The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

April 23, 2018 by

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Paul: We wrote about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a few years ago. More recently, I found myself considering that film in relation to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both are ambitious national statements, attempting to get at the heart of what Britain and America, respectively, are all about. Both, also, filter these civilizational questions through quietly heartbreaking love triangles. Their tarnished heroes begin each film in old age, reflecting on the past. Obviously, no single story can encompass an entire country’s identity, and the similarities in perspective between these two films should give us pause. Still, I respond to that ambition, and I think the ambivalent conclusions these films reach are valuable. John Ford’s authority on the subject of the American West is still largely respected, and Liberty Valance is one reason why.

 

Macro questions aside, this movie is also a finely tuned drama, a series of collisions between archetypal personalities. At the very least, we get to enjoy the clash of two radically different incarnations of American masculinity in the forms of John Wayne and James Stewart — with Lee Marvin thrown in as a bonus. Tough question, perhaps, but who would you say is your favorite of those three?

 

Daniel: This was one of those times that I was violently reminded that there are some fantastic films and performances out of the primary spotlight of pop-culture. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has always been within my peripheral. Obviously John Ford has created some pillars in not only the Western genre, but in American Cinema history as a whole. Add to that being related to a number of John Wayne fans and a grandfather who I primarily remember watching exclusively westerns all the time, this was one I should have watched years ago. All the performances in this film were strong and believable and funny and sad. But between the shared heroes of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) I’d be leaning ever so slightly in favor of Stoddard. While my stereotypical-masculine-admiring upbringing has me absolutely loving John Wayne’s swagger, and no-nonsense approach to a problem, I find myself nowadays relating more to Stewart’s by the book conscience driven passion. I love that Stewart is given ample opportunity to explore emotional peaks and valleys. There’s really nothing quite like when he gets riled up in front of an audience.

 

That being said, I also really appreciated and didn’t quite expect the vulnerability displayed in the character of Tom Doniphon. He has a rough and tough surface, something we come to expect with Wayne’s portrayal of masculinity. But rather than a minor softening towards a given situation where he largely stays the same, when he loses “his gal” we see him utterly crushed. He destroys his life’s work in a fit of drunken passion. Seeing his walls tumble like that was heartbreaking and powerful, especially in consideration of his ultimate reasoning for the good deed he had just done. I haven’t touched on Lee Marvin’s titular character yet I guess. But that’s not to say there isn’t a ton to say there. I hated him in the best way possible. My strongest recollection of the actor’s work is the drunken gun-fighter in Cat Ballou in which he played a largely comedic role. He is such a good ruthless, hateable villain in this, making the anger and hatred spewing from Ransom all the more believable.

 

Paul: In terms of classic male types, there are plenty of great examples in the supporting cast as well: the comical fat guy (Andy Devine), the comical drunk (Edmond O’Brien), and the sad bartender-or-in-this-case-restaurant-owner (John Qualen). Even the sidekicks are great, from the quietly noble Woody Strode to the one-two punch of Silent Henchman Lee Van Cleef and Crazed Henchman Strother Martin. It’s a phenomenal cast, in short.

 

Back to the central conflict, though. I’ve always considered myself more of a Stewart man, too. So it’s interesting to me that the character and performance are allowed to be so unlikable, at least on occasion. Stoddard isn’t disturbed like some of Stewart’s characters in Hitchcock films. He’s an uncomplicated good guy who just happens to be a little smug sometimes, and the movie humiliates him accordingly. Clearly, Ford had more sympathy for Wayne, correctly viewing Doniphon as the more romantic and tragic character. Stoddard is the outsider, the lawyer from the east who wants to bring the unnamed territory of the story up to speed with civilization. Doniphon and Stoddard are on the same page when it comes to the ruthless Liberty Valance, but Doniphon doesn’t think much of Stoddard’s chances in a West still governed by brute force. So the conflict takes the form of the kind of glass-breaking power plays that Ford favored. Valance trips Stoddard while the latter is doing the “effeminate” work of waiting on tables. Doniphon steps in, and it becomes a contest of who can be made to pick the steak up off the floor. I love these macho battles, even as I agree with Stoddard that they’re pretty silly. Doniphon, like a few other Wayne characters in Ford’s films, becomes a Moses-like figure, crucial in paving the way for the West to join America, but not permitted to enter the Promised Land himself. This is the first movie I’d want to show anyone who doubts that John Wayne could act. Then again, he does say “pilgrim” an awful lot in this, which might be distracting to anyone who doesn’t already know how to look more closely.

 

Daniel: It’s almost obscene how many times Wayne uses the word pilgrim. It’s like John Wayne doing a parody of John Wayne. Or rather, all parodies of John Wayne are just a little too accurate. In any case I love the analogy of Doniphon (and a good number of Wayne’s characters for that matter) being a Moses character in that he’s not allowed to enter the land he helps find. It’s an especially poignant analogy when contrasted with the scene where he confronts the fact that everything he’s worked for, a wife and family a home, won’t happen. He’s first denied entrance into the promised land, and then sees another man live his legacy. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t tell anyone because that’s not the type of man he is. He is far more entertaining than Ransom. It’s interesting to see a genre so marked by violent masculinity give the spotlight to someone so opposed and disgusted by that very violence. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is hailed as a western that puts the brutal violence of the western genre under the scrutiny that it deserves, and yet here we see Ransom almost throw away his entire career because of the guilt he felt at killing a man that deserved to die. Sure, Doniphon had no qualms about it, and to be fair I didn’t feel at all bad for  Liberty and his deserved fate. If anything I think the audience is supposed to feel Ransom is being unreasonable in his guilt. Be that as it may it feels like a far more accurate depiction that a man might feel after committing an act they consider to be so repulsive. By believing that he killed liberty, Ransom’s entire being, his values all the morals he held dear were thrown away in a moment of rage. And that immorality is what propelled him towards the type of greatness he initially wanted.

 

And of course it’s well worth talking about Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). She’s placed squarely between the two male heroes of the film, the catalyst for most of the tension between them. Ransom and Doniphon are polar opposites and she finds herself somewhere in between. The progression of the story from her viewpoint shows her that the west is far more brutal than Ransom can handle and the future is too tame for Doniphon to stomach. When one man ultimately wins her affection it seals how the fate of both other parties.

 

Paul: Hallie might be a little underserved by the script. As an object of desire, she certainly is crucial to linking the two heroes in a common cause. Stoddard, at least, would probably have given up without her enthusiasm for his educational goals. But the huge personalities of the men in this movie block her out somewhat, so that I have some difficulty remembering much about her as an independent person. There’s some shouty Fordian humor, but I think there could have been more to the character. You’re absolutely right that she can see the virtues in both Stoddard and Doniphon, so she’s a kind of weathervane for the audience in that way.

 

Now we get to the showdown of the movie’s title. You touch on some of the moral queasiness of the event and its consequences. As the famous line near the end of the movie makes clear, this story is a comment on the whole American mythology of “the West.” Stoddard quietly accepts a myth about himself as a necessary evil. The idealized version of him is essentially the Wyatt Earp archetype, the upright lawman who will always win the gun fight. Right makes might makes right. Ford knew that Hollywood had always cleaned up some of the messier truths about life on the frontier. But he also knew that you can’t bemoan those fictions without also acknowledging the power of the mythmaking. Stoddard learns the limitations of his ideals, and he has to do so at the expense of another man’s life (two men, counting Valance). But in the end he gets to hear Hallie’s great, mythmaking line, “It was once a wilderness; now it’s a garden.” This line is pretty clearly about the forging of America as a whole. So there’s a lot we can read into this, about the necessity of violence in building America, and the necessity of lying about it. Wayne, meanwhile, never played Earp. His characters tend to be morally conflicted, even when they’re technically on the right side of the law. Doniphon saves Stoddard’s life, but what he does is also morally murky, hiding in the dark as a kind of sniper. When Valance’s henchmen later whine about the “murder” of their boss, they have a better case than even they know. Wayne doesn’t get the heroic moment, staring down his nemesis. Valance never knew what hit him. I am a big fan of the complexities there, which as you point out come way before the “revisionist” era of the genre.

 

John Ford isn’t quite my favorite classic Hollywood filmmaker, but the good news is that there are still dozens of his movies that I haven’t seen yet. What I’ve seen of his sensibility is pretty special, even when it doesn’t quite work for me. He was a rough-and-tumble masculine director, but with a strong sentimental streak, an Irish longing for home. This movie arguably supplies the best image to sum up that personality: the rose on a cactus.

 

Daniel: Every time I find myself watching a Western for the first time in a long time I allow myself to be opened for a surprise. I know the genre has plenty to offer, but I unfairly assume, shortly after turning the screen off, that it’s not really my cup of tea in terms of what I’m looking for in a movie. I find myself getting far too caught up in more modern cinema, desperately trying to catch up on the hits from the last few years. Westerns aren’t in. They haven’t been for a while, so they largely fall to the wayside. I’m glad we picked this movie to take a look at because it was a Ford movie that I had long since heard about but had never taken the chance to watch. It was enthralling, entertaining and thought provoking with strong performances from a number of actors that I really enjoy. As it stands this is one of the better film viewing choices I’ve made in recent months, reminding me again that the past is an enormously vast catalogue of cinematic offerings. Not since re-watching The Thin Man series a few years back has the reminder been so strong. It’s not just the The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was good for the time it came out, it’s held in high regard today for very good reason.   

 

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Our Favorite Movies of 2017

March 4, 2018 by

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Daniel: It’s time again, ladies and gents, to reflect back on the thousands of hours of entertainment that were released in 2017 and narrow down all of that into five selections. I’m very glad that Erigena Sallaku is joining us again this year to give her perspective and opinion on the year’s offerings! As always, there’s movies we missed, so this is a matter of opinion and accessibility. So, without further ado, our top five films (and/or TV shows?!) of 2017 are:

 

#5

 

Paul: mother! (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

 

Here’s a movie that just gets better and better as it goes along, which is a rare quality even among the good ones. Aronofsky’s indulgent, circular vision clearly isn’t for everyone, though I look askance at anyone who’d dump such viscerally effective chaos into the “worst” category. The isolated house that serves as the film’s setting invites all manner of allegorical readings, and biblical allusions abound in the script. At its viscous heart, though, mother! is a story about people being aggressively, irrationally mean to Jennifer Lawrence. There’s something satisfying about that contrivance, however thorny the real-life parallels may be.

 

Erigena: Get Out (Directed by Jordan Peele)

 

When Get Out received great reviews from multiple critics, I decided to check it out. I’m not much of an enthusiast for terrifying movies, but the prospect of a comedian’s debut into the horror genre intrigued me. I was not surprised that it won the prize for best original screenplay from the Writers Guild of America. The script is sharp, smart, and avoids clichés as it focuses on the horrors of a twisted, particular form of racism in America. The satire, even though blatantly present, personally eluded me because the film’s unique and memorable approach to suspense quickly captivated me. It was hard to crack a smile knowing that something rotten was about to happen at any moment. Get Out is a terrifying, disturbing, psychological horror that, in my opinion, should be held in as high regard as The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, and Misery.

 

Daniel: Logan (Directed by James Mangold)

 

Seventeen years after the X-Men franchise kicked off, we get the best iteration of Wolverine from the man that started it all. Unfettered from some of the grandeur and larger universal storylines in the franchise, Logan succeeds where the other standalone Wolverine films failed. It gives us a more intimate and emotionally weighty film that feels like the consequences are greater. Each death is painful not just to the person dying, but it seems to weigh even heavier on the titular character than in any other film in the series. Wolverine seems far more human and the world is just as ugly as he’s always known it to be. But there’s just enough hope to make his sacrifices worth it. It’s a beautiful and ugly story to watch, but really stood out to me.  

 

#4

 

Paul: The Florida Project (Directed by Sean Baker)

 

This movie tells a story about the day-to-day lives of people in poverty who live close by Walt Disney World — the symbolism of which is, much to the movie’s credit, never belabored. Anchored by a vivacious performance from the (at the time) six-year-old Brooklynn Prince and a beautifully generous performance from Willem Dafoe as a cantankerous father figure, The Florida Project is at once empathetic and abrasively honest. The eye-popping pastels on the clothes and buildings enter the audience into a kids’-eye view of the world, with all its hopefulness and blind fragility. There’s a quiet shot/reverse shot sequence near the end of this that destroyed me a little. I’ll say no more.

 

Erigena: The Big Sick (Directed by Michael Showalter)

 

The Big Sick tells the story of Pakistani-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who connects with psychology grad student Emily V. Gordon after one of his stand-up gigs. What starts as a one-night stand quickly blossoms, but it dissolves just as quickly due to the complications that arise from Kumail’s traditional Muslim parents and the pressure of their expectations. However, when Emily becomes gravely ill due to a mystery illness, Kumail sticks around and learns to navigate the medical crisis, while connecting with her parents, who are dealing with complex issues of their own. The chain of events forces Kumail to truly deal with the battle between his culture and his heart. The Big Sick deals with love, culture, and sacrifice, from several angles and with such raw honesty and desperation that anyone can relate to it. The movie comes with an intelligent script, is funny, touching, and at certain scenes heartbreaking.  

 

Daniel: Get Out (Directed by Jordan Peele)

 

Manipulating emotions to laugh has always been Jordan Peele’s bread and butter, so his directorial debut raised some eyebrows when he jumped head first into the social horror genre. And good grief did he nail it. Get Out is frightening, uncomfortable, and intriguing. It has the right amount of humor to pepper the underlying horror of the story. It’s weird but accessible in the way that most horror needs to be. Horror is trickier than ever to pull off nowadays. It’s almost expected to be mixed with other genres, comedy in particular. Peele navigates these areas flawlessly while approaching an important topic with a unique set of tools. The cast was all fantastic. Daniel Kaluuya in particular really shined all throughout. Having only seen him before in an episode of Black Mirror it was great to see him given a bigger and arguably more challenging role. This was such a weird and daring premise that it piqued my sci-fi side as well.

 

#3

 

Paul: The Work (Directed by Jairus McLeary & Gethin Aldous)

 

Folsom State Prison hosts a year-round group therapy program among its inmates that, twice a year, is opened to volunteers from the outside world. The Work takes an intensely intimate look at these sessions, in which men reckon with what they’ve done and what it’s like to be banished from their families for upwards of twenty years or more. In the simplest of terms, this documentary is about teaching men how to cry, as well as accessing other painful emotions (anger, fear, regret) in order to heal. Gazing into this maw is just as brutal as you’d expect, but always with a clear, beneficial purpose that deeply moved me. The film subtly leaves the impression that it’s the quote-unquote law-abiding citizens who have the most profound revelations, unearthing their hidden traumas and naive arrogance about the program. The best moment is when two men embrace and their mics become muffled, finally picking up a steady, strong heartbeat.

 

Erigena: Stranger Things (Directed by the Duffer brothers)

Stranger Things is about a group of nerdy, lovable preteens on the trail of their friend Will, who’s disappeared in a small town where nothing ever happens. But something does happen. Will’s vanishing is connected to a large government conspiracy involving secretive experiments, terrifying alien-monsters, and a powerful, telepathic youth played impeccably by Millie Bobby Brown. I personally enjoyed the plot twists and turns of this riveting mystery, but the characters impacted me the most. The show is at best tender in its exploration of teenage love and friendship, yet harrowing in its revealing of the alien creatures lurking in the parallel world. I found it easy to root for these knowledgeable and articulate children heroes, despite how chaotic and seemingly impossible the odds were of finding Will and destroying the monsters.

 

Daniel: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Directed by James Gunn)

 

When the initial sheen from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film wore off I found it still one of my favorites that the franchise had to offer. It was weird and nostalgic and new and weird and fun and bright and weird. Vol. 2 had hype to live up to and it managed to do it just splendidly. I love that there’s no time wasted in getting to know the characters, we’re given ample time to explore the galaxy. While doing so we learn more about Peter Quill’s past and get glimpses into the larger scheme of things in the MCU. Kurt Russell was just right for the role (though there are few movies I don’t enjoy seeing him in) and the chemistry between the cast was just as strong and just as weird. I can’t wait for the Guardians to team up with the rest of the Avengers.  

 

#2

 

Paul: Baby Driver (Directed by Edgar Wright)

 

An idea I’ve been toying with is that some of my very favorite movies tend to be polarizing, in the sense that I can easily respect people who hate them — or try to respect them, anyway. The point is that movies which inspire the strongest feelings tend to be the most worthwhile. So here’s Baby Driver, a movie that walks that love/hate tightrope very early on, during its title sequence. I myself oscillated between those poles as I watched the main character stroll down the street to the tune of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” an unbroken take punctuated by improbably appropriate graffiti. I thought to myself, Edgar Wright is shamelessly showing off here, but I decided I was on board with it. If the viewer can get past that hurdle, I think they’ll love the rest of the movie as much as I did. A story both thrilling and sweet, musical editing, and a trio of good villains made this stand out for me among Hollywood movies last year. At this point, it’s my favorite Wright movie, which might be an insane opinion, but there you have it.

 

Erigena: Thor: Ragnarok (Directed by Taika Waititi)

In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor finds himself without his mighty hammer and imprisoned in what seems to be a distant planet ruled by an eccentric character called the Grandmaster, played so naturally by Jeff Goldblum. Thor must figure out a way to return home to stop Ragnarok, the complete destruction of Asgard and Asgardian civilization at the hands of the all-powerful, Gothic Hela played by the glorious Cate Blanchett. Thor survives a deadly gladiatorial contest against Hulk, and to enlist him in helping save Asgard, Thor wins his love through comedic bantering and light-hearted one-liners that left me in stitches! Thor: Ragnarok is by far the funniest, most colorful adventure movie of the three chapters, despite the ongoing thematic seriousness of the long-prophesied end of days.

 

Daniel: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Directed by Rian Johnson)

 

I could use this space to defend the numerous complaints against The Last Jedi but I don’t have to. First and foremost, this was a really fun and vibrant addition to the Star Wars cinematic story. It had the difficult position of being the climactic point in the trilogy, and I was satisfied. Not only satisfied, but I was excited and practically giddy. The fact that this is a Star Wars movie and has such a massive scale gives me the hope that we’ll see more grand space operas in the future that are risky and bold in their approach. Star Wars was able to surprise me again, something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time. I love that the rules have changed and what that opens up the franchise to. The cast fantastically navigates the story material. There are faults, but Star Wars was a franchise intended for children, one that has flaws and bumps, but the more you try to correct those flaws, the bigger they can become.

 

#1

 

Paul: Twin Peaks: The Return (Directed by David Lynch)

 

We decided to open up the list to television series this year, a decision I will glibly peg as “controversial.” Honestly, it’s been fun following the debate among critics about what should or shouldn’t be counted as a “movie.” I can sympathize with both sides. The internet and portable screens have gone a long way toward blurring boundaries, but at the same time there’s a clear difference between something designed in 30-minute or hour-long chunks and a contained two-hour narrative. Speaking only for myself, there are two reasons I ignored that difference so I could put Twin Peaks on my list: (1) it’s the only show from 2017 that I saw in its entirety, so if not for this list, I’d have nowhere to put it, and (2) it’s my number one by a mile. I found it more rewarding than the other four put together. It’s going to hold up as one of the major works of the decade, and probably the best work of Lynch’s career. Darker, more uncompromising in every facet than the legendary first two seasons from the 90s, Twin Peaks: The Return is a sorrowful meditation on mortality and societal fragmentation. It’s also frequently hilarious and spellbinding in its commitment to piling on storylines and making the audience wait. Episode 8 in particular (which I described on Facebook as the greatest thing I’d ever seen) is a masterful tangent, the terrifying, atomic answer to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that I could never have asked for in a million years but am ecstatically grateful for now that I have it. Then, with the last couple episodes, Lynch and writer Mark Frost do the impossible, twisting my insides every few minutes as I try to understand where it’s all going. I may never finish grappling with it. Anyway, it’s a really good 17-plus-hour movie. I watched most of it on a laptop in the middle of the night.

 

Erigena: Wonder Woman (Directed by Patty Jenkins)

 

I pretty much agree with all the critics who declare Wonder Woman to be the best DC movie produced in years. That’s saying a lot, especially since I’m a Man of Steel fan, but it’s obvious that Wonder Woman surpasses Man of Steel in several ways, from story and setting to characters and humor. The story is much more refreshing and interesting, especially for the unexplored setting of World War I. What stands out the most to me is Diana’s innocence and Steve Trevor’s chivalry. Perhaps I’m feeling nostalgic that Western society doesn’t hold any sexual boundaries in common with the past. Or perhaps it’s much deeper than that: the innocence or “paradise lost” from the time in the Garden of Eden. I also see her innocence in the sincerity and forthrightness not only in her words, but also on the battlefield to fight what she perceives as the one true evil, Ares, when the audience knows she’ll soon get an education on the depravity of humankind. Wonder Woman is a feminist heroine, but I think the film, dare I say, does a brilliant job by maintaining an often times impossible balance and not taking feminism to the extreme. Even though she’s the superhero, the savior, most of the male characters are likable and serve a great purpose. I find Wonder Woman to be necessary, uplifting, chock-full of cute and witty humor between the characters, and thrilling in its action and adventures. Compliments to Gal Gadot for her acting as she highlights Wonder Woman’s beauty, strength, and bravery seamlessly.

 

Daniel:  IT (Directed by Andy Muschietti)

 

Horror tends to be a guilty pleasure in terms of movie treats. They’re often times cheap to make and are tantalizing enough to take a morbid premise or enough red dyed corn syrup and flip it into a quick buck. I expect that, but I also don’t particularly enjoy it on that level alone. I love a horror movie that will make me think or engross me more than making me feel like I’ve been taken on a 90-minute blood-soaked snore fest. It did not do that. A little over two and a half years ago I became a father, and that weirdly changed some things for me in terms of what triggers certain emotions. The first ten minutes of It both infuriated and terrified me. My biggest concern with that shocking death was that it would simply be one of many incidents used to manipulate my emotions without driving the story. This wasn’t the case. I know many will disagree with me, but this is a list I get to write on. The film was rife with beautiful nostalgia which I was practically intoxicated on coming off of Stranger Things and it dripped with the adventure of films I grew up on, but with a much darker and sinister edge. I haven’t read Stephen King’s novel that this is based on, but I have read and seen other iterations. This is my favorite King anything, book or movie. It’s disgusting, it’s harrowing but it’s also one that I can relate to, one that is cinematically gratifying. It uses visuals in a way that’s unsettling in the way that 80s horror unsettles me. The performances from every member of the cast were top notch, the score, sets, costumes and every aspect of this movie blended seamlessly into the best adventure movie I’ve seen in years as well as one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in years. It made me feel an incredibly wide range of emotions, all of which were earned and not taken from me with cheap parlor tricks.

Inside Out

January 10, 2018 by

Inside Out

 

Paul: It was a very funny meme. Back when Pixar’s Inside Out first arrived in theaters, someone came up with a good way of framing the animation studio’s creative development. It involved plugging words into the same basic question: “What if (blank) had feelings?” Almost all of Pixar’s previous movies fit this formula perfectly, and the blank could be filled with “toys,” “bugs,” “monsters,” “cars,” and so forth. Inside Out provided the punchline: “What if feelings had feelings?” Viewed this way, the movie looks like a culmination for the studio, the definitive challenge and mission statement. Inside Out was an ambitious exploration of consciousness and memory, visualized as a tiny civilization inside a little girl’s mind. There was the control center, where memories were formed and anthropomorphic emotions controlled the girl’s will; Disneyland-esque themed islands of personality; a vast storage unit of old memories next to a chasm where the forgettable ones were dumped; a movie studio where the girl’s dreams were produced; and a colorful village for her active imagination. Intellectually, this is a study of a child’s mental development, but as that meme would suggest, the main attraction is those emotion characters. Representing contradictory urges, their mission is to join forces to give their child, Riley, her best possible life. The story kicks off with a crisis that severely complicates that mission: Riley’s family is moving.

 

What stood out for me when I first saw Inside Out two years ago, even more than Pixar’s trademark pathos, was how funny it was. The humor has softened for me on subsequent viewings, which helps me see more clearly how the storytelling functions. We both put this movie on our Top 5 lists for 2015, so I know we both like it. But has your reaction to it changed at all since it first came out?

 

Daniel: If anything I think I’ve enjoyed it more on subsequent viewings. Repeats has allowed me to pick up bits I may have missed and really appreciate the phenomenal casting choices made for each emotion. I’ve recently been binge watching Parks and Recreation on my lunch breaks as well, so Poehler’s personality kind of oozed over into this for me, but in a distinctly more likeable character for me. She really was the best possible choice to voice the character of Joy. The movie is funny, and not just with spurts of humor ala Wall-E. It has a more comedic feel than arguably most of the other Pixar films, yet it still maintains the strong emotional backbone I’ve come to expect. And on top of all of that I was relieved that my expectations were not let down. I really do dislike Cars, and while Brave was enjoyable it was the a turning point for me in realizing that Disney Animation can, and was, making more enjoyable movies that Pixar. Inside Out was a bold idea that could have failed horribly, but it didn’t. It managed to connect on a different level than other animated films, we’re literally watching emotions work together, abstracted, of course, in the form of cute little cartoons. But these cartoons were accurate physical manifestations of what I also feel without giving it any thought. The simplest and most effective display of that in this film was when that gum commercial jingle keeps getting sent up to HQ.

 

Paul: I actually think humor has been one of Pixar’s greatest strengths over the years, though the emphasis on it varies from film to film. The Toy Story series is still probably the funniest work the studio has done. Inside Out does lean on jokes more than some, but part of my initial reaction was tied up in an especially electric crowd at the theater. Watching the movie by myself, I don’t laugh as hard, except at the moment of dismemberment during the dream scene. (Is this something I should be admitting?) When the movie literalizes common terms like “brain freeze” and “train of thought,” I feel it’s less inspired. Also, here at the beginning of 2018, it seems like we’ve long since run the idea of a “scary clown” into the ground, but that’s not this movie’s fault! Anyway, everybody’s favorite joke comes at the end, when we take a look inside the heads of various people and animals. Those short vignettes contain some sharp observational humor, but when I’m less distracted by laughing, I can notice more of the incredible details that went into them, such as which emotion is the “leader” in each head.

 

I completely agree about the voice cast. They’re perfectly matched to the character designs. Those designs lean on certain stereotypes — you don’t have to envision joy as a pixie, and you don’t have to envision sadness as a lethargic lump — but within those parameters, Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are absolutely the way to go.

 

Daniel: I remember seeing this in the theater and absolutely loving it. My wife, on the other hand, just didn’t seem to get it. And while the idea works really well and Pixar manages to get abstract ideas into easily digestible caricatures, I’ve talked to more than one person that couldn’t get into it. The abstract was just too far for them. I love that Pixar is still willing to take the chances like this. We’re certainly going to see far more Cars merchandise, but this was clearly the better movie to me. And it’s better for the risks it takes. Sure, some of the jokes are easy as you alluded to, but then there’s Bing Bong, a character that really annoyed me… for about 15 seconds, then he slowly became more and more endearing. By the time he *spoiler(?)* sacrifices himself so that Riley can have Joy again, I was in tears. Every time I watch it. I’m reduced to such heightened emotion by an imaginary friend named Bing Bong. Very few films can come close to something like that for me. However, he also presents one of the flaws in the film for me.

 

What exactly was Bing Bong doing stealing long term memory? I want to think he was just hanging onto the memories he shared with Riley. When we first see him though, he’s just grabbing the memories willy nilly. I get that we’re supposed to see him as a harmless vagabond, but… I don’t know that whole bit felt almost ominous, but was quickly glanced over and never addressed again. It’s a really small piece to a larger picture, but one that stands out as Bing Bong is obviously one of the deciding factors in Riley’s mind, regardless of if she knows it or not. He affects massive events going on within her. It isn’t solely the result of the emotions, but wider cast.

 

Paul: Bing Bong is a little too functional as a character, I think. He’s in the story to help Joy learn some lessons. And although the ultimate tragedy of Bing Bong gets at some important truths about growing up, I think that specific example of those truths is too calculated. Not to poke a hole in that big emotional moment or anything, but you know who might still remember things from my childhood that I forgot? My parents. I’d be surprised if Riley’s parents didn’t remember Bing Bong. Someday, in casual conversation, they’ll mention him, and he’ll be reborn! (This is me putting an idea for Inside Out 2 onto the internet. Ack!)

 

I can see how someone might wrestle with how the world of the film works. There’s a lot of headlong rushing in the story, so even though there are plenty of verbal explanations, it’s possible to get lost. But I’m with you on Pixar taking chances. The trip into the vault of abstract thought was immensely enjoyable. Animation can play tricks like that at any time, but it almost never does in the post-Looney Tunes era. If anything, the approach this film takes could be called too mechanical. I’m no expert on memory, but I’m pretty sure it’s a little more complicated than “We’ve run out of space on this aisle. Time to forget some things to make room.” Anyway, those details aren’t as important as the bigger ideas, which I found both amusing and meaningful.

 

In my intro, I was careful to use the phrase “best possible life” instead of “happiest possible life.” As far as Joy is concerned, those are synonymous, but the message of the movie is that they’re not. When this movie first came out, a lot was made of the emphasis on sadness as an important emotion. What do you think of the Joy/Sadness character conflict?

 

Daniel: It really rang true for me. I’m personally easily trapped into that idea that good=happy. Fulfilling=happy. And I know that isn’t true, it’s just such an easy and comfortable mentality to ease in to. I, like Joy, found no real value in the character of Sadness at the start of the film. She was a funny reversal of the more useful and important main character. Someone to slow them down that could potentially be changed for the better. Obviously in terms of storytelling I knew that was going to be a cheap cop-out that Pixar probably wouldn’t sink to, but it was my knee-jerk reaction to the characters. I wouldn’t say that I was surprised that Joy was the one that learned the lesson in the end, but I was certainly happy with how it came about. There is so much more to life than the pursuit of happyness, something that’s so valued at almost any cost. Some of the most defining and strengthening moments of my life have come from times of grief or disappointment. They aren’t times that I seek out or long for, but they are just as important as times of laughter and joy. I don’t think this is a new concept, not in the least, but it bears repeating and Inside Out does it particularly well. The imagery of first seeing all the emotions as one single color to sharing that spectrum was a great visual representation of slightly more complex emotions.

 

Paul: It’s a really admirable message, and I see it as a helpful gateway to appreciating art and storytelling in general. (We don’t need to limit ourselves to things that are happy or pleasant; in fact, that kind of self-indulgence is a dead end.) It’s also just helpful encouragement for kids. Inside Out lets them know they don’t have to feel messed up because their emotions change over time. Life is rough, but there’s hope. The way the movie cuts between the interior and exterior worlds is powerful. Something that seems (literally) earth-shattering to a young mind is just an everyday occurrence. The stand-out example is when the control panel in Riley’s mind freezes up, closing off access to all her emotions and leaving her numb. From the imagery, you might think she’s transformed into a sci-fi robot, but no. It truly is just a phase. Running away from home is a thought that’s occurred to a lot of children. The emotions will one day be able to handle things without going into emergency mode all the time (I assume).

 

I need to mention Lewis Black as Anger, Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Bill Hader as Fear, because they’re all great as well. I especially like the dinner table scene, when Joy has disappeared and those three all try to mimic her. It feels just right when those impersonations come out as impatience, sarcasm and uncertainty, respectively. The way Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, expresses those things is entirely natural and normal, too, as are her parents’ responses. The storytelling construction is really elegant, in addition to its honesty and humor. Pretty good, in other words.

 

Daniel: The strength of this story comes from the strength of the individual elements. The writing and story was interesting and unique, a strong start for sure. Add in a near perfect voice cast that really just “get” the characters their meant to portray and it all just worked together really well. And you’re right, I hadn’t even really noticed anything spectacular about Kaitlyn Dias’ performance, and I think that’s primarily because of just how natural it came off. The over the top characters embodying her raw emotions were muted and translated to a far more mundane, but honest look at what they might manifest as when being acted out by an actual human. What a different movie this would have been had the Riley simply mimicked the emotion that had control of her at any given moment. Thankfully there was more than enough sense to realize what a terrible idea that would have been, however it’s not a decision I would put past other animation studios. I appreciated that this was a kids movie that still maintained a level of poignancy. It’s also a reminder that Pixar is more than capable of doling out the magic that it’s become famous for.  

Okja

August 3, 2017 by

OkjaDaniel: My first encounter with Director Bong Joon-ho’s work was when I accompanied my brothers to the theater to see some “Korean monster movie” called The Host. I loved it. To this day I recommend that movie to anyone even remotely interested in a movie surrounding the nebulous aura of genres it encompasses. The next encounter I had was his film Snowpiercer which was a different experience. His style and absurdity was all there, but starring an English speaking cast, the weirdness stood out a little clearer. Both films are bizarre and Bong doesn’t flinch for an instant in either movie which is why I’m always a little excited when I hear he has another movie. I was surprised and excited that his next film Okja was going to be distributed by Netflix and I would be able to watch it with no hassle right in my own home! True to form, this movie was different. Not only as traditional plots go, but as different as The Host was from Snowpiercer. He’s displaying a broad range of ability that I am more than delighted to observe.

Okja is the name of one of the Mirando Corporation’s “superpigs.” They’re a mysterious breed of large mammal(?) that create less waste, produce more meat and taste delicious. The growth time for these pigs, however, is ten years. So, as a marketing ploy, the energetic Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) fires up a campaign to rebrand her family’s company (and its ugly past) by spotlighting ten farmers around the world, each with a superpig of their own to raise. Flash forward ten years and a young girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) is Okja’s primary caretaker, and the ten years is just about up. When her friend and pet are taken away from her, she sets out to rescue her giant pig-thing. There’s animal rights activists and parades and all kinds of other things that make this movie just weird, but not necessarily in a bad way. As a matter of fact, I quite liked it, and I’m sure we’ll get into why a little later. Paul, what were your initial thoughts on this?

 

Paul: My initial thoughts were that, while everybody describes these mutated animals as “pigs,” from where I’m sitting Okja looks like a hippopotamus with elephant ears. It’s a curious design, and the association is driven home further when Okja swims around early in the film. I admit this is probably a minor point, but I imagine Bong and his visual artists looked at more pig-like sketches and decided that Okja would look too much like a warthog or boar — not friendly enough. This ties in with a more substantial problem I had with the film. The art of digital effects has clearly reached a new level of realism. The interactions between the actors and the computer-generated animals are breathtakingly seamless. But I still think there’s a disconnect between the two worlds. Part of me rebels against the way CGI works when it’s intended to be invisible. And I don’t think it helps when a film takes a somewhat wobbly approach to physical properties. I’m thinking of the scatological humor. It seemed pretty sanitized to me — never made me squirm. Similarly, in one scene, Mija cleans Okja’s teeth, which is a big enough job that she has to climb into Okja’s mouth. When she emerges, she doesn’t seem to need any toweling off or anything. I understand that part of the design of the superpigs is that they’re more hygienic, but I think the portrayal goes a little too far. Sure, it’s pretty difficult to convey the sense of smell onscreen, and maybe I’m in the minority on this point. But I had the impression that the deck had been stacked in favor of Okja being perfectly cute and lovable.

That’s a pretty negative way to start, so I’ll back up and say there’s a lot of good stuff in the movie, and there were parts when I thought I might love it. One moment when I absolutely was drawn into the physical properties of Okja is when she rescues Mija from falling off the cliff. That’s a great, ingenious suspense sequence that really sells the Mija-Okja bond, which the rest of the movie depends on.

 

Daniel: I’ll admit that I was sucked in by the sanitary cuteness of Okja. I allowed myself to become attached to the animal JUST as the creators intended, blindly appreciating the intelligence, personality and cuteness of a fictional animal. I’ll grant you, it’s much easier to sympathize with a flawless creature. Also, yes, Okja was a superpig, but he was really a more likeable hippo. I completely agree that dramatic rescue at the start of the film sucked me right in too. I was emotionally vulnerable for a good chunk of this film, which is something I’m almost upset to admit. I’m usually not particularly fond of films with overtly political agendas, but I went in willing to give this one a pass on that.

In terms of political agendas, the obvious “teams” in this movie were the Mirando Corporation and their factory farms and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Well, then the third side, I guess, which was Mija, whose sole goal remains to bring Okja back home. She is used by both of the other two sides, making it only slightly less clear who the “good guys” are in this movie. I really appreciate that it wasn’t as clear cut and overly righteous as it could have been. The Mirando Corporation was very clearly “bad,” but ALF was not overtly good. They were laughable at times and malevolent at others. As a whole, the cast was incredibly diverse and colorful. I did a double take when Jake Gyllenhaal first appears.

 

Paul: Bong knows how to couch his political intentions inside entertaining stories, that’s for sure. Like Snowpiercer, Okja satirizes American consumerist culture — our habit of not looking too closely at what we eat. As for my own stance, I’ll admit I’m a hypocrite. I’m basically sympathetic to the case for animal rights, but I’ve never really changed my diet to reflect that. Organizations like PETA, not unlike some political conservatives I could name, seem to have a knack for making me regret ever having sympathy for their viewpoints. So in that way, Bong’s critical lens on the ALF was great. Their abstract zeal for saving animals didn’t match up with Mija’s and Okja’s particular needs.

Paul Dano was a great choice to play the leader of the group. His performances tend to be over-earnest, but that was a perfect fit here. Ahn Seo-hyun gives the best, most essential performance, combining determination and fear in a way that carries the whole movie. Giancarlo Esposito and Shirley Henderson are both delightful as Mirando Corporation employees. As for Gyllenhaal, I was a little torn while watching the movie, but I think I’ve decided that I wish Bong had put a lid on him. He’s a little funny for a while, but I think his efforts are excessive, to say the least. The contrast between his “TV voice” and the real guy was a good idea, but he doesn’t really build on that idea except by adding volume.

 

Daniel: I agree with you in regards to Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal). His character was often grating, to an unnecessary extent, and I too wish he had been toned down a bit. However I really enjoyed the sheer desperation he had to remain relevant and in the limelight. Even some of the lesser things he did really stood out for me. The scene where they’re televising the reunion between Okja and Mija, he’s seen crouching on top of the rising, spinning platform, arms wide. He’s obviously in the background of the entire scene, but he spends it being as overly visible as is humanly possible. It’s the kind of thing that would be really sad to see if, say, Mr. Rogers became starved for attention in his later years and started doing anything to grab it. It was sad and entertaining, but also kind of annoying. Which I think is the appropriate reaction for his character. The cast as a whole was phenomenal, in that they were a weird and eclectic group of actors that fit their roles for this weird, eclectic movie.

The fact that I, at points, considered the ALF in the film almost a lesser villain was great. I may very well agree with the message that factory farming is terrible, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with the methods of so-called animal rights groups. *minor spoiler* Even Mija, when she sees the farms, is sympathetic, but largely makes no moves to save any, save the one, of Okja’s species from their fate. And we’re not given any indication that she intends to do more. We have no idea what happens to the ALF members and the Mirando Corporation probably continues with production as planned. *End Spoiler* As over the top and cartoony as the movie had a tendency to be, it was still pretty accurate to how things generally turn out in life.

 

Paul: And then the flipside of complicating our views on the supposed good guys is that Bong is able to put us in the headspace of the bad guys at times. I can’t say I felt empathy for the Wilcox character, but Tilda Swinton is absolutely at her best when conveying a character trying to spin a PR disaster into a PR victory. All the pieces start coming together at that point, with Mija gaining enough importance that it’s possible to imagine things working out. The parade scene serves as very exciting buildup, everything tense in anticipation of two opposing schemes ramming into each other. Watching it, I was rooting for something truly insane and inspired to break out. But I’m not sure the ensuing chaos fully lived up to my expectations. It basically just propels us into the last act in a perfunctory way. Most of the inventiveness is in the earlier chase sequences, in the tunnel and the shopping mall.

*More spoilers* Things take quite a turn in the last act, don’t they? It’s the cruelest suspense sequence by far, with Okja moments from death in the slaughterhouse for an uncomfortable amount of time. There was enough time, in fact, for me to wonder if Bong might go all the way. Essentially, we’re in familiar “animal in peril” family movie territory with this scene, so it would be quite the gut-punch to end it differently (to say the least) from any family movie I’ve ever seen. So am I disappointed that Okja doesn’t die? Am I a monster? The solution does have its own mild satirical bite — throw enough money at someone, and they might just change their mind about anything — but it was a little softer, a little more well-worn. The rescue of the baby did hit me in the proverbial feels, though, and returning to the huge pen of doomed animals was a good way to undercut the sentimentality. *End of spoilers*

 

Daniel: Yeah, I didn’t think Okja was going to survive the film. I had resigned myself to that fact, but getting to that resolve was tense and uncomfortable and I didn’t like it. The third act was drastically darker than the rest of the movie, but not unexpectedly so. It’s weird. At times, it certainly did feel like a family film, but then moments with violence, language and cruelty would seep in, seamlessly, in a way that reminded me that, nah, this isn’t really a Babe-type situation. But it felt like one at times! It was borderline whimsical. Overall I was fine with the tonal shifts, it was just jarring. That’s something I’ve noticed in the limited amount of Korean cinema I’ve watched, though. I can be laughing in one scene and horrified the next, certain genres crossover, which is a little more true to life.

Ultimately, I can away from Okja satisfied. It wasn’t something that floored me, but it was different enough and well produced enough for me to enjoy. It also tackled a subject matter in a less ham-fisted way than what I’m used to. Animal rights is a movement that is marred most by the people that try to help it the most.

 

Paul: I’m middle-of-the-road on the film. I’m glad that some people have really liked it, and it’s great that it’s available on Netflix, even with the trade-off that almost no one saw this visually impressive movie in a theater. I’ve really loved most of Bong’s films, so take it with a grain of salt that I came away from Okja thinking it might be his worst. That’s still better than a lot of movies! There were just enough things that felt slightly off to me, and the foul language was one of them. It felt like really clumsy punctuation, not especially natural or revealing of character. On the other hand, I read an article about one piece of Korean dialogue in the film that the Netflix subtitles mistranslate because American audiences wouldn’t get the word-for-word joke. So, if Bong doesn’t use English with perfect skill, it’s still a lot better than what I could do with Korean. Anyway, it’s not hard to see the culture clash in this story. Mija shows a lot of courage in striking out to unfamiliar places, but it’s a real comfort to see her return home.

Wendy and Lucy

June 13, 2017 by

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Paul: Never in my life have I considered myself a dog person. This isn’t the dogs’ fault, necessarily. I’ve never owned one, so I’ve never felt what it’s like to have a creature that’s completely devoted to me. The dogs I’ve interacted with have tended to be on the small side — hyperactive and a little demanding. Cats have the advantage of not wanting to lick my face, as well, although I’ve come to understand that there’s no reason to be germophobic about that. At any rate, I grew up with Disney movies that had dogs in them, and I enjoyed those. But it wasn’t until I caught up with Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy several years ago that I really made the connection between a dog in a movie and dogs in real life. I will always think of Wendy and Lucy as the movie that finally made me understand. Now I’m pretty confident that I’ll own a dog someday, and it will probably look a lot like Lucy.

This is the story of a young woman named Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams, giving an incredibly subtle performance), who, for reasons the movie never fully divulges, has left her home in Indiana and is set on starting her life over in Alaska. Recording her extremely tight budget in a little notebook, she takes her dog with her in an old Honda Accord. Somewhere in Oregon, the car breaks down, and that’s when her troubles begin. Wendy and Lucy is as stripped-down as indie dramas come. It’s a quiet, patient look at small-town poverty. In other words, it’s not exactly something I’d recommend for a fun movie night, but I watch it and think: if we need every movie to be fun, we’re missing out on a lot. That aside, what are your thoughts, Daniel? Is this movie successful at what it sets out to do?

Daniel: Yes, I think this movie absolutely set out what it meant to do. Now determining just what that, perhaps, was is a question all unto itself. I feel I’m safe in my assumption that these types of indie dramas tend to speak to different people in different ways with, perhaps, an underlying theme or message that the filmmaker wants to present. To me, this was hardly a story, but rather it was a piece of one. A slice-of-life vignette that is as far away from escapism as you can get. You’re right, this isn’t a fun movie. But what it lacks in thrills it makes up for in mundane honesty that manages to be more stressful and heartbreaking than boring.

I am not necessarily a dog person so much as an animal person. That being said, I would say it takes a bit for me to become emotionally attached to dogs in movies. To this day I do not understand the amount of tears shed from the movie Hachi. However, this one was different. There wasn’t an emotionally manipulative score or melodramatic circumstances, rather we’re bombarded with an honest look at poverty and just how isolating it is. This isn’t the type of movie that I normally like. I went into it knowing only the synopsis on the back of the box and that it was going to be sad. I can’t say that I’ll be watching it all that frequently, but it was certainly a surprise for me, in a good way.

Paul: It’s a simple story, to be sure. The Wikipedia plot summary is eight sentences long, and it basically covers everything, even (as they usually do) getting into spoiler territory. There are a couple important characters who go unmentioned in that summary, but that’s fitting. The story is entirely focused on one unremarkable character. Getting us to care is a matter of forging empathy alone, not exercising wit or crafting spectacular incidents. Kelly Reichardt, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Raymond (adapting his own short story), is a master at this. You might think it’s pretty easy to recreate everyday indignities so the audience can identify with a character. But it takes real dedication to make a whole movie from that. For instance, the basic situation with the mechanic — facing a bill that’s steeper than you expected — is a good idea for a scene, but what makes it great is the series of events that lead up to it. (1) Failing to get the car started, with someone else right there, watching. (2) Pushing the car to a suitable parking space. (3) Looking under the hood, even though you’re not equipped to diagnose the problem. (4) Waiting for the shop to open. (5) Dealing with a distracted, unhelpful mechanic. Then there’s the fact that Wendy sleeps in the car. The best insight this movie has into the realities of subsistence living is that privacy is a privilege. Without underlining anything, Reichardt shows what it’s like to use a car to sleep in and a gas station bathroom to clean yourself.

Daniel: It’s uncomfortable. Not in some grotesque titillating way, but in a realistic grimy reflection of life that is equally relatable and enlightening. This isn’t going to be a film that resonates on a personal level with everyone that watches it, but it certainly has a broad spectrum of situations that most people can relate to on some level. Most people have dealt with having to pay for expensive car repairs, most people have felt loss or fear of loss to something or someone that they’re attached to. However, most people may not know what it’s like to survive out of a car and the weight that it is when that car has to be in a shop overnight. I mentioned it before, but this movie doesn’t use a lot to manipulate emotions. The soundtrack is simple to non-existent, just some whistles (and the same droning tune playing over the loudspeaker at the store) and a universal indifference to another person’s problem. It’s a powerful and simple movie, but also one I can’t see myself watching on any sort of regular basis.

One of the problems that I think faces the re-watchability of this film is the honesty that I really love it for. The acting is spot on and believable, as is just about everything in the movie. However it’s such a small, personal story that it doesn’t scratch the surface of wonder and escapism that films are known for. I get that’s not at all a problem for a movie like Wendy and Lucy, that’s actually exactly what was intended. But I have no real desire to sit down and watch it with a group of friends. I watched it in the best way possible, quiet and alone. No criticism or whining about the movie or its pace or lack of action. I don’t think me wanting to watch it less times than, say, Little Shop of Horrors, makes it any less of a valuable film, I think it just makes it a less watchable one.

Paul: It can be difficult to put into words how much I appreciate finding moments of quiet goodness in movies. Praise for something spectacular or historically important practically writes itself, but part of our job in writing about movies is getting beneath that surface and opening up new forms of appreciation. So here goes: I love (not just respect, not just admire) this tiny, incidental detail of Wendy spinning herself around on Lucy’s leash at the can deposit. I love how Reichardt holds a stationary shot until it happens naturally, just at the right edge of the frame where Wendy is confined under the weight of her circumstances. It’s not flashy, and I’m not saying I burst into applause when I see it, but it matters. It shows that we’re not merely talking about miserabilism here. There are hints of joy even amidst pain and failure. There’s always the possibility of connecting with another human being.

So this is where the security guard played by Walter Dalton becomes so important. Wendy is very nearly friendless, and almost everyone she encounters is unhelpful at best. The guard could have easily been one of those people, but Wendy and he start to bond as her situation worsens. She learns to trust his knowledge of the town and accepts his offer to use his phone. We can see him start to care more about her, too. Along with the can deposit scene, the conversations with the guard provide a sense of the broader economic situation. The themes do get spelled out here, with the guard talking about things being “fixed,” but their connection is a valuable thing. I suppose we could pivot to politics now. Everything we read last year would indicate that the small town in this movie is exactly the kind of place that would turn to Trump for hope. (Ahem.) Thoughts?

Daniel: I agree, to a certain extent. I think a town like the one depicted in Wendy and Lucy is the picture of an average, struggling, American town. A place that looks to hope wherever it may poke its head and one that has experienced disappointment in the past and expects it in the future. Wendy runs into other homeless individuals in similar situations as her. We don’t have the privilege of hearing their stories, and I don’t really care. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the supporting cast of vagrants hold a story just as heartbreaking as our beloved Wendy, but we don’t care, just like no one cares about her. This might be a location or a populace that looks to politics for hope, but it feels like they’re too busy worrying about survival to focus on politics, at least in day to day life.

Other than Wendy, the character that evoked the strongest emotion to me in this film was the young grocery clerk that insisted on the arrest of Wendy. I know that’s what he was there for, but I held out hope throughout the movie that he would somehow, even just slightly, redeem himself. The fact that he doesn’t is for the best. Over the days that it takes us to write up these reviews, I’ve found myself thinking about this movie more and more. In the midst of some really fantastic blockbuster cinema, this was a refreshingly sober breath of honesty, one that I won’t soon forget and one that holds a poignant sense of value in our current place in history. Whereas superhero films are beautiful productions, this is more akin to a journal entry.

Speed Racer

April 28, 2017 by

Speed RacerDaniel: It’s 2017 and the rapid-fire trend of remaking animated classics into live action adaptations seems only to be speeding up. However, nine years ago Speed Racer crashed onto the scene with the goal of capturing the absolute absurdity and adrenaline associated with the Japanese animated series of the late 60s. The source material is… absurd. A young man by the name of Speed Racer (yep, according to the English dub, anyway) tries to be the very best race car driver (like no one ever was!). It’s a simple plot with a few twists thrown in, namely who the mysterious Racer X is. Oh, and his car, the Mach 5, is high tech to the point that it can jump and shoot silly weapons at other racers. So, normally with something this thin and absurd, live action reboots attempt to tone down the surreal and make it a little more relatable. Not the Wachowskis however. Rather than shy away from anything, they amp up every ridiculous aspect of the original film, starting first and foremost with the color palette.

 

I was familiar with the original cartoon before seeing this adaptation, so I knew it was going to be something a little wild. I spent some afternoons watching TV at my grandmother’s home and this was one of the regularly programmed shows but I was unprepared for this. Before I delve too much into my opinion I’m curious about your history with Speed Racer.

 

Paul: I have no history with it. Back in the early 2000s, when I was getting into anime, I had a vague understanding that it was a pioneer of that style, but I never happened to watch any of it. Then the movie came and went. It seems to have been largely dismissed at first but has definitely become a cult favorite since then. I know of quite a few critics who continue to cheerlead for it. So all of this knowledge was swimming in the back of my head when I finally watched it. Am I correct in guessing that the playful genre mashup (some gangsters here, some martial arts there) was present in the original too? Even if that isn’t the case, I think the most delightful “kids’ movie” aspect of this is the eager hurtling from one adventure to a very different one, and on and on. It’s interesting that Speed Racer was the first and so far only time the Wachowskis aimed a movie squarely at a young audience.

 

There were a couple things that worried me going in. I’ve talked about my difficulties with getting excited about sports movies before. On top of that, I don’t even care about auto racing in real life. The other issue is aesthetic. The term “live-action cartoon” has always been a dicey prospect, and it definitely applies here. Like you said, the Wachowskis took a bold approach, tackling both story and style with sincerity and aplomb. The result is that the things I love and the things I hate just keep piling on top of each other. It had an effect on me, that’s for sure.

 

Daniel: Straight up, I didn’t like this movie the first time I saw it. I didn’t hate it, but something didn’t sit well with me. Everything from the way the characters were portrayed to the way they interacted with the environment. There was a disconnect between what I was seeing and how I thought objects and cars and people should physically react one way and they didn’t. It wasn’t until subsequent viewings that I realized I had to look at this through the lens of an animated movie, because that’s what it was. Real life people were simply being superimposed and incorporated into a cartoon in a way I wasn’t expecting. Watching it now, with that in mind I enjoy it a whole lot more, in particular I really have a greater appreciation for the actors and how well they portrayed their characters. In particular Roger Allam’s speech to Speed when he breaks the news that the whole racing game is rigged and that he needs to get in line. That speech just blends the intensity and absurdity of the situation and the style so well. Like you, I care so little for car racing that I’ll generally consider it a bore, but I find myself getting swept up in the fabricated hype. Also, this is just another instance of me being able to appreciate John Goodman. If he accepts a role he’s going to commit and deliver. In a movie so full of style I found his performance landed a much-needed dose of authentic substance. In particular the scene where he and young Speed are watching TV late at night.

 

Paul: I was going to single out the scene in which Royalton (Allam) crushes Speed’s (Emile Hirsch) soul, too. Allam’s performance is great throughout — just the right “kids’ movie” balance of sinister and blundering — so it’s disappointing when he fades into the background in the movie’s second half, ceding the spotlight to lesser villains. The moment he drops the unctuous flattery and shows his true self is very well-performed and well-written. In fact, I thought the whole movie was well-written. The sentence “Inspector Detector suspected foul play” is simply marvelous. But the other thing to note about the Royalton scene is that it’s Exhibit A for my point about the good and the bad blending together in this movie. This seems like such a basic, predictable complaint, but I found Spritle Racer (Paulie Litt) really annoying. Royalton and Speed’s conversation is intercut with Spritle and his pet chimpanzee stealing candy and having a madcap romp. I was not amused, but it’s possible that, since I’m not a small child, I’m being unfair. Still, it’s such a weird tonal decision to have these two things happening at once that you have to either embrace or reject the whole thing. In the end, I think I might be stuck in the “well, at least they tried something” camp. I tend to appreciate Wachowski humor when it’s more deadpan than this.

 

Daniel: Spritle was the worst thing about this movie. I agree that the humor, for the most part, fell completely flat. In particular for me was the whole scene where the chimp and he were watching the Kaiju movie and it delves into their imagination of being Kaijus themselves. It was similar to Speed’s imagination scene in the beginning of the movie (GO REX GO), but it was completely irrelevant to anything in the movie. It was a scene played specifically for comedy, that’s it, there’s no storytelling element. And it was the most cringe-inducing scene for me. On a side note, I just realized how wonderfully stupid Rex’s name is in conjunction with his alter ego. It’s made the movie slightly more endearing to me. What I appreciate and enjoy more than the humor is the sheer giddiness of the world. It’s not outright hilarious that when the cars crash they’re enveloped in a bubble shield or that the Viking racers have a ball and chain for a weapon. It’s good for a quick chuckle, but more importantly it feels like it’s terraforming your expectations for the incredible. Nothing in this movie is normal, but you almost can’t help but smile at the absurdity of it all. It’s the type of nonsense you’d make up when playing with Hot Wheels as a kid. And you’re right, Royalton was fantastic in the first half of the movie, so it was really a shame to see him so downplayed later on.

 

I have to ask, I just assumed the identity of Racer X was prominent enough in pop culture that it wouldn’t be much of a mystery. I found out that this was not the case when my wife was blown away by the revelation. I was blown away by the fact that 1. She didn’t know this and 2. She didn’t see it coming. Was there any amount of surprise for you?

 

Paul: She’s not alone! This has happened to me before, where there’s a mystery character, and I don’t figure out who he is until the movie reveals it. I always think of Roger Ebert’s rule concerning “economy of characters” afterwards, but not ahead of time. Of course Racer X wasn’t going to be some random stranger, but I found myself following Speed’s train of thought almost exactly. I started to think the masked man was [spoiler] just before Speed verbalized his suspicions. I didn’t know anything about this part of the story going in, so I was happy to follow the movie instead of trying to outguess it. I tell myself this, anyway.

 

The movie’s look is its most distinctive aspect, even now when CGI is so pervasive. Criticizing the reliance on digital effects would be pretty much like complaining that a musical has too many songs. Even outdoor scenes look “fake” and hyper-colorful, a three-dimensional animated world. The racing scenes are dynamic and varied. The Wachowskis convey speed by smearing the frame with color. Even more unusual, though, is the way they hide the seams of the editing. One of the things I didn’t like about The Quick and the Dead that I forgot to mention in our review was an early montage made up of glimpses of several duels and close-ups of various characters gliding across the screen. The style in that instance didn’t work for me, and now here comes a movie that’s filled with sequences like that. The effect is a little different here, though. There’s so much narrative ground to cover that it’s like the movie is bounding from place to place as quickly as possible without causing whiplash. I got swept up in the energy. The opening sequence is particularly good, filling in the backstory and starting off with a bang all at the same time.

 

Daniel: I’m glad to hear you didn’t go into this movie knowing who the mysterious Racer X was. It was just such a well-known fact to me that I just figured it was almost tongue-in-cheek to even have a “reveal.” I remember even when Dexter’s Lab did a Speed Racer spoof they had a similar storyline with Deedee taking that spot, so seeing how others approach that revelation is really cool to hear… hopefully we didn’t ruin it for anyone.

 

Oddly enough for this type of movie, I never gave it much thought in terms of pacing. Which I suppose is a good thing, if it’s not noticeable they must be doing something right. Only a couple scenes seemed to be out of place (one of which we’ve already discussed above). Even when the audience is dropped mid-race into a scene, it still flows just fine. Energy is what the Wachowskis were going for and it’s what they delivered in excess. I was all right with Raimi’s use of the scrolling montage in the gunfights in The Quick and the Dead, but it definitely felt different from the rest of the movie. Here, however, the breakneck speed of everything is part and parcel to the whole experience. The visuals at times, as cool as they were, tended to feel a little more grand than the movie itself. I guess what I mean to say is that at times the movie shined thematically and visually, but sometimes the flashy sheen was all that held my interest. Not often, but enough to lose me just a bit at times. I think it goes back to Royalton. Shrewdness was replaced with brute force in terms of villains, and that was disappointing.

 

Paul: Energy and heart are the two defining qualities of this film, and I’m definitely in favor of those things. So I guess I can see what the fuss is about. As an experiment in computer-generated imagery, Speed Racer has probably been overshadowed by Avatar, but the more fanciful way the technology is used here is a little more interesting to me than James Cameron’s naturalism. And the Wachowskis’ thematic concerns carry more weight. Ultimately, this is a traditional underdog story, the family business versus the huge conglomerate, PB&J sandwiches versus hors d’oeuvres. On a deeper level, it’s about having your ideals vindicated. At his lowest point, Speed believes that his heroes were actually sellouts or traitors. Seeing the world with adult eyes can make you wonder why you ever believed in purity or joy. The second half of the movie, though it unfolds in predictable ways, has a crucial message. The idea, both naive and adorable, is that corruption can be defeated by skill and motivation. Simply by driving his car faster than anyone has before, Speed can blow all the grime off the sport. Who wouldn’t like that idea? So I’m aligned with the movie in theory, but I just don’t think I can summon the innocence or enthusiasm to love it. Speed Racer is probably the most successful “live-action cartoon” I’ve seen, in the sense of merging those two aesthetics, not making them distinct like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I’m still not crazy about the concept. If the cars are going to jump around, I think the whole thing should be animated. Judging by the blockbusters made in this century, I’m not going to get my way on that point, but that’s fine.

The Quick and the Dead

March 23, 2017 by

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Paul: This is one of a handful of movies that I discovered on TV, by which I mean that it was broadcast frequently when I was a kid and I saw parts of it enough times to become familiar with it. It’s a very easy movie to slip into in that way, with its tournament structure and streamlined characters. The Quick and the Dead isn’t so much a revisionist western as just a hyperactive throwback. Sharon Stone’s “the Lady” is more of a quiet, damaged loner than a vicious antihero, and there’s never any doubt that Gene Hackman’s John Herod is all bad. The movie tells a simple tale of individualist frontier justice, but stylistically it takes Sergio Leone’s operatic take on the genre and revs it up with director Sam Raimi’s patented sprightly camerawork.

This is probably the first western I ever loved. In other words, I took a backwards path into the genre, and I’ve since caught up with a lot of the movies that influenced Raimi, lending me some much-needed perspective. Back in the day, the fact that the name of the town in this movie is Redemption struck me as the coolest thing. Later, I encountered western town names like Presbyterian Church and Machine, and now it seems to me that, by comparison, the name Redemption is pretty on-the-nose and boring. The question is whether the movie as a whole holds up, or if I only embraced it because it was on TV all the time and I didn’t know what else was out there. Before I answer that, I’ll ask about your experience with the movie, Daniel. How did you first encounter it?

Daniel: The Quick and the Dead wasn’t introduced to me until college, if I remember correctly. There I discovered my sweet tooth for films like this. It’s like Raimi thumbed through a book of Western Cliches and just started saturating the filming schedule with them. The score uses whips, whistles and gunshots for crying out loud!  However, it being Sam Raimi, he did so with hyperactivity, style and humor while not taking itself too lightly. Before we delve too deep into the specifics I’ll just say this; I love this movie. I hadn’t seen it in years and I expected it to have aged poorly, but it didn’t. That sweet tooth is still there and Sam Raimi knows how to give me the type of sweet treat I love. Then there’s the cast. In a movie this ridiculously fun we find the four leading actors (Stone, Crowe, DiCaprio, Hackman) all currently have either wins or nominations for Academy awards under their belt. This movie would not have been so highly rated in my book without the direction of Sam Raimi or the fantastic cast, extending into the supporting cast as well. Man, I love this movie. It’s like an abridged classic western mixed with the best cast soap opera in existence. I know this isn’t a great film in a traditional sense, but it’s just so darn fun that I can’t help myself. And without going into great detail, holy smokes I forgot how Ellen’s backstory panned out.

Paul: I’ve always been a little in awe of Hackman, in particular, in this. Like I said, it’s not an especially nuanced character, but the actor’s presence is so dominant in every scene. Hackman steps up to portray outsize evil almost effortlessly. But there are a few interesting shadings. I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time either, and somehow I don’t think I’d ever picked up before that John Herod doesn’t think “the Kid” (Leonardo DiCaprio) is really his son. That whole thing somehow slipped by me until this latest viewing. I guess I just thought he was being hard on the boy because that’s the kind of dad he is. The undercurrent of a young man trying to prove his relationship to a contemptuous father, but in a way that will ultimately destroy them both, makes for a strong subplot. One other tiny detail about Hackman’s performance: the most brutal, over-the-top moment of violence in this was something that got seared into my memory the first time I saw the movie. I don’t think I need to describe it. But there’s an interesting reaction shot that immediately follows. Herod, having just shot dead a hired gunman, arches his eyebrows in an expression of…shock, disgust, remorse maybe? It’s a little hard to read. Along with a few of the scenes between Herod and the Kid, it’s a brief glimpse of vulnerability, a crack in the armor that will finally lead to the villain’s downfall. You’re right about the supporting cast, too. There are a lot of big personalities in this film. Oddly, though, Pat Hingle stood out to me this time. I think he really captured the spirit of the feeble bartender/shopkeeper stock character from Leone’s films.

Daniel:  For me, the bartender’s (Hingles) shining moment for me was when he ALMOST confronts Dred. His dead eyed, defeated expression as he almost automatically reaches for the villain’s gun only to draw back and continue his work. It was a heartbreaking moment of desperation. The people of the town wanted justice more than anything, but they were terrified. I think that instant was perhaps a stronger display of that point than the hired gun. There are patches of really solid dramatic performances in what’s essentially a very stylized action-sports movie.  In particular Dicaprio’s last scene always gets me. There is a level of universal honesty regarding how terrifying death can be. He’s young, literally at the top of the world and the one thing he wants to do, the one thing he’s willing to die for is his father’s respect. In his final minutes he realizes not only will he not get it, but he lost everything else in the process, more specifically his entire future. It’s a soap-opery moment that gets me every time. I think it’s snippets like these that are sprinkled throughout the film that really elevates this to one of my top Sam Raimi films. I love the likes of Army of Darkness, which is equally as goofy as The Quick and the Dead, but there is not a moment of it that I take seriously. It’s an interesting line, that it treads, one that primarily resides in the fun zone, but it successfully goes to darker places without the need to lampoon the desperation of the characters.  

Paul: The plotline with Dred and the Lady (the credits list Stone’s character as Ellen, and Russell Crowe’s character, Cort [aka “Preacher”], calls her that late in the film, but I like the nicknames) is an interesting one. Exacting vengeance on a filthy sexual predator seems to fire up the heroine more than anything else. By comparison, she becomes intimidated and hesitant in the presence of Herod. I might be reading too much into it, but it’s possible there’s more to the Lady’s backstory than the movie tells. In any case, a feminine critique of this unkempt, hypercompetitive masculine world is an unusual perspective for a gunfighter film. But of course, she challenges the man in charge on his own terms, as a Calamity Jane rather than a suffragette.

Raimi’s technique might actually be just a hair more subdued than I remembered, for what it’s worth. Again, it’s very much an homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns, with composer Alan Silvestri imitating Ennio Morricone’s brassy scores and cinematographer Dante Spinotti displaying a flair for extreme close-ups. There’s an amusing early shot of a landscape in which a particularly ugly face suddenly pops up in the foreground. As you might expect, the camera and editing get more aggressive in the moments before each shootout. But I think Raimi was well aware that he wasn’t going to top Leone, so these moments aren’t stretched out nearly as long as they could have been.

Daniel: The film as a whole could almost be a complete lampoon of the western genre. Borrowing heavily from creative forces before him, Raimi had the tools to go all out. Instead, I think he did something far more endearing, at least to me. He created his own take on a hundred other stories by standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Raimi is, in his own right, a very talented director, but man was it a change of pace for him to film a Western. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind him taking another crack at it either. We’re sitting 20 plus years out from this endeavor and it held up way better than I remembered. This certainly isn’t going to be remembered as one of the greatest westerns of all time, but I don’t think that’s something it was ever striving to be. It’s a western for people that don’t like westerns. On the whole, the plot is thin and the consequences seem so small. Killing is literally the name of the game and holds almost no weight, except in specific instances. And I think this is the biggest fault of the film. It forces the audience to hold specific lives dear while gleefully embracing the deaths of others, often times with laughter. Welcome to the club, eh? It’s nothing new, I get it, but it’s also a trope that would hold this back from being something weightier…if it were attempting to be a weightier movie. The story caps itself emotionally and artistically by its very nature, then rises to the very top of that cap. I don’t need another Unforgiven in this, what I needed was exactly what I got.

Our Favorite Movies of 2016

February 6, 2017 by

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Daniel: The Academy Awards are quickly approaching, a time when Hollywood congratulates itself on another year in the can and looks back at the finest works of cinematic art that were offered up to the masses. As is the tradition Paul and I take a look at the movies we’ve seen from the previous year and compile a small list of our favorite films. While we may not have seen every film from 2016 (or very many at all, in my case unfortunately) we always enjoy the nostalgic look back at which films were enjoyed the most. So, without further ado, here are our top five movies released in 2016.

#5

Daniel: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards

The Star Wars franchise is just a big cash cow. Gone are the early days of using miniatures and low budget movie magic to transport viewers into another galaxy. However, what we’re seeing is not a watering down of what we love but an expansion. Obviously the prequel trilogy is hotly debated, but as much as I really do dislike the films in general, they expand upon a fairly narrow storyline. I’m speaking cinematically, of course. The thousands of instances of comic books, cartoons and novels has led fans to be able to explore much deeper than the average moviegoer. Thankfully, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story expands in a way that is both enlightening and NOT painful to watch. It has its faults, but the caliber of science fiction that we get is seen so rarely and so widely accepted that I am all the more excited about The Last Jedi.

Paul: Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese

Looking back on our previous lists, I see that there were a couple times when I saw a movie during the following January that found its way into my top five. This year, I have three of them. It was a good month! First off is Scorsese’s intense Christian epic, a challenging and disconcerting work. In every way, it seems like the kind of movie that no one else could or would make anymore. The content is rich, adapting Shusaku Endo’s novel to ask important questions about faith and culture. And the form is masterful, with ravishing, bleak, fog-drenched compositions. As a quest into the heart of darkness, this story of Jesuit priests defying Japan’s shogunate to find their allegedly apostate mentor is a more introspective version of Apocalypse Now.

#4

Daniel: 10 Cloverfield Lane, directed by Dan Trachtenberg

Like its quasi-predecessor, I went into 10 Cloverfield Lane for a cheap scare. I did not get that. I got scares, sure, but I also got unease and claustrophobia and witnessed one of John Goodman’s strongest performances in recent memory. This was a movie that relied heavily on suspense rather than any sort of giant set piece. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. give solid performances as well. They’re the perfect pair to play off of Goodman’s paranoid neurotic tendencies. Everything from the location to the sheer size difference between the characters stresses that the audience is watching someone either struggle to keep people against their will, or struggle to save them. I really enjoyed how I found myself guessing throughout this whole movie.

Paul: Everybody Wants Some!!, directed by Richard Linklater

A sublime hang-out movie, loose and deceptively aimless, Linklater’s film about the first weekend of college was the most delightful thing I saw last year. Each moment feels true and insightful, with a brilliant ensemble cast bouncing witty dialogue around for the two-hour running time. The film has a lot of fun with its 1980 setting, exploring the contours of various musical styles from the period. This is also destined to remain one of my favorite sports movies, because by only showing the baseball team’s first practice, it avoids trite narratives about adversity and triumph. It’s all about the physical joys of baseball, and the camaraderie, rivalries and hazing that come with being on a team. Blake Jenner emerged last year (in this and The Edge of Seventeen — also excellent) as my favorite Normal Guy in the movies right now.

#3

Daniel: Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

I love going into a movie with low expectations only to be blown away. This was the case with Zootopia. I had almost no desire to watch it based on the trailers. That being said, a number of friends (and the majority of film critics) said that it was a pretty good movie. So, I gave it a shot. There was very little to not like. The writing was smart and funny with witty dialogue, solid spoofs and a ton of visual gags that all landed. The story is sweet and at times emotional, but not in a cheap way. In an industry of quick cash-grabs and reboots, Zootopia managed to be something unique and refreshing with visually stunning animation and a story that complemented its visual style. Even without its strong storytelling, the way they dealt with animals from every ecosystem was really interesting to see. It’s the kind of story that demands a high level of creativity to be made well, and that’s accomplished. The filmmakers were rewarded for a job well done and the audience was given something that was one of the best films of the year.

Paul: Cameraperson, directed by Kirsten Johnson

Pieced together from previously unused footage that Johnson shot while working on documentaries for the last couple decades, Cameraperson is a distinctive kind of personal nonfiction film. Better critics have spoken to the ways it makes the camera operator present in the moments she shoots, but mostly I was floored by how much smaller this movie makes the world feel. A single cut ties together wind-whipped fields in Wyoming and Bosnia. A baby clings to life in Uganda, and the director’s mother quietly sinks into the last stages of Alzheimer’s. To accommodate interviewees who wished to remain anonymous, the camera focuses on their hands with startling tenderness. These details, plus the lack of a single story, left me feeling like I didn’t want this movie to end.

#2

Daniel: Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

I am an absolute sucker for a well done Disney Princess movie. I ranked 2013’s Frozen at number 4 for the year and I’m giving the next Princess movie, Moana, the number 2 spot this year. This is Disney’s magical bread and butter. Sometimes it feels stale and called in, but with Moana that isn’t the case. First of all the animation is beautiful, even more so than usual. Water isn’t an easy element to show, and in this movie it practically takes on a character of its own. Oh man, is this a pretty movie. The culture that it focuses on as well is interesting and fresh to their animation lineup. The songs are all very catchy, entertaining and invaluable additions to the story. Then the story itself is a quest. This isn’t the story focused on a young woman being saved or finding herself, it’s the story of a young woman embarking on a dangerous quest to save the world. It takes the viewer to interesting locations to fight interesting creatures (some of whom sing really toe-tappingly catchy songs). Moana embodies the elements that make Disney such a strong animation studio, it has all the magic and effort of one of the classic features from the golden age, but updated with modern animation and storytelling techniques.

Paul: Lemonade, directed by Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

I went back and forth for a long time on whether or not I should include this, which is probably going to sound dumb in another ten years or so when all boundaries between visual media have been nullified. At any rate, whether you think of Beyoncé’s “visual album” as a movie or as a jumbo music video, it’s an amazing accomplishment. A mélange of styles — both visual (the shifts in aspect ratio alone are dizzying) and musical — comes together in perpetually exciting ways. Water and fire, two elemental forces that the camera always loves, compete to symbolize destruction and purification. The unifying story is a blistering marital exorcism laced with personal and communal histories. There’s a great specificity to the presentation, as well, with urban and rural spaces juxtaposed, bare parking garages and drooping willow trees on the Louisiana bayou. As a response to the unblinking public eye on the Knowles-Carter family, Beyoncé and her collaborators transformed that gaze into something beautiful and defiant. It isn’t entirely inward-focused, either. If I may be so bold, I think Lemonade may very well hold up as the definitive art work of the Black Lives Matter era.

#1

Daniel: Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Silence was the best movie that I saw to come out in 2016. It was also one of the most difficult movies to watch. Following the story of two Jesuit priests in the 1600s that go to Japan to find their mentor, Silence shows the brutality of persecuted individuals and religion, but it also shows the hopelessness that can be felt in those times. Growing up in a Christian household, the stories of the martyrs were devastating, but also inspirational. I could take some level of comfort in the unwavering faith of those that died for our faith. Silence, as the title suggests, is about those suffering persecution who feel alone, feel helpless, hopeless and doubtful. It is a truly devastating look at a very heart-breaking issue. Never does the film mock religion, but it also doesn’t shy away from asking difficult hypothetical questions both in terms of “what-would-you-do” situations and genuine theological questions. Difficult questions shouldn’t be shied away from, and Scorsese doesn’t. The film is a work of art visually, story-wise and audibly. The use of the titular word “silence” in the soundtrack is sometimes deafening. Any score to the film is sparse and blended well with the scenes. But it’s the scenes that are the most emotional, the ones I most expect music to manipulate me to some degree, that I don’t find it. Death, torture, horror done with no swell of music. Only Silence.

Paul: Cemetery of Splendor, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

This movie premiered at film festivals around the world in 2015, received a limited theatrical release in the U.S. last spring, and found its way in front of my eyes through a streaming rental just last month (along with Silence and Cameraperson, this completes my last-minute additions to the list…for now). So it’s debatable whether I should call it a 2016 movie, but most critics go by the domestic theatrical runs, and for good reason. Cemetery of Splendor comes from Thailand, and depending on your familiarity with “slow cinema,” it may be just as foreboding as its director’s name. But I got sucked into the rhythms of this film, and I had a fantastic time with it. A group of soldiers has fallen into a mysterious “sleeping sickness,” and the story follows the nurses who care for them in stasis. What Apichatpong is getting at with this setup is the mystical layering of the past and the present on a particular place, with the soldiers being held hostage to ancient kings still waging war in the afterlife. That’s the kind of premise that could yield a crazy effects-heavy action film, but here it’s conveyed with the director’s trademark deadpan supernaturalism and quiet amusement. Silence is an outsider’s view of Buddhism, and this is an insider’s view. The use of color saturation is awe-inspiring, and the movie arrives at an ending that feels perfect in a way that’s difficult to describe. For the moment at least, this is my favorite movie of 2015, 2016, and 2017 while I’m at it.

Millennium Actress

July 28, 2016 by


Paul: This movie’s title evokes a certain grandeur, an awe at the passage of time. Presented with nothing but the title and the knowledge that Millennium Actress is an animated film from Japan, I might have guessed that the story had supernatural elements. Having now seen it, I understand that, in the simplest terms, the title doesn’t have anything up its sleeve: this is the story of an actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who lives until the turn of the millennium. But the viewer’s sense of reality will be endlessly played with over the course of the film. The structure is multilayered. Millennium Actress is a faux-documentary, a biopic, a twentieth-century chronicle, and a film history collage. Not only does the director, Satoshi Kon, combine these disparate genres into a unified whole, he even makes them feel inseparable.

What fascinates me is that this film stumbles into a couple of the most irritating tropes I know — repeatedly commenting on itself and trading in on-the-nose symbolism (A. Literal. Key.) — but emerges as an invigorating and complex experience regardless. Millennium Actress is the kind of animated film that’s almost unheard of in America, clearly intended for adults but not inappropriate for children. Beautifully and naturalistically drawn, the film frequently made me think that a live action version of the same story would be entirely feasible. My first question is this: how important is the animation itself to your enjoyment of this film? Or maybe that’s the wrong question. We could just as easily say that any number of live action films would work just as well in animation. Am I presupposing the stereotype that “animation equals Disney equals fantasy”?

Daniel: You’re right, out of the plethora of animated pieces that could be turned into live action adaptations, this would be, perhaps, one of the most feasible. However, I believe it would be to the detriment of the source material. For one, the animation is not only beautiful, but is pivotal to the cohesiveness of the story. Despite jumping eras and genres, the film’s aesthetics remain consistent throughout. Had this been made as a live action film first, I might be inclined to disagree, but it would have been an ambitious project to pitch, let alone create. That being said, I would love to see that ambition show itself more often.

I really like this movie. You mention the cliche tropes present throughout, and you’re right that it oddly works. This is a movie about movies and rather than shy away from the things that generally make us cringe, it embraces it full tilt while also wowing the audience with an ever changing setting. Despite the jarring scene changes however, we’re left with a relatively simple story that is told in a very rich way. It’s easy to follow and doesn’t outstay its welcome with a conservative runtime for something with such a grand execution.

Paul: Ninety minutes would seem to be a little skimpy for such a sweeping story, but the movie never rushes over anything. It even repeats and ties together imagery in some brilliantly put-together montages. I think what comes through is the story’s single-mindedness. Plenty of historical background gets touched on, but the story is always about Chiyoko and always focuses on only one or two aspects of her life: primarily, her search for a man she met once, and secondarily, her career decisions in defiance of traditional gender roles. As scenes from her movies blend in with scenes from her life, it quickly becomes apparent that the “fictional” moments are included specifically to advance the “real” narrative. That might be the most joyful aspect of Millennium Actress: seeing art reflect life, and vice versa.

One more point on the live action/animation question: some of this movie’s techniques for tying together its time periods have been used in live action. For example, a dissolve that links younger Chiyoko with her current self. Oddly, that effect might work better here than in something like Saving Private Ryan, where it comes across as a little gaudy.

Daniel: The montage at the end of the film is high on my non-existent list of favorite montages. Everything from the theme, pace and setting is nearly perfect. Stressing, again, the impressive uses of transitions. Satoshi Kon would go on to create Paprika a few years later and continue his surreal art of transitions. In Paprika the director/writer takes on the idea of agents descending into the dreaming subconscious of individuals to protect and/or get information. Yes, it was essentially Inception but a cartoon and released years before. However, like in Millennium Actress, the way the story is told is both jarring and fascinating. Where Inception used dreams as segments for standard action sequences with a little flavor, Paprika goes the far more realistic (to dreams, not reality) route by throwing you into a world where absolutely anything can (and does) happen, including parades of refrigerators dancing by in the midst of an action sequence. I need to see more from Kon, because out of the two I’ve seen I’ve been blown away, both times going in with little expectations and seeing something I’ve never seen before.

It’s this kind of creativeness that translates so well in animation. While I don’t doubt, especially this day and age, that live action can accomplish the story visually, I find when things are done correctly with animation it’s less jarring and I’m able to suspend my view of reality far more than I would be able to otherwise. I think Kon knows that he’s got more leeway in that regard and he just runs with it.

Paul: I caught up with Paprika recently as well. What the two films have in common is an interest in various film genres. In this film, Chiyoko enjoys a wide-ranging career that basically tracks along with the best-known Japanese films, from historical samurai epics to Atomic Age kaiju films. Her very last film, appropriately enough, sends her into space. There’s an infectious excitement to all this, even when the film pops the balloon intermittently by putting the documentary filmmaker into the movie scenes in a humorous way. This filmmaker character, Genya Tachibana, is clearly a big fan of Chiyoko’s, and Millennium Actress gradually reveals how deep his appreciation for her goes. He exhibits the kind of boisterousness I’ve long associated with anime, and he’s certainly a comical character. But Kon appears to share his reverence. This is a movie that opens with a film studio getting demolished. In its long and loving look back at classic movies, we can feel an uncertainty toward the future that is still a matter of concern in film circles. A single lifespan easily circumscribes most of film history, which makes any prophecy about the art form’s imminent demise feel premature. Then again, Paprika came around just five years later, and its conception of our virtual-reality future doesn’t seem that far away. In any case, this movie is more excited about old-fashioned star power than in the specific qualities of film. Images of Chiyoko are lovingly rendered whether they’re on the screen or her many magazine covers.

Daniel: Tachibana is absolutely the most stereotypical anime trope in this movie. His over-the-top reactions show an almost unstable amount of emotional range. This is reflected in the animation by his face turning violent shades of red at times and him responding to disparaging comments towards his idol with violence. It’s the thing that would carry over to live action terribly. Where I can forgive, and even laugh at the animated nature of the character here, I would probably bemoan something so “cartoony” from a physical human being. I’m trying to come up with aspects about this movie that I didn’t like, and I think we’ve touched on them mostly, but also forgiven many of them. As you stated, the standard move cliches and imagery works because we’re watching a loving tribute to the genre. Some of the antics and sequences that would otherwise jar me from my suspension of belief can be overlooked because of the animation. This really is a movie that can be appreciated by a pretty broad audience, and yet most times that I recommend it to people it isn’t even considered when I mention that it’s 1) not in English and 2) it’s anime. I understand people’s reluctance to watch a film with subtitles (despite vehemently disagreeing with their stubbornness). A good chunk of the population associates entertainment with the switching off of your brain. Reading is “work” and comprehending the visual aspects of a foreign language film while keeping up with subtitles is not appealing to everyone. As far as the anime aspect of the film, I think it’s a medium that’s just been given a bad reputation, often viewed as being enjoyed only by the socially questionable crowd. It’s a real shame, because the offerings are so vast and often relatable, as was the case here.

Paul: It’s also a film that’s a little hard to get a hold of, although used copies on Amazon aren’t too outrageous. YouTube had it streaming for free on its Paramount Vault channel, which is where I watched it, but it seems to have disappeared already. So it’s going to remain underseen, but I think it belongs up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The ambiguity of the plot had a real effect on me. I made fun of the key earlier, but it’s important to note that the movie never shows us the lock that it opens. We don’t learn the man’s name. He’s apparently part of a resistance movement against the Japanese government’s aggression in World War II, and it’s great to see attention given to a cause like that. But Chiyoko’s decision to help him is purely instinctive. She doesn’t know why he’s running when they first meet, and I get the feeling that the politics never matter to her as much as the unspoken connection between them. There’s tragedy in the unending search for the man, but also a real catharsis in the fact that Chiyoko is happy just with the search itself. The open-endedness holds true through the closing moments. I think my list of favorite movies will back me up when I say that I enjoy a bit of cosmic allegory every now and then.

Daniel: I remember you mentioning it was on YouTube, and I never gave it much thought. It’s too bad the availability is limited. I was able to request it from my local library with little wait time, so that’s how I ended up watching it. When it comes to recommending animated movies, this is one of the first ones I offer. While I adore most of Studio Ghibli’s films, to those leery of Japanese folklore and animation, it’s only going to turn them off from an otherwise rich array of art. Millennium Actress is surreal, but it’s also enthralling and told in such a way that the jarring scene changes start making sense. Almost like riding a bike, it’s worrisome and confusing at first, but once you start you’re soon going with your hands off the handlebars. The audience is pandered to very little and they’re entrusted with the responsibility of following along as the story unfolds in an unconventional way. Because of this we’re given a glimpse into a branch of filmmaking that allows the wonder and fantasy to mingle effortlessly with strong realistic emotions. I love that you mentioned this as a film for adults that’s not inappropriate for children. It’s a great example that the two are not mutually exclusive.

North by Northwest

June 23, 2016 by

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Daniel: Few directors have established the prestige and intrigue that Alfred Hitchcock has. His films are cinematically ground breaking, with Vertigo replacing Citizen Kane on Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time list. And yet, his is a cinematic legacy that I have yet to even come close to exhausting. I’ve seen a good number of his more popular releases, yet for some reason our topic of conversation today had never crossed my path. Admittedly, it was my own fault, as North by Northwest is firmly rooted in popular culture. North by Northwest, for the other two of you that haven’t seen it, is a story of mistaken identity. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent and ends up being hunted by a group of international criminals.

I’ve really done myself a disservice by not watching this movie sooner. It’s honestly been a few years since I’ve seen any of Hitchcock’s works, and this was so thoroughly marked by his direction. However the first few minutes (after the opening credits) were very jarring as it began to feel like the beginning of a Cary Grant romantic comedy, which was fun. It was something different for me to see an actor like Cary Grant thrust into a Hitchcock film. I guess I should watch the other three he stars in next.

Paul: North by Northwest has the reputation of being the “fun one” sandwiched in between Hitchcock’s more serious and disturbing masterworks. That’s pretty accurate, and I’ve had a tendency to underrate this movie for that reason. What struck me on this viewing is that there is some continuity between this and Vertigo. In general terms, they’re both about a man who gets angry with a woman for not being who she says she is. There’s even the eerie shared image of the back of the mystery woman’s head. So Hitchcock was still working through some of the same personal issues. But in the place of Vertigo’s anguish he constructed a breezy adventure this time. North by Northwest ends up being a Cold War movie, but I always forget that. The usual dread and paranoia are nicely absent. It makes sense that the man who coined the term “MacGuffin” would create such a perfect example here. All the spy stuff hangs on that elusive microfilm, but the contents don’t matter a bit compared to Roger Thornhill’s problems. I love that this man is just a random bystander who keeps finding ways to survive. I imagine a modern retelling of this story might feel the need to give him some secret espionage backstory. Nope, he’s just an ordinary guy who slowly figures things out. Grant is terrific in this. I feel like he gets younger as the movie goes along, somehow. By the end, he’s having the time of his life.

Were there other details you noticed that felt distinctively Hitchcockian to you?

Daniel: Hitchcock was an expert at projecting his vision onto the screen. Every director strives to get their vision fully realized on an audience, but here it’s done just so well. It’s subtle things like the bumps that Thornhill exaggeratedly experiences while driving the car intoxicated as well as the interesting shots like when he runs out of the UN building from an extremely panned out shot. It’s simply an interesting film to watch that moves with the apparent ease that he commands the actors, camera and framing. Despite it being “the fun one” it didn’t lack for suspense. And while I often associate Hitchcock with the macabre (thanks to The Birds and Psycho more or less being my introduction to him) this was light when it needed to be and suspenseful when it meant to be. It displayed a balance between the two that was almost uncharacteristic of the director. Not to say his films were entirely devoid of humor, but I found this one enjoyable in a different sense. I’m curious to know where this film ranks among his other works for you personally.

Paul: Well, it’s definitely in my top ten, and I can say that there’s hardly a Hitchcock film I’ve seen that I didn’t like at least a little. But I had been hoping that, on revisiting it, the film might jump in my estimation, and I don’t think it budged. My reservations all seem to relate to Eve Kendall, the Eva Marie Saint character. This is blasphemous, but I’ve always been more invested in the relationship between Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade, the Hitchcock knockoff, than I am in Roger and Eve’s relationship. I’m fully on board with North by Northwest as long as Roger’s motivation is to find out who and where George Kaplan is. If somebody just tried to kill me, I’d want to clear up the confusion, too. But then he has a fling on a train, and when the woman arranges a rendezvous between him and a crop duster, his objective is now to punish her. This says some things about Roger as a character, I suppose, but I find it a little jarring. Saint is perfectly fine as an icy blonde, but compared to Kim Novak or Janet Leigh, she fades into the background somewhat.

Daniel: Roger and Eve’s relationship was the driving force behind our protagonist’s actions. Sure, he needed to stop the spies and save his own skin, but it boiled down to Thornhill caring enough about Eve to risk his life even more to save her from the clutches of the evil Vandamm (James Mason). Which is a pity, because I certainly agree with you to the extent that I didn’t much care for that relationship. Kendall’s ice cold persona that bordered femme fatale was a stark contrast to Grant’s charming and humorously dry wit, but not in a complementary way. Throw him in with Hepburn, however, and you’re absolutely right, they’ll charm the scales off a snake. I admit it was fun to see Cary Grant in this kind of role, but by and large this isn’t a favorite of mine. The movie was intense and entertaining and all around good, but Hitchcock and Cary Grant have both done better films separately.

The story was fantastic. I was just as eager as Thornhill was to find out the identity of the man he was mistaken for. The suspense was there, the humor was there, and yet it was like being jarred back and forth. I think the ending of the movie was a good representation of my feelings toward it. Within seconds I’m wondering if a character is going to die and then happy that they’re on their way to married bliss. I feel I’m being harsher than I anticipated, the truth is I did really enjoy this movie and there were a lot of really fantastic elements, but it was flawed in ways I didn’t anticipate.

Paul: That closing transition is a bit of a stunner, isn’t it? But in a good way, I’d say. Generally, I don’t find the tonal shifts to be all that crazy. This movie has been described as a comedy, but I’d describe the experience as one of good-natured suavity rather than big laughs. Any time you put Cary Grant and James Mason in the same room, the Suave-o-Meter is going to be maxing out. But there’s some great banter. I think the funniest moment for me happens late in the film, when Vandamm and his minion, Leonard (Martin Landau), suddenly come to blows over whether Eve is a double agent or not. Hitchcock employs his favored technique of a punch directly toward the camera to show Vandamm knocking Leonard into a reclining position in a chair. Hearing the commotion, Eve looks down from a balcony. Quickly but smoothly, Leonard fixes his hair as if to say, “Nothing to see here. Just chilling.” The other great moment involving the layout of Vandamm’s lair is when Roger tosses his matchbook (“ROT”) down to Eve as a secret message that only she would notice. Leonard spots it before she does, and it’s a wonderfully tense moment. So there is a mix of tones, but I think they mostly complement one another. This is a very geometrically-minded film. Hitchcock is great at visualizing conflicts according to the positioning of characters in a room. There are a number of standoffs with characters on opposite ends of the frame. Which leads me to the most famous scene. You were probably a little familiar with the iconic crop duster attack, but was it effective on your first official viewing?

Daniel: It was exciting and tense, but not nearly so tense as I had expected. I’m really in an odd position here as I am very familiar with the scene, or rather, a few frames of the scene. It has remained firmly seated in my pop-culture consciousness for me to have had a false idea on how the scene would play out. Most likely thanks to seeing movie posters and montages, I assumed there would be intense music to keep me on the edge of my seat. There was none. The whole scene was devoid of any musical assistance. I appreciated the fact to an extent, but having such a strong idea on what to expect, I was more taken out of it than anything. This, I acknowledge, is my fault. When this scene (which I also subconsciously assumed would be the climax of the film) happened sooner than I expected and the movie was funnier than I was prepared for it again removed me from the intensity of the scene. I really did myself and the film a disservice by waiting so long to see it in its entirety. Objectively, there is very little wrong with the film and as I write this I’m realizing more that the majority of the issues I had were thanks primarily due to my false expectations. I did like this movie, I liked it a great deal, but I can’t help but think that had I not categorized my mind to see “Cary Grant: Comedic Actor” and “Alfred Hitchcock: Suspense Director” to such an extent, I might have enjoyed it all the more.

You mentioned that your main issue with the film was with the relationship between Roger and Eve, but was there anything else in particular that didn’t sit well with you?

Paul: Not really. This is more a case where the intensity of my connection with other films outshines a movie that is merely a brilliantly executed piece of entertainment. (Writers have made the case that there are dark undercurrents here, but I confess they still don’t make much of an impression with me.) I can definitely relate to the problem of expectations. This sounds like busywork, but it can be necessary to watch a film once just to clear away misguided expectations, so we can return to it on its own terms later. It sounds like you wouldn’t mind revisiting North by Northwest someday, though.

I’m so glad you mentioned the silence in the crop duster scene, because it’s a masterstroke. I don’t know if you saw a video that came out a little while ago that combined the scene with the Star Wars universe. It sounded like a fun mash-up but ended up being a total waste of time. The intergalactic frippery was remarkably beside the point, detracting from the perfect brown landscape in the middle of nowhere. Arguably worse, however, is that the editor drenched the scene with music from the very beginning. This choice ignores Hitchcock’s discipline. Bernard Herrmann was turning in some of his most thrilling music for this film (which is saying something), but the director knew when to withhold it for the sake of uncertainty. Anyway, I think the scene as Hitchcock directed it is a pretty flawless example of location photography and dramatic irony. It’s always rewarding to see that an iconic scene is iconic for a reason.