Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mini Reviews for September 10 - 16, 2018

Remember that Sheryl Crow line that goes, "I've been living on coffee and nicotine"? Well, this semester, I've basically been living on Adventure Time and Sufjan Stevens.

Movies


Upgrade (2018)
Lots of fun without ever becoming exemplarily so. I love the silly Eagle-Eye-meets-The-Six-Million-Dollar-Man concept, and even if the execution isn't always quite as go-for-broke silly in tandem with what its premise seems to demand, it's at least a handsomely made B picture with the decency to substitute good ol' fashioned energy for my longed-for goofiness. The movie also has one truly inspired technical mechanic: during the fight scenes, the camera tilts and rotates with each punch thrown, which makes each scene a lot more visceral and interesting than I imagine they would be otherwise, given the fight choreography. I probably won't remember much else about the movie, but at least that camera thing is cool. Grade: B



Minding the Gap (2018)
Minding the Gap is a movie that figures out what it is in real time as the film's 93 minutes unfold. The movie's opening sections amount to little more than home video footage of director Bing Liu recording the love he and his two close friends have for skateboarding, and you would be forgiven for finding those early pieces of the movie a little rote and tedious, because they kind of are. But then something happens: these three boys begin to grow up, and as the adult world encroaches on their lives, Liu slowly finds a purpose for this project and begins to interrogate the adults he and his friends are becoming—adults who are coming to grips with the systemic unfairness of the worlds in which they grew up and then participating in those same systems. It's not just the BIG ISSUE that rears its head in the film's harrowing back half—essentially, Liu starts documenting the cycles of domestic abuse in which he and his friends came of age—but the little things, too: the way that the boys' skateboarding landscapes become increasingly bedraggled as the infrastructure of their hometown of Rockford, Illinois, crumbles; the way that the camera catches the slow falling apart of one of the boys' houses over the course of the film; the way the boys still casually assume that each others' lives are the same as they've ever been long after we as viewers recognize that they are not. It all accumulates until the movie ends on profound disquiet, and the once-dull early skateboarding footage that plays over the credits is both a bitter nostalgia and a eulogy for the previously unquestioned mythology that shaped the boys' adolescence. It's a film about time and heritage in both their affirming and destructive modes, and, by the end, as moving a coming of age as I've seen in a long while. Grade: A-


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
It's about the intersection of incompetence and Murphy's Law, and it should be a lot funnier than it is—though there's a moment near the end of the movie where P.S. Hoffman's character asks, at a very NOT GOOD time, "We good?" and Ethan Hawke's character gives a reaction shot worthy of an Academy Award all its own, and it's comedy gold. Apart from that, though, the movie is punishingly bleak, a mode that's not always a bad fit for the movie, especially when it's exploring the interlocking layers of dysfunction within the central family, and there's an almost sadistic glee that the movie takes in revealing even greater depths of dysfunction each time it switches POVs. But it's also not always a great fit, especially because, as I said, it takes just a tad too seriously a premise and plot that's begging for just a taste of black comedy. Anyway, Hoffman and Hawke are great, though, and the movie is quite a ride, even if it's a bumpy one at times. Grade: B


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
This documentary saga of the fight for the highest Donkey Kong score of all time is so very obviously constructed—amazing how the documentary crew was filming on both ends of Billy Mitchell's villainous phone calls, huh? But it doesn't really matter; Mitchell is a terrific heel, and to watch this doc is to experience the intersection of a mid-2000s indie documentary with, like, The Real Housewives. It's a lot of fun. Plus, this movie's a sort of unintentional artifact of the early speedrunning/competitive play community, which I'm low-key obsessed with. Grade: B+





Foreign Correspondent (1940)
If I'm going to be watching one of Hitchcock's WWII propaganda films, I prefer the high-concept high-wire of Lifeboat, and to be honest, neither film handles its propaganda elements particularly gracefully (though perhaps it's unfair to wish elegance on propaganda, and perhaps I'm not being grateful enough for the ways that these movies are so totally and shamelessly anti-fascist and anti-Nazi—TAKE NOTES, modern blockbuster media!). Still, Foreign Correspondent has two tremendously entertaining sequences, one set in a mill and one involving one of the most frightening plane crash sequences I've ever seen. It's hard to complain too much about a movie with those pieces. Grade: B


Television


Adventure Time, Season 9 (2017)
(note: I wrote this before watching the final season)
The series's commitment to surrealism, both in its use of imagery and in its use of pseudo-hip lingo, remains a delight, and the characters remain tons of fun. But at this point, it's clear that Adventure Time is winding down and, moreover, needs to be winding down. I'll miss the show, and it's not quite spinning its wheels, but there's nothing about this season that suggests that there's enough gas in the tank to continue on past its next (and final) season. There are no new characters, few surprises, and nothing about the series's penchant for strange non-sequitur that feels especially non-sequitur-ish in the context of what came before; even the miniseries that kicks off the season, "Elements," feels just like a shuffling of the pieces we've already been given, not anything entirely fresh. If it sounds like I'm being critical, please don't take it that way; I'm still enjoying these Land of Ooo hijinks a great deal. It's just that every show has its life cycle, and Adventure Time's is definitely coming to its logical expiration date. Grade: B


Adventure Time, Season 10 (2017-18)
There are a few ways to end a long-running series. One is to expand upon and subvert what has come before—you can see this in Lost and The X-Files, as well as some more beloved ending like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Another way is to make the ending a reunion of sorts, throwing in as many references and cameos to past plots and characters as possible—Cheers did this, as well as, uh, The X-Files again. As it turns out, Adventure Time elects to go out X-Files-style, adopting both approaches for its final episodes. Fortunately for all of us, Season 10 of Adventure Time is a lot better than The X-Files's original final season (its 9th). Its mythology expansions are both interesting and poignant—there's a cycle of episodes that reveal some pretty surprising stuff about Jake's past that somehow doesn't feel like the gigantic retcon that it is—and its reunions/payoffs are a beautiful salute to itself, one of the best TV series of the past decade, culminating in a finale that's both a climactic showdown and a moving tribute to everything that made Adventure Time so special. It's a little overstuffed and busy, and some of the plots feel like they probably should have been developed over the course of an old-school-Adventure-Time-style 20-40 episode season rather than the truncated 16 here. But on the whole, it's as thoughtful and sweet and inventive as I could have wanted the ending of this show to be, and there's one particular moment in the finale involving a song that I'd rank alongside the closing scene of "I Remember You" as one of the show's most emotionally effective minutes. It's fitting, I suppose, that a show with the word "Time" in its title would be, in the end, so preoccupied with the way that life changes over long eras and that it would recognize that the run of a TV show itself from pilot to finale is as much of an era as the eons that span this series's actual plot; but to have Adventure Time conclude with a rumination on the passage of time and the temporal nature of all things really caught me off guard in the best way possible. "Time is an illusion that helps things make sense, so we are always living in the present tense. It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends, but you and I will always be back then." So long, Adventure TimeGrade: B+

Music


Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People EP (2010)
Aw yeah, here we go. I was worried for a second after my measured feelings about Illinois that I wasn't going to get too excited about any future Sufjan released, but this is entirely my cup of tea. Something of a concept album (or EP, I guess, though it's an hour long, which I know is the point, he's playing around with our format definitions, but come on) involving the theological problem of evil/pain and the main melody of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence," a description that is not even scratching the surface of how bonkers and grandiose and effective this record is. Sufjan is using an orchestra again, but this time, he's turning the collective sound of the instruments into a veritable cacophony swirling around a dissonant electric guitar, against which a typical Sufjan chorus of voices must shout—as fitting a musical metaphor for the album's central ideas as any. It's a record that whips between the cosmic and the personal; on one end of the album are the grand abstractions of the title track, and at the other end, a direct address to Sufjan's own sister, Djoharia, and all the pain she has experienced, and the juxtaposition is as striking and beautiful as the music itself. I love every second of it, and while I suppose there are people who are going to look at the pomp of the album's instrumentation and the sprawl of its track length (we're dealing with an 11-minute title track and a 17-minute closer here), let me remind everyone that I have a long-running series on this very blog about my undying love for progressive rock. Grade: A


Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz (2010)
And to imagine that Sufjan would release something even better that very year. The Age of Adz is a masterpiece, full stop, a revisiting of the themes of All Delighted People (released just two months prior to Adz) but filtered through a confessional interiority; it's an album about Sufjan himself (his name is explicitly invoked at numerous times during the record), his sexuality, his own selfishness and sophomoric tendencies, and the imperfections of his belief in the power of language itself to reconcile these issues. This is an album whose first track ends with the line, "Words are futile devices," a searing self-critique by an artist who has often positioned his own words in a place of power over the world, using them to subjugate whole states at a time, to say nothing of his authoritative naming of his sister just a few months prior. It's blisteringly sad, a man chronicling the crumbling of his faith in the aesthetic institutions of his past at the same time he's using those aesthetics to interrogate the psychological trauma in his past that made him use that aesthetic philosophy as a refuse to begin with. "Stupid man in the window," Sufjan cries (presumably at himself) near the album's end, his voice fractured and masked by a vocoder, his own words mangled by the technology he's embraced. But in the end, the album argues, all this is solipsism, and solipsism is its own kind of trauma—a self-flagellation that only drives one further inward and further isolated. The real solution, not just to the interior problems of this album but also to the thorny theological ones in Adz's companion, All Delighted People, is not self-hate or isolation but collectivism—"Boy, we can do much more together," goes the album's extended, triumphant, singalong outro, and the message is clear: humanity, not words, is the true useful device. It's heaven, not hell, that's other people; the true potential of creation is in a radical embrace of togetherness, of community. It's an unlikely mirror image to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, another 2010 album about the prison of one's own self-obsessed psychology; the difference is, Sufjan actually found a way out. Grade: A+

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Mini Reviews for September 3 - 9, 2018

Unpaid promotion time: if you live in Knoxville, go check out Central Cinema, which is just about the most exciting thing going on in film culture in our city, the sort of thing that's only supposed to happen in big cities like Los Angeles: a small, locally run theater that screens a mix of classics, cult classics, and modern indie films. There's nothing else like it in Knoxville, and folks, we gotta keep this wonderful thing alive.

Movies

Support the Girls (2018)
A complete delight from beginning to end, edging right up to a greatness that I rarely see in this brand of small-stakes, low-aesthetic American independent cinema. The film captures beautifully that feeling of working a minimum wage job you hate with a bunch of people whom you (most of the time) love, something I haven't done enough to really speak on definitively but have done enough to identify with; there are several moments where Regina Hall's character steps out the back door into the alley behind the restaurant she manages, and I swear that could have been the alley behind movie theater where I worked in college, and she could have been my old manager (similarly beloved as Hall's character) taking a smoke. Also, this movie just gets suburban Texas in a way that no movie outside the oeuvre of Richard Linklater does, right down to the "highway sounds like the ocean" line—again, speaking from personal experience. But even though that's where my personal identification with the movie ends (I've never stepped foot in a "breastaurant," much less worked there as one of its servers, nor had to deal with the systematic sexism that faces the film's female cast at all turns), that's only the half of the film's greatness, whose generous characterizations and absolutely radiant cast give a deep well of pathos to Andrew Bujalski's already crackling, lightly satiric screenplay. Support the Girls is a warm, tragicomic character study, an off-handed-but-pointed critique of capitalism (and lord, especially corporate capitalism, geez, you'll know the scene when you see it), a workplace comedy, a slice-of-life observation, an ensemble drama, and about two dozen other marvelous things, all without ever feeling belabored or overstuffed, and I am over the sun, moon, and stars for this motion picture. Go see it, y'all. Grade: A

Lean on Pete (2018)
This is sad in a way that's often more numbing than it is incisive, and I feel like there's a nightmarishly tragic episode too many in this picaresque plot (especially *SPOILERS*the part near the end with the abusive drunk*END SPOILERS*). That said, Lean on Pete also often feels deeply human in its tragedy, and the American West is always a breathtaking locale for soulfully bleak emotional journeys. The cinematography and location shooting here are the MVPs, for sure, and they carry a lot more weight than anodyne lines like "When you don't have anywhere else to go, you're stuck." Grade: B




Revenge (2017)
Points for being as stylish as it is—Revenge is as handsomely crafted and visually thoughtful as it is a mean, muscular little action thriller, and that's rare enough that I'm willing to savor what's here. But I dunno, surely we're past the point where a rape-revenge story is subversive in any way, right? I don't really get the acclaim for this being some landmark in feminist film; all the gender stuff is thin and exploitative when it isn't outright gaze-y, and nothing about the gore-soaked back half of the film does much to actively take apart the premise of the (literally) nakedly horny, male-heterosexual camera movements in the film's opening half hour. I guess there's always the possibility that it's playing up the objectification to a parodic degree, but honestly, if I didn't already know it was a woman behind the camera, I wouldn't be reaching for such a generous reading. Grade: B-

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marché) (2015)
Hey, it's another European arthouse movie whose aesthetic is based entirely around handheld camerawork and a drab, grey color scheme. Is the story meandering and grounded in a stultifying naturalism? Is the dialogue hushed and semi-improvised, and are the performances subdued? Is the poster an uninteresting still from the film with sans serif font plastered on top (with maybe a few stamps from festival awards)? You guessed it. It's not really The Measure of a Man's fault in particular; I'm just reaching a breaking point with this aesthetic right now, and this may have been the final straw. I honestly feel a little bad that I wasn't more engaged by the film's story of a man wandering through the various humiliations and mundane tediums that come with being out of work. At least the story has a built-in reason for why the movie's so boring. But jeepers creepers, thematically relevant boredom is still boredom. Grade: C

Blind Chance (Przypadek) (1987)
Typical Kieślowski metaphysics, which is cool, but kind of grimy and cheap-looking in that late-Cold-War style that I've never been a huge fan of. Kieślowski's best work usually pairs the big questions of fate and synchronicity and deity with a stunning aestheticism that reaches for transcendence, and I didn't quite realize how much the success of the philosophical inquiry was riding on his films being so visually gorgeous until I was confronted with this blandish bit of European austerity. So the hard look at the forces that form ideology (which this film posits as determined by reality's arbitrary yet programmatic cause-effect chain, which is an intriguing idea but also seems kind of simplistic to me, for what it's worth) never really gripped me as much as it should have. But philosophical inquiry is philosophical inquiry, and I'm nothing if not a sucker for a movie reaching far beyond its grasp into the fabric of the universe, so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't interested at all. And the movie certainly deserves points for being the first of the Run Lola Run-type "what if fate hinged on small, random occurrences" experiments. Grade: B

Music

Sufjan Stevens - Come On Feel the Illinoise (2005)
Call me crazy like Mary Todd (who went insane, but for very good reasons), but to me, Illinois (or, okay, Come On Feel the Illinoise) feels like a considerable step down from both Michigan and Seven Swans, which I guess puts me in opposition to the general consensus, which seems to regard this as one of Sufjan's very best. Jettisoning the interesting, spare arrangements of Michigan, Illinois's orchestral instrumentation is busy (often overly so) and conventional, and the lyrics are similarly overbearing, often belaboring the state connections instead of building the organic stories and introspections that Michigan did. I'm thinking particularly of "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," which seems to have pulled a muscle trying to rope Illinois and Jesus into the same song, to say nothing of the sort of silly loud-soft dynamic between the chanty, raucous chorus (and are those the horns from the All Things Considered theme?) and the whispery, guitar-plucked verses. "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" doesn't fare much better, a song that is basically none other than a long list of Illinois allusions and some obvious string arrangements. It's not bad exactly, but it's nowhere near as visionary nor engaging as either of Sufjan's previous two albums, nor is it as weird as Michigan or especially not Enjoy Your Rabbit and A Sun Came (though it's similarly eclectic as the latter), and overall, this strikes me as exactly what I had assumed Sufjan's State Project would amount to: a kind of gimmicky record that feels like it was conceived from a tourist brochure and doesn't add up to much more than just a musical version of that with some random Christianity thrown in. In the interest of not being too harsh on an album that is still pretty okay, though, I will say that there are some excellent songs on the record in the midst of the more eye-rolly stuff; in particular, "Casimir Pulaski Day," which is about as heartbreaking a song as Sufjan Stevens ever wrote, and "Jacksonville," which is one of the few times that the full orchestration on the album feels like it's adding something more than just clutter. I also really like "Chicago," a song that basically does the same thing as "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts" (i.e. loud-soft orchestral instrumentation in service of an Illinois-allusive theology), but for whatever reason, it works way better for me here than in the other song. So I mean, it's still an alright record. I just was expecting more after the last two. Grade: B

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mini Reviews for August 27 - September 2, 2018

It's that time of the month: when all the Netflix movies start expiring from streaming and I watch a random hodgepodge of stuff. Enjoy.

Movies

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)
I want the rom-com to come back, but I guess part of having the rom-com come back is coming to grips with the fact that I will not like a good chunk of them. I get why people enjoy this: it's light and sweet and wholesome, and the importance of its Asian-American protagonist cannot be overstated as a representational milestone within the genre. And it's absolutely no fun to trash on this kind of movie, but... I dunno, I need more than milquetoast sweetness and a genial cast to help me enjoy this. The restlessness I got watching To All the Boys is the same restlessness I get whenever someone shows me a beloved Disney Channel Original Movie, with all apologies to the many fine people who enjoy those, too. This movie's two biggest liabilities—having a strong screenplay and having interesting visuals—are things that the DC movies (and, if we're being honest, the lion's share of the last major rom-com wave—and I'm totally including the Apatow films in that, too) were never really interested in, which is fine but also means that what I want to see in a movie and what this movie wants me to enjoy will be incompatible. Also, I felt mildly attacked by the film's insistence that staying at home on a Saturday night to read and/or watch movies is the height of desperate loneliness. Some people just like doing that, movie! There are dozens of us! Grade: C

White God (Fehér isten) (2014)
This has to be a joke, right? White God is basically agitprop, but with dogs instead of the working class—fetch, stay, heel... comrade. Or if I flip it around, it's sort of like the Hungarian New Wave version of those '90s family movies where an estranged parent has to learn to love their child, and there are cute animals involved who foil the villains in the end—didn't I see this same thing in Air Bud: Golden Receiver, just with less handheld camera and fewer pretensions of realism? Anyway, it's a bonkers concept that I can get behind, but one that doesn't really kick into gear until the final thirty minutes; up until then, it's just some really generic European austerity cinema. The dog footage is impressive (I'm not sure if a dog trainer or a sharp editor is responsible for the cohesive way the film builds its canine personalities, but whoever it is deserves a prize), but the rest of the movie is a real drag. Grade: C

Wendy and Lucy (2008)
There's the famous line in "Born to Run"—"the highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive"—but you've actually got to go back to the album's first song, "Thunder Road," to find out what happened to those heroes: "They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets." The automobile has never been about the automobile: it's about the false promises of freedom and autonomy in the modern American landscape, the lie of the American Dream. In the movie, Wendy (a name that actually makes a frequent appearance on Born to Run, if I'm going to fully commit to this analogy) doesn't have a Chevrolet; it's an Accord, the supposedly responsible car to own. But even that's a trap, a deceptive hope ("I'm just passing through") that distracts from the fact that the world, for all its small moments of kindness—and there are several in Wendy and Lucy, and they are beautiful—the world is structured in such a way that society's operating principle is swift punishment, not grace. It's fitting, if crushing, that Wendy sheds the pretenses of individualistic Americana throughout the movie—her car and her dog—and in the end adopts the older, collectivist Americana of the train, a collectivism built on the back of exploitation and coercion—but what other choice does she have? It's also fitting that her final action in the film is an acknowledgement that she will never live up to what the billboards promise or the car commercials dream. One broken engine, and the entirety of America's systematic cul-de-sacs is laid bare—that's the brilliance of what director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt does here. Grade: A

Casino (1995)
Watching Scorsese's post-Goodfellas "wall-to-wall music and lifestyle porn juxtaposed with toxic masculinity" movies (this and The Wolf of Wall Street) and feeling like they are just fine, nothing great, and significantly flawed makes me kind of wonder about my belief that Goodfellas is one of the greatest American films—like... what if it just there first? Still, if I can battle through the haze of nostalgia, I do think a crucial difference between Goodfellas and Casino is not just that Goodfellas was first but that it has a much stronger moral point of view. Part of it might be the dueling voiceover narrations, which, I think, ground the movie much less firmly in an unreliable perspective than Goodfellas's does, but moreover, there's some magical tipping point where the glamorous excess of the rich and reprehensible protagonists of this film begins to crowd out the implicit critique of toxic masculinity and the just-slightly-legal world of the casino itself, and Casino jumps right over that point and tumbles into this weird space where it's clear that these dudes are "bad," but there's nothing that really makes you feel viscerally that they are. It also doesn't help that the person most affected by the protagonists is Sharon Stone's character, which, while Stone gives this performance 110%, is nonetheless a sort of harpy stereotype and moreover also a reprehensible character whose reprehensibility is, in the movie's logic, portrayed as at least as much of a problem as the mob bosses's terribleness. But I'm waxing long about this movie's flaws when, in fact, I think it's pretty alright, so here's this: the soundtrack is absolutely baller (though I could maybe do without Scorsese dropping "Gimme Shelter" in the exact same place in each of his movies), and the movie's cinematic energy would be impressive in a movie half Casino's length and is downright miraculous over this film's three hours, to say nothing of that magnificent shot from the POV of a straw as cocaine is snorted through it. And on a thematic level, as problematic as some of its mechanics are, it's fascinating to view this movie as the middle piece of an arc beginning with Goodfellas and culminating with The Wolf of Wall Street, wherein Scorsese draws increasing equivalency between legal behavior our whole society is complicit in and the despicable organized crime our society purports to fight. Grade: B

Destiny (Der müde Tod) (1921)
A really lovely little fable that takes some of the best of German Expressionism and gives it the ruddy phantasmagoria of something like The Canterbury Tales. I guess it kind of comes with the territory of European silent film, but there is a lot of brown and yellow face, as well as some pretty bad racial caricatures here (and some things I assume are racial caricature, like some of the Chinese characters having grotesquely long fingernails—is this a thing? I'm not super-informed about Chinese history and culture). But the film also gives great dignity and humanity to a lot of its non-white characters, too, and each of the film's vignettes is a carefully (if archetypally) composed to confront the pathos of human mortality head-on. And that imagery, y'all! It's Fritz Lang in the director's chair, so no surprises here, but the mix of Gothic, almost metal imagery (Death's room of candles that hold human souls, for example) with precise tableau of seriously impressive set design (kind of like Intolerance, but on a budget and more carefully composed) is perfect for the film's narrative(s). In fact, I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say that the imagery carries the movie, given how broad the film's narrative archetypes are. Grade: B+

Music

Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans (2004)
The vibe I get from the Sufjan fanbase (and critics) is that Seven Swans is sort of the lesser release—almost a side project—that Sufjan occupied himself with between the Michigan and Illinois state projects. And I'm not exactly going to buck that consensus; at only 47 minute, it's certainly less sprawling than Michigan, and the song structures are a lot more conventional, free from the minimalist repetitions and the lengthy, multi-part epics of the likes of "Oh God, Where Are You Now?" But Seven Swans has a lot more to offer than just a signpost between larger records. It is, for one, a lot more surprising in its use of instrumentation than Michigan, which is an album whose stylistic proclivities are all pretty much laid out after its first few tracks; Seven Swans, on the other hand, has the chants at the beginning of "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" and the classic-rock electric guitar on "Sister" and and the organ on "We Won't Need Legs to Stand" all sorts of other one-off musical flourishes that are without precedent or posterity on the album. If Michigan is the structurally experimental album, then Seven Swans is (more mildly so, given the sedate folk-rock proclivities) the instrumentally experimental one. It is, moreover, a more literary and therefore a more mystical album than Michigan. Whereas the previous album is very much about spiritual malaise and nuanced expressions of interiority, Seven Swans is much more comfortable connecting those interior feelings to larger streams of human experience, using lyrical personas to navigate a host of songs based around either literary ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find") or biblical ("Seven Swans," "The Transfiguration"). On Michigan, the world is one where the holy is seen through meditations on the smallest details; the world of Seven Swans is one where the spiritual is practically bursting the seams of the physical world as it explodes into our vision. I like this idea a lot, though I think ultimately I'm always going to find Michigan's more meditative approach to be more interesting. But Seven Swans is no small potatoes. Grade: B+

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mini Reviews for August 20 - 26, 2018

For some reason, I went on a "sprawling, imperfect visionary films" kick this week, with mixed results.

Movies

Blockers (2018)
I'm far too late to the game to feign surprise that Blockers is so good, but I am at least pleased that it lived up to the somewhat backhanded hype of "it's better than its trailer!" To continue the backhanded mood, I will say that the movie is never better than in its first hour, and while I'm exceedingly grateful that this is the rare modern American comedy somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 minutes, I do think that there isn't really enough movie to make the last act—a largely sentimental pileup of thin character moments—work nearly as well as I wished. Maybe it isn't the spry runtime so much as the fact that the movie barely characterizes its teen characters, who are largely frictionless players in an eyebrow-raisingly idealized night of binge drinking and 'shroom-eating; outside of a gross and somewhat unnecessary vomiting incident (followed by one of the most impressive alcohol-poisoning recoveries I've ever seen), there is not a lot that actually goes wrong on the teen end of things in this movie. Contrast this with Superbad (sorry to bring up such a dude-centric movie in comparison to such a female-centric film, it's just what came to mind first), where the escalating problems of the virginity-losing night help define each character pristinely—there just isn't enough for our Blocker teens to do for me to feel like I know them outside of some very broad personality traits, and while I realize the problem-free teen plot is part of the point (hey, I guess it's not so disastrous to give teens a tad bit of freedom—at least, upper-middle-class, uncannily responsible and savvy teens), it also doesn't do the mechanics of the film any favors. But lordy, I'm being so negative about a movie that is really quite good, so lemme talk about the parents in this movie, who are pretty much perfection and, unlike their kids, actually encounter a whole movie of problems (and a bunch of ass beer, a phrase that made me giggle far more than it should have). The Cena-Mann-Barinholtz trio has one of the best comic dynamics I've seen in an ensemble American comedy in a long, long time, and the script plays precisely to these actors' strengths in relation to one another. Unsurprisingly, John Cena is a fantastic physical comedian, and everyone already knows Leslie Mann is amazing, but I was actually really caught off guard how much I liked Ike Barinholtz's street-wise buffoon; there's an impressive amount of pathos in that performance, and while the movie has no shortage of great lines and deliveries, Barinholtz undoubtedly does the best in timing the comedic cadence of his dialogue. Anyway, the movie's very funny and at least half its cast is well-served, and I wish it were possible to mash this movie with Game Night, 2018's other strong American comedy, so I could make a super movie that was visually stylish in addition to being as comedically sharp as Blockers is. I dunno if that would solve either of the movies' third-act problems, though. Grade: B+

Byzantium (2012)
Byzantium isn't anything particularly new for vampire movies, but there's a floridness to the film that I really connected with, the feeling that immortality sprawls out before these characters in the same tortured, languorous way that the characters' speech spools from their mouths. This feels like what Angel and Buffy were always going for when they did the flashback episodes that showed us Angel and Spike running around in the 1800s and stuff, only it works much, much better here, likely because of the budget and the fact that Neil Jordan is twice the director—on a sheer spectacle scale—that anyone on those shows ever was. The overall story doesn't quite ever find its feet, but the feel of the movie is rich. It's bleak but sumptuous, and Saoirse Ronan is magnificent. Grade: B+

The Road (2009)
As a movie, it's fine, I guess—a little gray, which is the point, probably, and a lot grim, which is another point. But as an adaptation, it's a good case study in why exactly it can be a bad idea to be so slavishly faithful to a source material. First of all, it accentuates any minor deviation from the book (there are a few here, and they land like bombs); second of all, it highlights all the ways in which some specific stories are better suited to one medium than another: e.g. this dystopia, which, despite being more or less accurately transcribed into film, feels far more at home in McCarthy's lean, world-weary prose than in director John Hillcoat's sooty camera. It's honestly kind of boring onscreen. Grade: C+


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
In a sort of meta twist on the Punk'd / Jackass cultural landscape of the mid-2000s that clearly birthed this project, Borat isn't just about pranking the dumb schmucks onscreen that Sacha Baron Cohen encounters in-character on the streets of America; it's about baiting us, the audience members, into laughing at (or worse, not even questioning) Cohen's willfully reductive, inaccurate take on central Asia and thereby proving our own bigotry toward that region—xenophobia weaponized against xenophobia, Kazakhstan First to bring out all the America Firsties. It's a completely ballsy (uh, literally) gambit, and given the litany of my high school peers who, in 2006, incessantly guffawed and quoted "Very nice" and "Great success" in terrible accents, the bait was tremendously (horrifyingly) effective. It's all very punk rock and transgressive, and I think I'm seeing in this what a lot of my other cinephile peers are seeing in Jackass. That said, it's still a bit conceptual for my tastes, high-wire and impressive though the concept may be, and given that absolutely nobody I ever heard quoting the xenophobic shtick seemed to be in on the joke, it's just sort of depressing that all this meticulous work exposing American prejudice went into what ultimately became a decontextualized meme. Grade: B

Gangs of New York (2002)
Gangs of New York is a masterpiece of set design, and it captures with great detail something I'm always immensely interested in, which is the emergence of 20th-century American institutions and conventions out of the relative anarchy of the country's first century (see also: Deadwood). This doesn't prevent the film's nearly three hours from being a slog at times, though, nor does it make Cameron Diaz's or Leonardo DiCaprio's characters any more interesting. I keep seeing people praise Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, which is fine, I guess, but also, it mostly just made me want to watch There Will Be Blood. Basically, this is what happens when Scorsese doesn't have a good screenplay. Grade: B-


Dune (1984)
David Lynch attempts the impossible and tries to adapt Frank Herbert's notoriously unadaptable Dune. Of course he fails—it's a famous failure that anyone could (and should) have seen coming a mile away. The funny thing is, Dune is full of stuff I usually love in Lynch movies: transcendental mysticism, alternating body-horror and Freudian imagery, Kyle MacLachlan, opaque plotting involving otherworldly forces, goofy affection for old Hollywood norms (it feels very much like some mash-up between The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra, but in space), acting at a bizarre register, an acting cameo from ol' David Lynch himself. But somehow, when presented in a Dune context, this is all crushingly boring. When your score involves both Toto and Brian Eno but somehow ends up sounding generic anyway, that's the canary in the coal mine, my friends. Grade: C-

Television

Trial & Error, Season 2 (2018)
I'm hoping this (now cancelled) show gets picked up by Netflix or Hulu or someone à la Brooklyn Nine-Nine, because it's so good. Taking the lightly surreal elements of Season 1 and cranking them up significantly, Season 2 of Trial & Error is every bit the superior set of episodes, mining the increasingly strange small-town setting (something like Pawnee mixed with Monty Python) for some singular pieces of TV comedy. Some of it is fleeting—e.g. how each episode Anne is revealed to have a new psychological condition (my favorite: she has a condition that makes her eyes stay closed for long periods of time, so she has someone paint eyeballs on her eyelids, to hilarious and nightmarish effect); but other bits are recurring, and they accumulate in an impressive commitment to worldbuilding and continuity—like, for example, the Reed/Pecker feud that influences everything from the social dynamics of the town right down to the slang the characters use. And in the midst of this, the show somehow makes room for an engaging murder mystery and well-rounded characters who are likable and even sweet without ever really losing their essential comedic kernal. This is one of the better network sitcoms we've gotten in a while; come on, NBC, why would you give this up? Grade: A-

Books

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (2018)
Like a lot of biographies/memoirs of celebrities who have gotten this level of success and artistic freedom (Bruce Springsteen's autobio also comes to mind), Room to Dream is at its most engaging when it's dealing with David Lynch's childhood and early career, where he feels much more within the chaos of bohemian life (there's an amusing/terrifying anecdote recounted in the book involving a young Lynch fending off burglars in his inner-city Philadelphia home with a sword) than later in his career, when he has a team of assistants who cook lunch for him and stuff. This is compounded by the format of the book itself, which is split between traditional biographical writing by Lynch's long-time friend Kristine McKenna and more memoir-ish recollections told in first person by Lynch himself; Lynch's recollections are far more interesting and poetic when he's dealing with events far in the past, which both raises the question of how much these events have been warped by the tricks of memory over decades but also illustrates with great detail exactly the kind of off-kilter mythologizing that Lynch's mind makes of the world around him. So not only does Lynch's life become more straightforward and comfortable as he gets older; his narration seems less steeped in Lynch's own sensibilities. That's not to say that the whole book isn't interesting, though, and fans of his films and other projects (i.e. yours truly) will find a lot of anecdotes and information to tickle their brains. I also wonder, though, what this book would be like if it weren't quite so cozy with Lynch himself; that McKenna has known the man for so long is surely a boon to the book in many ways, but also, it's a very genial biography, despite some bits that seem like they should be a bit more probing (especially when the book talks of his relationships with women, which is routinely depicted as somewhat messy but also quirkily, endearingly so—apparently his ex-wives have all made peace with Lynch's penchant for serial infidelity and work-before-family habits, but even so, I wonder what someone who wasn't Lynch's friend might have made of this). But I'm being unduly negative; David Lynch is an exceedingly interesting person even when he's older and more comfortable, and the behind-the-scenes information about his work is fascinating. Even if it isn't a great read, it's still a very good one, and one I'd recommend to Lynch fans. Grade: B+

Music

Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids - An Angel Fell (2018)
A jazz and worldbeat fusion that's sort of a concept album in the vein of some of the spiritual jazz luminaries of the 1970s. I wish the album swung a bit more for the fences, musically—there are some touches of free jazz, but nothing nearly so ambitious as John Coltrane's Ascension, which makes the spiritual dimensions of An Angel Fell feel comparatively flat. This is an album that could do with a bit more transcendence. Maybe it isn't fair for me to connect this to some of the most notable spiritual jazz of all time, so I'll just say this: there are very good passages here (I love the incorporation of violin and classical guitar in the opening track, for example) as well as some places that feel kind of thin (the chant-like "Land of Ra" is a centerpiece, but not a particularly compelling one). Still, if '70s spiritual jazz is your thing, or jazz that's reaching for something a bit bigger and more mystical than your typical jazz record, you might want to check this out. Grade: B

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Mini Reviews for August 13 - 19, 2018

Some of these are actually from last week, since I didn't have time to write them up. So enjoy this 1.5 week post.

Movies

BlacKkKlansman (2018)
To say that BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee's best movie in years—however true that is—undersells the merits of Lee's other recent output and understates some of the flaws of this film: most significantly, how its characters—and not just its white supremacist ones either but also its black activists and even its protagonist—are all kind of broadly painted and undercooked, given ideological speeches instead of interior depth. But on the other hand, BlacKkKlansman is without a doubt Lee's most driven film in years and the most Lee has had his finger to the pulse of the national mood since maybe The 25th Hour (a welcome change from, for example, the weirdly out-of-sync Chi-Raq). Animated with a punk-rock fury that rages at everything from 1910s Hollywood racism all the way up to the evils of the current Oval Office, the film is a polemic that truly burns, one whose narrative constantly reminds us of the connection between the past and the present (it would be too cute a touch that these 1970s characters keep spouting contemporary catchphrases like "America First" and "Make America Great Again" if it didn't feel like such a punch to the face every time), and whose ending montage feels like the universe of the film being rent in two, Persona-style, by our current political moment. That ending (I won't spoil it, but fair warning: it involves documentary footage of a very recent and public death) walks right up to the line of being exploitative, I think, but it fits with the directive of this movie, which, for as much as it couches its beats in humor (it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call at least 60% of this movie a straight-up comedy), is to upset viewers and shake them out of the complacency that Hollywood period pieces invite. "Wake up" is a phrase Lee has used throughout his career, and it makes another appearance here. In this case, though, the irony is that you can't wake up. It's all nightmare, all the way down. Grade: A-

The Rider (2018)
There isn't a lot to this movie, and what there is, the movie spells out again and again: Brady is a bronco rider who, due to a recent head injury, must never ride again, but who also, because of the various social and psychological pressures of being a poor man with few career prospects, desperately feels he must ride again. It's a fine idea, but the movie is far too eager to make sure we all understand it and doesn't really give much to think about except the inevitability of Brady's self-destructiveness once you get the film's thesis. Then there's how Brady is played by actual rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, and the rest of the movie is similarly thinly veiled documentary. I've been knocked for saying things like this before, but given the vacancy of Brady's performance in the film's dramatic pieces and the fact that the most interesting parts of the movie are the wordless footage of these actors just existing in their everyday lives both within the rodeo and without, I truly think this movie would have been much stronger if it had just gone full documentary. Still, there is some amazing landscape photography in the film's cinematography, and the pieces of the movie that gesture most toward documentary are very good indeed, probably worth enduring some of the script's clunkier bits of thematic exposition. Grade: B

Sausage Party (2016)
Being a sucker for animation can lead you into some dark alleys. I may have found the darkest alley of them all in Sausage Party. I hated every minute of this stupid, juvenile movie, from its hideous, sub-Illumination-Entertainment animation to its atrocious character designs to its pointlessly vulgar script to its incongruous reliance on racial stereotypes (which, like—wtf, movie; you'd think a story about sentient groceries would be the one place guaranteed to be free of racist humor). This is the sort of movie where a bagel and a lavash fighting is a parody of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and where the visual similarities between genitalia and a hot dog/bun form a central piece of the plot (and confusingly, the sex positions in the movie's orgiastic finale seems to posit that these groceries are not just genitalia themselves but also possess genitalia, which just raises further questions), and I just... there's just no other way to put this: man, I hated it. Its humor (assuming we allow talking vegetables saying R-rated profanities and talking about sex to count as "humor," since that's about all this movie has by way of "jokes") is vapid and tediously unfunny and far too impressed of its own ability to say "fuck," and the themes are, uh, shall we say, undercooked. About those themes, too: since this movie wants so desperately to be taken seriously in its theology (I know, right?), I think it's entirely fair to complain that the movie's insistence that hedonism is the best response to theism (I can't believe I'm typing this about an insipid talking hot dog movie) is the least-interesting critique of organized religion possible, especially when said theism is a cover for gods who literally devour you and your peers; seriously, the most pressing issue here is sexual gratification? Not that sexual liberation is a worthless endeavor, but this movie isn't really about sexual liberation (though there are a few gestures toward the way that organized religion shames sexuality, esp. for women); it's about dudes getting their rocks off, which makes the film's narrative bereft of even the significance of liberation. This movie's characters face an existential threat of literally biblical proportions, and the best alternative is just to have a gigantic orgy? What about individual dignity? What about human (grocery?) rights? What about justice? What about the unstoppable entropy of the universe? What about beauty, art, and meaning? This is the thing I hate most about this movie, that it dares to reach beyond its sordid premise of hot dog = penis into the realm of some very prickly philosophy, only then to say, "Who cares; at least we can have sex"—how very college freshman of the movie, and what a completely boring answer to the problems of theism. And we didn't even get any funny dick jokes out of it. Grade: D-

Hanna (2011)
I guess given that Saoirse Ronan is a delight and Joe Wright is usually at least stylistically interesting and the Chemical Brothers are pretty cool that I should have expected a movie starring Saoirse Ronan, directed by Joe Wright, and scored by the Chemical Brothers to be more than the generic action thriller I was preparing myself for. There are some legitimately breathtaking moments of cinematography/mis-en-scène synergy in this film, and any movie that stages the climactic showdown between heroine/villain with the villain coming out of a tunnel shaped like the jaws of a gigantic wolf is going to get positive marks from me. That said, given the director, there's really no excuse for the number of generic visuals and action beats existing right alongside some of the really cool visuals, and the editing is really choppy—you can do better than some of this, Joe! Moreover, I'm not sure that all the cool fairy-tale visual flair adds up to a complete picture—which, (again) given the director, I guess I should have expected, too. Still, when it's good, it's mighty good, and I am all for idiosyncratic blockbuster fare like this, even when it isn't entirely successful. More wolf mouths, please. Grade: B

Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
Airplane II: The Sequel apparently decided that the funniest parts of the original movie were the parts that have aged the least well—the sexual humor, some of the racial dynamics, the random topless women (seriously, does this movie set a record for boobs in a PG movie, even in the pre-PG-13 era?)—so of course this movie doubles down on all that. It might have been able to pull off at least something decent if it were at all tuned into the specific goofy wavelength of its predecessor. But alas, Airplane II: The Sequel steps over that weird invisible line that divides Airplane!'s transcendently straight-faced silliness from the desperate zaniness of hoping that something, anything sufficiently absurd will be funny. It again might have pulled it off if it was willing to go to some truly absurd places, but this movie is just kind of lazy about that, too, and we're just left with a movie that wants very badly to hit upon something even half as brilliant as "don't call me Shirley" but can't muster anything more sophisticated than the dialogue equivalent of drawing mustaches onto the pictures in a magazine. Grade: C-

Television

Anne with an E, Season 2 (2018)
This revisionist take on Anne of Green Gables continues to have the strengths and weaknesses of last year's debut season, only even more so. The cast is on-point, especially Amybeth McNulty (who plays Anne with the perfect balance of enthusiasm and desperation—and kudos to the show for making Anne as occasionally irritating as she would likely be in real life), and the series's gestures toward infusing its characters with modern psychological concepts like PTSD and trauma often yields moving character beats. But at the same time, that impulse to modernize its characters also contributes to the series's occasional ludicrousness, too, especially when dealing with social issues, which the show tackles with a definitely "let's have the characters approach this from a 2018 perspective but pretend it's still the early 20th century" kind of way that's irritatingly anachronistic. More ludicrous still is the show's penchant for melodrama and even pulp, two things I'm not inherently opposed to but that are ill fits for the more soft-spoken dramedy this show is going for. Like, for example, did we need a multi-episode arc involving grifters faking a gold rush in Avonlea? Did we need Gilbert Blythe to go all Captains Courageous and sail to the Caribbean and fight slavery and aide romances and deliver babies (apparently, Gil knows how to do everything, which is another aspect of the show's ludicrousness)? Anne with an E's wild veering between tender, small-stakes coming-of-age and somewhat outrageous adventure serial plotting reminds me a lot of the Little House on the Prairie TV show from the '70s, and my overall response to this is similar to what I've always felt about that other one: good enough that it's not a pain to watch, but clearly too devoted to silliness to actually measure up to its full potential. Grade: B-

Angel, Season 2 (2000-2001)
As much as I enjoyed the supernatural police procedural elements of Angel's Season 1, I've got to admit, once it became clear that this was all Season 2 was going to be, I was a little disappointed, especially since Angel's Monsters of the Week are never nearly so inventive as their parallels on Buffy (which was, concurrent with Angel's second year, in the midst of its very good Season 5—there ain't no "The Body" here, folks). Plus, Angel himself is just not that interesting of a character, a mere pileup of brooding male archetypes that's only sometimes engaging and rarely fun. That said, the other characters (gotta love Cordelia and Wesley) are a good enough time that I stuck it out, which is good, because the ending of this season throws off all semblance of procedural and quickly becomes bonkers in the best way possible, transforming the show from a Perry Mason analogue into some strange beast that resembles none other than Xena: Warrior Princess. It's great. Great enough that I guess I'll stick around for Season 3. Grade: B

Music

R+R=Now - Collagically Speaking (2018)
In what is shaping up to be a very good year for jazz, Collagically Speaking may just be the best of the bunch. R+R=Now, a supergroup featuring Terrace Martin, Christian Scott, and Robert Glasper, among others, plays a tight fusion that intersects jazz with contemporary R&B and hip-hop (even trap) punctuated by occasional spoken word pieces from celebrities like Terry Crews, resulting in a vibrant, inventive hour-plus that's frequently stunning and never boring. People talk about modern jazz being old and dying and out-of-touch, and maybe some of it is. But there's no better exhibition of how the current wave of young jazz musicians is putting the genre in conversation with other commercial genres that R+R=Now. Jazz isn't dead. It's reborn. Grade: A-

Sufjan Stevens - Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State (2003)
I'm finally out of the woods (the mildly pleasant woods, at that) of Sufjan's early albums and now emerging into the sunlight of his output that everyone seems to like. Count me in on that. Michigan (or, at iTunes and the CD cover want me to call it, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State) is an extremely good album that tones waaaay down the dissonance and structural experimentation of Sufjan's first two albums and instead refines his folk-rock flourishes. Only it's not really folk rock; I mean, some of it is ("Romulus," for example—a very good song), but the majority of it is filled so fully to the brim with lush, unconventional instrumentation and swirling arrangements that it transcends the Americana roots of Sufjan's singer-songwriter foundations and becomes almost orchestral. In fact, large sections of this album's music relies on repetition and looping measures to such a degree that it resembles a Philip-Glass-style minimalism as much as it does folk music, and I dig that quite a bit. On a different note, I guess I was expecting Sufjan Stevens's touted "Fifty States Project" to be a bit more gimmicky, but the songs here are real songs, not just the postcards impressions of the album's song titles and cover—I'm not sure if I'm disappointed that Sufjan didn't go in that kitsch direction or not. But anyway, this is good stuff. Grade: A-

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Mini Reviews for August 6 - 12, 2018

Bare-bones post this week because this weekend was super busy. Enjoy.

Movies


The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
On a purely cinematic metric, the movie looks like used socks, and the improvised dialogue is as inconsistent as any improvised dialogue (fitting for the movie that kicked off the Apatow-core wave of American comedy). There's also the unshakable feeling that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too, regarding its titular protagonist—stressing that it's okay that a 40-year-old man has chosen not to have sex for decades while at the same time leaning into the stereotypical mockery of sexual naivety, e.g. haha Jack's a virgin and he rides a bike to work (though it is an incredible grace note the film grants late in its runtime when, after over an hour of hectoring, Andy is allowed express that he has the hobbies that he does because he likes them, not because he's some lonely loser—this bike-riding reviewer can relate). That said, there's something legitimately fascinating about the thematic ground this movie, uh, plows. For all the movies out there featuring male heterosexuality, there are strikingly few films that are actually about male heterosexuality like this is. For all its glib vulgarity, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a thoughtful and nuanced depiction of the various ways that heterosexuality and masculinity intersect and how this doesn't always (or have to) line up with the braying, hyper-phallic manifestation mandated by our social norms. In a way, this also accounts for the film's depiction of sexism and homophobia, two key components to the modern hetero-male code: the relentless, even panicked, impulse to define straight masculinity as not those other things—though again, here we get into the movie's simultaneous cake eating and cake having, as this exploration of sexism/homophobia is lamp-shaded but also used for jokes (most unfortunately, the extended "You know how I know you're gay" bit, which is unfunny in addition to homophobic, and I know that's the point, but also, come on, there's no way the movie isn't inviting us to laugh, too). So it's a mixed bag, but one that mixes toward positive for me. It helps that the movie's most inspired stylistic flourish—the (heh) climactic "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" dance sequence—is very inspired and unquestionably the correct note to end the movie on, so I'm sailing out of this movie on good vibes. Grade: B-


Down to the Bone (2004)
I'm not always a huge fan of the "early digital video = gritty realism" strain of American indie filmmaking, even when (as it is here) the digital video is more a budget decision than an aesthetic one. But that this movie involves a women trying to stay sober is such a cogent rationale for the aesthetic—I've never tried to kick a drug habit, but I can't imagine that the world looks any brighter than grainy digital video for someone who is—and I'm willing to swallow my general apathy for a lot of the film's visuals on that philosophical basis alone. Vera Farmiga (in one of her early roles) is excellent throughout, and the story is a stirring blend of Stephen-Crane-brand naturalism and Bruce-Springsteen-brand humanism, all of which I enjoyed quite a bit. Director/co-writer Debra Granik's other two films are far this movie's superiors (more so than either Winter's Bone or Leave No Trace, this feels improvised and documentary-like in a way that feels more aimless than constructive to the narrative), but letting the comparison to those others stick in my craw would be to miss all the wonderful little things about this one. Grade: B


Irma Vep (1996)
As always, Assayas's film-industry satire feels both too easy and too inside-baseball, and I can't help but wish the movie wore its weirdness a bit more on its sleeve—the comparisons to Mulholland Drive I've seen are not inaccurate, and maybe it's unfair to want a movie to operate at Lynch's tenor (esp. a Lynch movie Irma Vep predates by five years), but still, can you imagine what it would be like if if the strangeness were dialed up just a degree or two here? That said, the ending is the perfect punchline—an arthouse director who, in his attempt to make a mass-appealing movie in the vein of a Van Damme vehicle, ends up making something even more aggressively experimental—while at the same time being a pretty searing indictment of sexual exoticism in film, which, after plowing through so many Disney movies this summer, I appreciate. And speaking of that, Maggie Cheung is beyond great playing the film's bizarro-world version of herself. Much love, Ms. Cheung. Grade: B+


A Few Good Men (1992)
Prior to watching this, I knew exactly one thing about A Few Good Men, and it was the same thing that everyone who hasn't seen A Few Good Men knows. So this whole 138-minute movie turned into this weird sort of jack-in-the-box of an experience, where I was waiting for "Pop! Goes the Weasel" to end and Jack Nicholson to jump out and say, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" The movie, running as it is on an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, is a real bastard about it, and it makes you wait until the very end, at which point it's immediately apparent why the moment is so iconic: the scene is by far the best thing in this movie. Outside of that, it's a decent-ish courtroom drama nearly ruined by the fact that Tom Cruise's character doesn't belong in this movie at all and that, by all reasonable standards, Cruise's and Demi Moore's characters should have been combined into one character. For a dramatist, Sorkin really isn't that efficient, and splitting the movie between Cruise and Moore gives both characters only half an arc apiece. Which is fine, I guess, but it never earns the almost ludicrously sincere starry eyes the film has for Cruise's character. Nor does, I'm afraid, the movie say anything very interesting about the military itself; the closest it gets is Nicholson's climactic speech where he uses a bunch of boilerplate propaganda about freedom and protection to justify the abusive behavior of the military toward its own, but Nicholson's character is much too obviously twirling his proverbial mustache for that to amount to anything insightful about the tension between (propagandistic) idealism and abuse in the armed forces. But yeah, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" is still pretty great. Grade: B-

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mini-Reviews for July 30 - August 5, 2018

Three cheers for school starting...

Movies

Eighth Grade (2018)
I was not an unusually unhappy middle schooler, but there were plenty of awful things that happened during those years. And boy, did Eighth Grade force me to remember each and every one of them. And if it wasn't hard enough just to be reminded of my own experiences, there's also the added vicarious pain of the way the movie shows again and again how its protagonist—Kayla, a sweeter and kinder middle schooler than I ever was—encounters one bad experience after another precisely because sweetness and kindness are not the currency of adolescence. Eighth Grade is an excruciating watch. I suspect this will be true for most viewers of the film. My wife had an even harder time (which makes sense—there is a lot of this movie that is specific to the particular social and sexual forces that torment young women, which I of course only recognized second-hand). Most middle schoolers are unhappy and lonely and confused and uncomfortable in their skins, trapped in the dissonance between their vibrant (and often silenced) interior lives and the reckless uncaring of the adolescent social structures around them. Like no other movie I've seen, Eighth Grade recognizes just how traumatic the litany of tiny tragedies that confronts all adolescents can be, despite their seeming inconsequentiality to adults (or even high schoolers) on the other side. Part of this is maybe just that Eighth Grade is mostly breaking new ground and the novelty can't help but be compelling (there are precious few movies that want to seriously depict the middle school experience); but also, I dare you to watch that pool party sequence and tell me that the movie isn't tapping into something deep and primal and utterly terrifying. Grade: A-

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Madeleine L'Engle's original novel is primarily a book of ideas, the foremost being to point out the ways in which modern society's increasingly bureaucratic and "rational" structures create environments that value conformity over love and that encourage hostility toward outsiders. Disney's adaptation largely jettisons these ideas in favor of a more interior central thesis about the importance of self-love, which... *sigh* is fine, I guess, in theory, although it's mighty convenient for Disney, the most corporate of corporations, to repackage such an anti-corporate novel into something more consistent with the company brand. Still, it's not a completely terrible idea to change the gigantic brain IT from a symbol of modern society's cold, loveless machine of profit and social control into a metaphor for the ways your own psychology can be your worst enemy. But the problem is that in getting rid of some of the pieces of L'Engle's message (the foil characters of Meg's WASPy twin brothers, for example), it also gets rid of a lot of the important character-development devices in the book like the family dynamics at the Murry family, which makes Meg's culminating action of familial love through self-love completely theoretical rather than the earned moment of sincere reflection and affirmation that the movie surely means it to be. Also, the kid actors in this movie are uniformly terrible (though Storm Reid is definitely the best of them), which makes it hard for that thing to happen that sometimes does where actors can breathe life into lifeless screenplay pieces. So like, I hate to be That Guy, but I wish they'd stuck a little closer to the book regarding its main ideas (and speaking of fidelity to the source material, surely it's just trolling to include the part where the witches list off all the light warriors from earth but then have them very conspicuously not name Jesus, right? I know they're going for a secular humanist vibe here, which is fine, but come on, did you even need that scene? That would have been the perfect opportunity to name, like, I dunno, the Buddha alongside Jesus, if the movie was worried about wading too deeply into L'Engle's Christianity. But fine, whatever.). I'll give the movie this, though: if the Hollywood blockbuster is going to continue to be dominated by the green screen, A Wrinkle in Time seems like one of the better embraces of that feature(?) of mainstream filmmaking since George Lucas codified the approach in the Star Wars prequels—the movie's CG visuals are sumptuous and completely devoid of any devotion to realism or pandering "maturity," which is exactly how it should be. I wish more movies had this go-for-broke approach to their special effects and this level of unself-consciousness at its own childlike sense of anything-goes, no matter how goofy (Lettuce Witherspoon forever!). It's possible that this commitment to spectacle is part of what cuts off at the knees the movie's time to develop believable characters. Still, it's cool to look at. So the film is a mixed bag, to say the least. But at least it fails in honest, heart-on-its-sleeve ways that modern Hollywood (esp. Disney) blockbusters are rarely allowed to these days, which maybe makes it worth a watch. Grade: C

Sweet Country (2017)
What begins as a western in the vein of The Ox-Bow Incident, only agonizingly slow (and set in Australia) eventually, in its final 30-40 minutes, turns into a sort of twist on To Kill a Mockingbird directed by an aboriginal man and following the accused person of color as its protagonist rather than cute kids whose innocence is being shattered by the cruelty of their society. And like To Kill a Mockingbird, the ending is utterly devastating, but unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, the focus on people of color leaves very little room for optimism in race relations. I can only approach this from an American point of view, but that this movie ends with the raising of a church steeple cross-cut with a man wailing at the heavens, "What chance has this country got?", it feels like an apocalypse that echoes still to this day. It's possible I'm letting this ending weigh too heavily on my overall evaluation of the film (the preceding hour-plus is really kind of dull for long stretches, despite the gorgeous cinematography), but I can't lie about how I'm feeling right now with the credits rolling. Grade: B+

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客) (2010)
I guess this is sort of like 300, just without the gratuitous stylistic flourishes or xenophobia. But like 300, I had a hard time with the masculine posturing of the violence, and I found it difficult to care much about the characters when so much of the movie is forward motion and chest-thumping (the fact that there are thirteen heroes just compounds this—I have no idea who these people are beyond their archetypes). That said, the finale is a legitimately great and elegant tapestry of fight choreography, particularly the very end when the lone villain faced down our lead hero. What happens with the villain in particular is haunting and surprising, and honestly, he may be the best character in the film? Grade: B-


Marie Antoinette (2006)
It probably leans too hard into the charms of its anachronistic alt-rock/ambient soundtrack (though I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a gigantic grin on my face seeing a bunch of 18th-century French aristocrats dance to Siouxsie and the Banshees). But the cinematography and the production design are legendary, and I really, really dig the emotional undercurrent of the film's emotions. Recontextualizing Marie Antoinette into a sexually awoken women whose sexuality is nevertheless exploited is inspired, and turning her into a semi-tragic female scapegoat for the entirety of the abuses of the French royalty is bold. Grade: B+



Animal Farm (1954)
The animation--a dark combination of drawn and painted that looks by turns cheap and breathtaking; the visibly painted fire effects are incredible, and the pigs are marvelously cunning in appearance, even if the rest of the animals are a bit too loosely designed for their own good. It's a decent adaptation of Orwell's original novel, too, the "cute" animal slapstick juxtaposed with the narrator's delivery of Orwell's writheringly satirical prose creating just the right amount of dissonance, though I'm loathe to accept the film's criminally dishonest ending. If the film had been made in 1989 or 1990, the idea of a second animal uprising overthrowing the pigs may have been a nice update of Orwell's mid-century depiction of the USSR; in 1954, it just feels like a lie. But the rest of the movie is mostly unimpeachable, though. Grade: B

Television


Trial & Error, Season 1 (2017)
A strange, fun mash-up between true crime and Parks & Recreation (just without the idealism), Trial & Error isn't blowing my mind, but familiar as it is, what it does, it does well. John Lithgow as a defendant who has guilelessly stumbled into literally the worst possible case against him (e.g. there is security footage of him buying a ski mask along with quicklime and a shovel) is never not entertaining, and Sherri Shepherd's spacey secretary beset by a host of increasingly off-the-wall psychological conditions adds a nice dose of surrealism to the otherwise naturalistic mockumentary format. My favorite, though, is Steven Boyer's cheerful, Gomer-Pyle-esque ignoramus, who delivers his stupid lines with such enthusiastic sincerity that it's hard not to love the guy. Like I said, it's nothing too mind-blowing, but this brisk season is good for a few days' entertainment. I'm looking forward to diving into the (currently airing) second season. Grade: B+

Books


Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
Ada is a Nigerian woman and also an Ogbanje, a chaotic spirit who, according to Nigerian mythology, is repeatedly born into the same family. Though to use "spirit" (singular) is a bit misleading—a whole host of spirits lives within Ada, running through her psyche as if it were an open-air edifice and taking control of her behavior from time to time. The resulting novel, which chronicles, though these narrating spirits, Ada's childhood and early adulthood, is something like a much pricklier literary-fiction rendition of Pixar's Inside Out, using intricate interior landscapes and characters as a way of depicting the psychological growth and developing identity of its protagonist. The novel's opening, which describes Ada's birth and early childhood, is breathtaking, and it's honestly a bit of a disappointment that the novel never regains that bewildering, bold mojo after that section passes. But the novel is also never not challenging and fascinating, and even when it's dealing with more traditional literary-fiction subject matter (e.g. going to college, dealing with trauma, etc.), the central device of the Ogbanje narrators always makes it feel fresh. This is an astoundingly confident and engaging debut novel, and I'm excited for what more Emezi will do. Grade: B+

Music


Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth (2018)
I guess Heaven and Earth is technically smaller than Washington's last full-length release, the triple album The Epic. But it doesn't feel that way. Sure, I guess Heaven and Earth is only two discs, but it's only a scant twenty minutes shorter (a mere blink when we're talking about 2-3 hour records here). More importantly, Heaven and Earth just sounds bigger than The Epic. The vocals, used as accents to The Epic's mostly Coltrane-ish jazz, have taken center stage here alongside a booming orchestra, which, again, was on The Epic a flavor added to Washington's central saxophone. As a result, the compositions on Heaven and Earth feel much more, well, epic than The Epic's, and they are also much more conspicuously constructed, with clear crescendos and movements and fewer opportunities for improvisation. This is simultaneously a savvy way of sidestepping the common criticism that Washington isn't really that great of an improviser to begin with and also a doubling down of what has become Washington's signature: high-concept, spiritual, and enormous. It, in fact, wouldn't be inaccurate to call Washington more this record's conductor than its lead performer, and I think the role serves him marvelously. Grade: A-