A. Riots documentary, I'm not in the mood to diagram the modern histories of these tensions, but it's there, and there's also this conflicting tension between the Korean youth and the elders that are important too. For instance, Kamilla (Simone Baker) a young African-American girl, about ten or twelve who hangs out and sometimes works at the shoe store, and- it's weird, but the brothers protect her and consider her family, even if they're not crazy about why she's there and not at home or school all day, they send her over to get change from Mr. Kim (Sang Chon), the convenient store owner from across the street in order to make change for a fifty. Things escalate between them and later between Mr. Kim and the brothers. BTW, the brothers themselves are also heavily conflicted. Justin is more interested in keeping up the store to honor his father's memory while Daniel is secretly trying to work on an R&B singing career and is spending some time, not at the store, but out recording a demo.
Then the riots start breaking out and Kamilla's brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook, Jr.) a violent gang member who has a grudge against the Koreans in the town, finds out she's been hanging around there, means that the light-hearted turns into one crazy night when everything gets harder and everything goes wrong in the worst ways. In that respect, the other classic of independent cinema that "Gook" is getting compared to is Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing". I'm a little torn on the film myself; I think the drama at the end is much more fulfilling and interesting than the beginning, but the movie does get a sense of the community and the conflicts that lay within them. I especially like the familial conflicts with the Korean brothers and especially with the old Mr. Kim who ran the store. The cultural shift between the immigrants who became business owners and the first generation Korean-Americans in the area, is exactly really intriguing in general, and I'm happy to see a movie like this explore this, especially one from around this time period.
Justin Chon is more known as an actor, but this is his second feature-length directorial effort, and the first one I've seen and I do think he's got interesting ideas as a storyteller and I'm curious to see what else he does. As for "Gook", I more-than-liked enough of it to recommend it; it may have too many ideas going on, but that's a minor complaint. I'm looking forward to seeing if there are more stories he can tell about this area and his culture. He grew up in this area and was the son of Korean artists, and I think there's loads of material that can still be mined for compelling films about this area and culture that mostly we haven't seen much of yet. The only other film I can think of like this is Andrew Ahn's "Spa Night", which I also enjoyed. There's unique voices and perspectives, even in the Greater Los Angeles Area still that I would like to hear more from in the future and Justin Chon is easily among them, and that mostly what I ultimately took from "Gook", and I think that's a good thing to take from a movie.
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (2017) Director: Sunao Katabuchi
So, I've written on Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" before, it's in the Canon of Film and at the link below:
It's a great film, a masterpiece. That said, there is actually a critical backlash to the film that's prominent, regarding the perspective of the filmmaker. See, "Grave..." is an adaptation of a book that's very autobiographical and for the most part, the movie gets that right, but Takahata has said that essentially that he made the movie not so much as an empathetic anti-war narrative, but as a manipulative piece intended to scare the younger generation into respect and civility, essentially by showing what kinds of Hell their parents had gone through in their youths. Bennett "The Sage" White's review on that movie I think of as a well-done analysis of that interpretation, and to be fair, yeah, there's a lot of evidence out there that indicates the validity of that perspective. (Although that's not to say that it isn't great and that you should still at some point get to it.) Even though I don't think that way about "Grave...", I bring it up this perspective, 'cause I had a similar response to "In This Corner of the World".
I'm not too familiar with Sunao Katabuchi's work; it's the first feature of his I've seen and doesn't make too many theatrical features; this is only his third this century, although he's been busy with other projects. The story, if I can call it that, take place over the entirety of WWII essentially, although it jumps back and forth in time almost seemingly randomly and much of it takes place in Hiroshima, (Pause for effect) as well as in Kure, which WWII buffs will know as a site of a famous sea battle so, it's not like it's hiding that we're in for a long one, but we're in a long one. Very long; a lot of the reviews I've seen, positive and negative mention the 2+ hours running time, and it takes its time. I don't mind the length, but this is one of those movies that is not-so-much plot-driven as it is, emotion-based. I suspect this might've made more sense in the original Manga it's adapted from, perhaps...- (Shrugs) Anyway, the main character is Suzu, a young woman who gets married to a Naval officer, Shusaku. Mostly, we see her working with the Grandmother's business of raising nori, but she leaves that after marriage and lives with Shasuku's family in Kure for most of the movie, and mostly between occasional back-and-forth visits and trips from town-to-town, and some devastating and at times sad run-ins with the war, we mostly hear a lot about the rationing of food.
I've seen that brought up in other Japanese films about WWII; I suspect because they devoted everything to their military that that's the part of the war that, for survivors who weren't in battle, that probably affected them the most. There's also a third man, Tetsu, another Naval sailor that's a childhood friend, and I guess you can call this a love triangle, although it's more like, what your might grandparent might say when they talk about how there were a few boys who were pining over them when they were young, or what you would think that might mean, especially if they're from this generation. Ultimately, the movie is really a ballad to the towns and people who once lived there during the war, and is giving is an approximation, probably an accurate one about how they lived. I guess there's nothing wrong with that; it's certainly less manipulative than "Grave..." might be in comparison, but I really had a hard time with this film. I can see why it's getting so much praise, but I have a very difficult time imagining people are gonna be able to backtrack in their head what happens in this film. There's a lot of characters I'm not even bringing up and there are some devastating events that happen, but to go back to "Grave...", I recall everything that happens in that movie, almost scene-by-scene without thinking too deeply about it. I don't think that's just an issue with the constant changing of the time period either; I don't think it's presented "In This Corner of the World" will beat you over the head with inevitability, but that pounding will take its toll and if just there as remembrance of things past, and not there to also tell a really compelling story about what happened, then I'm not sure that's enough. I hate to say that, 'cause it feels like there should be more to it, Pastoral Japan, local business, young people, love, youth, family, the conflict of love and responsibility, goddamn World War II on their doorstep, and yet, I get a strong sense that this movie is incomplete. Like, everything just sorta keeps starting, but then stopping, and most of it just never seems to get back up again. I guess that kinda works, 'cause much of it's told in flashback, so much of this film could very well be sparse 'cause it's more memory than anything else, but, eh, I can only go so far with that. I feel like there's a great movie in here, but this isn't it, and I really want to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I just can't imagine myself going back through this film to check that.
TWO LOVERS AND A BEAR (2016) Director: Kim Nguyen
Well, this jumped to the top of my What-the-hell-did-I-just-watch List.
Okay, so, who is this Kim Nguyen? (IMDB check.) Okay, I've seen a film of his before, the Oscar-nominated "War Witch", about a young teenage girl who's kidnapped and impregnated by a Rebel Army in some unnamed African country. Looking over my old review of that film, I didn't quite appreciate that film as much as others had either; in fact, even in a positive review, this is what I wrote about it:
",,,the film doesn't feel like an actual place and time to me, it feels like a bunch of discombobulated parts of things thrown together.... I think if you took out the war aspects and the story was just about an adolescent girl who's in a desperate and troubling situation, the story itself, could've taken place, anywhere randomly in the world essentially, and that's sort of troubling to me."
Well, we don't have that problem here. It's very specific about where this film actually takes place. It's the first film I can think of that takes place in Nunuvat, the newest Canadian Territory that basically carves up all the area north of the Hudson Bay and south of, well, the North Pole. The movie feels and looks like it too. It's a surreal slice-of-life romance, between, well, two lovers, Roman and Lucy (Dana DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany). Both of whom, have some issues and this makes their passion-filled romance, very rocky at times. Lucy, in particular, seems to be a tortured by a ghost of an abusive father. (John Ralston) This causes her to seemingly go back-and-forth between being scared off and terrified of love and sex to, complete and total nymph, especially when visiting her boyfriend in jail for a conjugal visit. Roman, is madly in love with her and will do anything to be with and protect her.
Also, he talks to bears. And they talk back to him. (Gordon Pinsent)
This quirk and factoid, um, ironically has very little to do with anything. He can talk and understand bears, and that's just a thing. I-, I-eh, I really don't know what to make of that.
Apparently, this film's been described by some as an adult fairy tale, eh, I can kinda see that; I guess this is one of those movies that exists in a world of, magical-realism. I guess is the term; honestly though the movie that this film most reminds me of is Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs". It does have a weirdly indy-pop/rock soundtrack to it as well, and a lot of sex. It's not quite, just that, and technically, this is a better movie, but yeah, this is a movie that goes back and forth between, the romance and the cold, cold location setting, sometimes in very contrived ways and reasons. That's not a negative, but it does emphasize it's lack of narrative. The story basically is, these two are in love, and this is their struggle to be together. And, one of them can talk to bears. (Shrugs) Romantic? I guess there are other movies like this, and considering how strange it is, I guess it's worth watching, so for that I'll recommend, but I can't help but dissect this film and think of better movies. (Well, better movies and "9 Songs'') I can appreciate the attempt, although I was some concern that I just might not be getting Kim Nguyen's work as much as others have. I think the jury's still out on him for me.
HOCKNEY (2016) Director: Randall Wright
It's very possible that one of the reasons I've been so uninspired to write and review movies as of late is because I seem to have been watching quite a few similar movies lately. Lots of docs on Syria for instance, and this edition, I've had too inspirational true life stories, I've had two movies (And more on the way) that are about the L.A. Riots, and now, after "Maudie", this is the second film I've seen this week that's about an artist. This time, it's David Hockney, the Brit-born, L.A. based artist, who's still painting to this day. He's an eccentric, a jack of many trades although mostly known for his paintings, he burst onto the London Pop Art scene before engulfing himself in the L.A. scene. He's had an interesting life, I'll give him that. Hockney's openly gay and has had a few lovers over the years, a couple bad ones that he lost, which is funny 'cause his work is generally highly regarded because of how sunny and cheery it often is. His dyed-blonde hair makes him look like Andy Warhol, although to me, he seems to resemble Truman Capote in tone and demeanor to me, if not voice. He seems to be one of those characters who's always around and ahead of the curb on pop culture like that, and fun to have around, especially in L.A. I think if I wasn't so overwhelmed and too saturated with, unfortunately, better material lately, I probably would've enjoyed the film more, but for what it is, I enjoyed it. Oddly, I think the film was just a bit too expansive actually; it more of a talking heads documentary than it probably should be and should've mostly aimed to keep us with Hockney as much as possible. I think I had a similar issue with "Bill Cunningham New York", to give a comparison to a documentary. I suspect there's better material out there to learn about David Hockney, but I think will do as a decent introduction to him.