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.

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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.

Shaolin Soccer

April 14, 2016 by

Shaolin SoccerPaul: I don’t know all that much about soccer, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually look like this. No, you can’t fool me. Hong Kong director Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer follows the basic structure of a sports movie, with the ragtag underdogs going up against a superpower for the championship. But he tells the story in a heightened slapstick style, built on the ingenious concept of combining soccer with martial arts. The main character, Sing, played by Chow himself, sees many practical uses for kung fu. Not only can it allow anyone, no matter their physical attributes, to excel at sports, but it can also assist with such activities as cooking and parallel parking. Most apropos to this film, however, is that it makes a person really good at kicking. Thus Sing decides to rescue some of his fellow martial artists from their unsatisfying jobs by putting a team together, coached by the fallen soccer legend “Golden Leg” Fung (Ng Man-tat).

Culturally speaking, I wasn’t very familiar with most of what goes on in this movie. I haven’t seen much kung fu cinema, and I might not even have recognized the Bruce Lee homages if it weren’t for Kill Bill. Stephen Chow is a name I might not have recognized before this year, either, but he’s gotten quite a bit of attention since his latest film, The Mermaid, broke the all-time box office record in China. He knows how to make a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and Shaolin Soccer certainly had the potential to be both rousing and irreverent. For myself, on the other hand, it also had the potential to fall flat. There aren’t very many sports movies that excite me, and I don’t always respond to exaggerated physical comedy. Before I get into what I thought of this film, though, I’ll ask for your thoughts. What’s your history with this movie, and what did you think of it this time?

 

Daniel: I love this movie. I loved it the first time I watched it and I loved it the following few times up to the most recent viewing. It hits so many gleefully ridiculous notes that ring true for either genre, sports or martial arts. Now, I was a huge sucker for sports movies growing up, and I had a real soft spot for anything martial arts (primarily 3 Ninjas and Surf Ninjas, neither of which was a pinnacle of the sub-genre) so there is absolutely a nostalgia factor for me going into something like this. Regardless of that, however, I consider this one of the better parody comedies in the last few decades. Everything from the ridiculous premise to the emotional levels fluctuating from deadpan to death threats made me laugh. Stephen Chow pieces together something that makes me go “that’s cool” and has me cackling till my side hurts simultaneously. The story is such a simple and perfect mashup of genres. Of course Shao Lin and Soccer are a perfect match, especially when we’re talking about the type of martial arts that only takes place on film. This was made in a  time when movies like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were fairly popular. And Chinese cinema in general was primarily known in the States for the elaborately choreographed fight scenes. (Thanks, Jackie Chan… seriously, Drunken Master was awesome.) I’ll be the first to admit, there are certain scenes and actions that get lost in translation, but overall this is a movie that I thoroughly enjoy watching and watching with people because it leaves me with such a sensation of glee. It’s not high art, it’s not true sports drama, but it is an excellent spoof of both.

 

Paul: There’s something refreshing about genre parody. It takes the shortcomings of well-worn formulas and makes them even more pronounced. That’s always a gamble, because there’s a fine line between making us laugh and making us groan even harder. But I think this movie nails a couple aspects of sports and sports movies. Sports and cinema have grown up together and have certain affinities that reinforce each other. First and foremost is the idea of good guys and bad guys. Sometimes it isn’t enough to root for your team; there have to be reasons to root against the other team. Sports movies tend to suggest, coyly, that the other team plays dirty, or the coach treats his players like pawns instead of human beings. (Maybe I’m mostly thinking of the Mighty Ducks movies here.) Shaolin Soccer doesn’t try to hide this fundamentally unfair approach to sports, instead leaning into the mustache-twirling with vigor. The antagonists are literally called Team Evil. The coach, played by Patrick Tse, humiliates his rival in public and vocally advocates for winning the championship by injuring enough opposing players that the other team has to forfeit. There’s also the Rocky IV bit — the good guys training with heart and hard work, the bad guys with sophisticated high-tech gadgets. Many aspects of this film could be labeled “cartoonish,” for better or worse, but this might be the best. Team Evil is gloriously ridiculous.

I’m glad you mentioned the cool factor, because while there are straightforward action moments, the other thing that impressed me was a tendency to lampoon some of the “cool” poses we expect from athletes. The stand-out shot is of Team Evil’s goalie (Cao Hua), having blocked a magical kick from Sing with one hand, his other hand relaxing in his pocket. Sing self-consciously strikes a pose of his own in response. It’s self-effacing in the best way.

 

Daniel: They really do run away with the reasons to root for the other team in this. Even in a movie like Cool Runnings, you’re basically informed that the Swiss are jerks, so it is here that Team Evil is given a ridiculously on-the-nose name and are shown having drugs injected into them. We know exactly who to hate and there are no qualms about it.

One of the more interesting plot lines from the film was with Mui (played by Zhao Wei). Her arc is the strongest in the film. Going from a self-conscious baker with incredible ability, then, in an attempt to please “Steel Leg” Sing changes her look to something that could have come out of a bad 80s fashion magazine. Only after having her looks and new attitude ridiculed does she finally kind of give up on caring about her looks entirely and allows herself to shine through. But that transformation isn’t a complete 180, as is evident when she walks out onto the soccer field for the final match. It isn’t a perfect storyline, but in a film fueled by jokes and pratfalls it resonated with me as a sweet aspect that was more moving to me than perhaps that final match was. Perhaps that’s the biggest overall disappointment for me. While the movie, to me, is uproariously funny, I find myself waiting for the next joke rather than on the edge of my seat rooting for the team.

 

Paul: I had a little trouble with Mui. On the one hand, it’s undeniably impressive to watch a person go through three different looks in one movie that are so distinct, the character almost could have been played by different people. On the other hand, I’m not entirely enamored with Mui’s function in the story. The hyperbolic mood swings of her scenes reminded me of some of the anime I’ve seen, which may very well have been intentional. But the derision toward her appearance, in all three phases, didn’t sit altogether well with me. Along with some of the fat guy jokes (the potato chips, the raw eggs), I felt this kind of stuff went a little too over-the-top, if that makes sense. Then again, there are great moments in that final match. Her entrance is fantastic. With the team on the very brink of forfeiting, the camera pans to the left and there she is. Immediately after that, the movie offers a reminder, as in the earlier training sequence, that being a kung fu superhero is one thing, but these martial artists still have to learn how to play the game. I love how gently Team Evil’s goalie (who might just be my favorite character, the more I think about it) informs Mui that she’s standing in the wrong net. She gets her moment to shine soon after, but there really is a touching attitude throughout the film toward common everyday clumsiness and awkwardness.

 

Daniel: You may be on to something. I have a real soft spot for certain anime films and TV shows. Shaolin Soccer is about two steps from being a cartoon itself. When I first saw the live adaptation of Speed Racer I really hated it, but the next (few) times I watched it, it grew on me because I watched not with the mindset that this was a live action film that had to play by the rules associated with the medium (few, though they are) but with the thought that this is just the animated show with real people instead of animated ones.

Despite my love for this movie I’m more than willing to admit its flaws. I think one of the big draws for me is just how different of a “sports” movie it is. Sure, it has all the familiar tropes and plot lines of, well just about any other in its genre, but seeing it from a different point of view with such a vastly different cultural backdrop and brand of humor was and remains refreshing for me. It takes some cheap shots and succumbs to lowbrow humor at times, but overall I’m alright with that. Maybe it’s due to my complete aversion to soccer. It is a sport that I will never fully understand or love, and yet here I am, touting my devotion to a “soccer” movie. Then again, it’s a lot like the Super Nintendo classic Mega Man Soccer where the players also have superpowers, which is something I enjoy.

Contact

March 23, 2016 by

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Daniel: Extraterrestrial life is practically Hollywood’s bread and butter. Since narrative film began there has hardly been a break in the topic of life on other planets. It’s the great unknown. Humans are limited in our knowledge of the universe, and so we wonder what else might be out there. It’s more common than not to make these questions confrontational in film. It’s flashier, it’s louder, it sells more tickets. And yet, the questions that could arise from the discovery of intelligent life would, in reality, extend far beyond “are they hostile” and “how can we fight them.” 1997 debuted Contact, a film that wasn’t the first to ask philosophical questions surrounding the possibility of intelligence beyond humans, but it was certainly one with a bit of a cultural impact.

Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, a woman obsessed with communication, specifically with the furthest areas of the universe that technology can reach. When a radio signal is received that appears to be instructions for a giant machine, she and the rest of the world must figure out how next to proceed. A myriad of characters appear to challenge her beliefs and to squelch her hopes in as many practical applications of “life isn’t fair” moments as can be fit into 150 minutes. I had not seen this movie since it was first released on home video, and admittedly almost all of it went over my head. All I knew at the time was that it was an alien movie, and boy was I disappointed when there wasn’t a fight. Subsequently, I enjoyed it far more this time around.

 

Paul: I have to agree that if I had seen this movie soon after seeing Independence Day, I too would have been disappointed that not only are these aliens not attacking us, they don’t even send the Mothership into Earth’s orbit. Contact is clearly designed as a more realistic scenario than Hollywood normally produces. And as a matter of fact, I just saw it for the first time. I suggested it for our blog because it seemed complex enough that a discussion could go many different directions. Having seen it, I think I was right. This movie came up in a science class I took in college because of the story’s religious angle: Matthew McConaughey’s character, Palmer Joss, diligently tries to get Ellie, the rational scientist, to consider theism. There’s plenty more to say about these characters’ relationship, but I found the theological arguments to be respectful and smart. As a cautiously pro-religion film made with skill and compassion, Contact renders something like God’s Not Dead totally superfluous. Even so, no matter what god director Robert Zemeckis may or may not believe in, he reserves most of his energy and excitement for the praise of technology. There might not be another filmmaker as dedicated to the pursuit of cutting-edge special effects for their own sake. (This is the guy who made Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and a trio of increasingly sophisticated motion-capture animated films in the 2000s.) The first shot in the movie is pretty terrific, pulling us back from our own planet to, eventually, the whole universe in just a few minutes. The accompanying science lesson about how long it takes radio signals to reach the edge of the solar system is a quick and entertaining way of setting the plot in motion.

 

Daniel: Yes, I really liked how the opening shot laid the groundwork for the basis of the rest of the story. The way that it tied into the plot points of the first signals being received by the “others” relaying back to us helped gauge the aspect of time in relation to space travel. And it’s interesting that you called this a pro-religion film. While I don’t necessarily disagree with you, growing up in a highly conservative Christian background myself, this movie was discussed (in the few times it was discussed) as a more atheistic or agnostic film. Which on this viewing I found I disagreed. Still, reactions to articles that ask pointed questions at one’s viewpoint can certainly influence the way it’s perceived. Like you, I think the subject was handled respectfully, albeit perhaps not all theologically correct in the instance of Palmer Joss. My frustration has to be one shared with just about any religion that is wrongly represented by characters in film, but at least he wasn’t as bad as the token characters in every Stephen King film adaptation. Still, it handled some very weighty subject material in a way that didn’t seem “preachy” or convoluted. More impressively it managed that and was still entertaining from a purely enjoyment level standpoint. Being a Christian I have seen my fair share of “Christian Films” that have messages that I completely agree with, and yet I detest. Contact managed to tackle its philosophical conversations while keeping the drama and character interaction interesting and at times infuriating.

 

Paul: There’s certainly not much that’s distinctly Christian about Palmer, it’s true. And I guess I can see how someone could argue that the ending of the movie has a postmodern tint, that faith is only subjective experience. But I would disagree with that reading. Film communicates truth visually, and we see everything Ellie sees. It’s pro-religion, also, in the sense that the movie comes very close to arguing that Ellie is an atheist only because she lost her father. On the other hand, Contact warns about the dangers of fringe cults, and there’s a conservative Christian spokesman (Rob Lowe) who’s just around to be offended by everything. This leads to my primary criticism of the film, its reliance on easy villains. James Woods, who was admittedly well cast thanks to his wonderful, cold eyes, plays a national security advisor with a single-minded conviction that the aliens are going to kill us all. That’s not an unreasonable viewpoint, but the movie never gives it much credence. Worst of all is David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who spends the first part of the movie trying to shutter the SETI project (again, an understandable position), but as soon as contact is established pivots into hogging the spotlight. These characterizations are manipulative, and they expose the superficiality of the film’s politics. Again, I think Zemeckis was most interested in the technical challenge of integrating real news footage of President Clinton into fiction. The use of TV monitors was effective, though. The swastika in the first video signal from the aliens was the most startling image I’ve seen in a while.

 

Daniel: Although the quasi-antagonists of the film were a little caricature-esque, I still was able to find them believable in the scope of the film, especially with our current trend of polarization in American politics. I found Drumlin infuriating, but believable as someone that sought credibility and recognition above all. Ellie’s mission was laughable. To this day I have people close to me that scoff at any sort of space program, let alone listening for extraterrestrial life. It’s not the most credible line of science, I’m sure, in the minds of most people. So, when in the film it quickly changes from a mockery to a reality, I can absolutely understand someone like Drumlin instantly flipping sides. The most compelling and infuriating scene for me was when Ellie was asked if she believed in God in front of the council that would decide who would go on the mission. Not because Ellie was honest, but because Drumlin said exactly what everyone wanted to hear. It’s very reminiscent of our current presidential election process.

The swastika being used as the first distinguishable message by the aliens was absolutely startling, but it was worked into the fabric of the story so well. It really raises the question as to, if there is intelligent life outside earth, what message would they receive from us first, intended or not. Or the other way around if we received a message. It’s the type of serious question that Galaxy Quest lampoons when our television series become considered historical archives. The amount of information we’re blasting out there is staggering.

 

Paul: The premise of the film, and Carl Sagan’s original novel, makes a lot of sense, at least to a layman like myself. Diffuse radio signals probably stand a much better chance of getting noticed by intelligent life than a directed message like, say, the Voyager probes. Science is always finding better answers to “how does such-and-such work” questions, but Contact hasn’t become seriously outdated as far as I can tell. More importantly, the script manages to make complex scientific ideas accessible. Closer investigation might clarify how James Hart and Michael Goldenberg did it, but my first impression was that, while I might not understand every other word, the words I did understand guided my thinking to the right places. Physical action goes a long way, too. It’s not trivial that the scene in which Ellie first notices an intelligent pattern in an extra-terrestrial signal leads to her racing in her car to get back to headquarters. Even if we have no idea how important this discovery is, we can feel the intensity.

For all the science and theology, though, at its heart this story is a Hollywood romance. Palmer may balk at Ellie’s atheism, but the subtext is always clear: he wants her to stay in our solar system because he loves her. The presence of McConaughey, of course, makes me think of Interstellar. Of all the parallels between the two films, the one I wasn’t expecting was the shared concept that human beings’ ability to love someone who’s dead and gone might be proof of something beyond materialism. It’s sentimental, but I like that idea a lot.

 

Daniel: I had forgotten McConaughey was in this, and the similarities between this and Interstellar started popping up in my mind almost immediately as well. A film about cosmic travel/communication with a heavy underlying theme of love being transcendent. While I agree with you that the film was able to dumb down a lot of the science to be understandable, I did get the feeling that they on occasion went a bit too far in holding the audience’s hand. Nothing too extreme, but some of the dialogue came off as a little too “let’s explain this to anyone listening in.” It’s a small complaint overall, and you’re right, this film holds up really well despite its age. That and William Fichtner. Not that he was terrible, but I genuinely didn’t realize he was blind until the scene where they escort him into the control room and he had a walking stick. The reliance on the technology of the time isn’t jarring, if anything it adds a level of credibility. That coupled with the fact that the aliens are receiving messages from antiquated signals further affirms the “credibility” of the movie’s premise. Ultimately we’re left with a movie that’s well written, acted and shot that uses technology as a main plot device, yet holds up extremely well despite the amount of time it’s been around. Contact kind of jumped back onto my radar as one of the better science fiction films I’ve seen and enjoyed.

 

Paul: Fichtner gives the most “hey look, I’m acting” performance for sure, but I enjoyed it. The rest of the cast is rock solid, with David Morse and Angela Bassett standing out to me.

I enjoyed this film too. It takes a well-worn concept that could be used to inspire either fear or wonder and elects to be reassuring. The lessons about humanity are mild, and the main characters aren’t forced into irrevocable decisions. For this reason, Contact isn’t as challenging as the classic science fiction films in its DNA, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind back to Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it’s also consistently engaging even as it explores complicated and controversial material. Zemeckis is a show-off, doing stuff like digitally moving the camera through a windowpane just because he can, but he also knows how to entertain. There aren’t enough mainstream movies like this one.

Our Favorite Movies of 2015

February 4, 2016 by

  
Paul: It’s time again for the Gaffer MacGuffin Top Fives. For the fourth year in a row, Daniel and I will put down our personal favorites. Our friend Erigena Sallaku wasn’t able to participate this year. We hope she’ll be back next time. 2015 was a good year. I watched more new movies than I ever had before, so naturally I was thrilled to wake up the morning of the Oscar nominations and learn that I’d seen only three out of eight Best Picture contenders. Still, at least half the movies I saw were good, and more than half were interesting on some level. There’s always more to discover, and I look forward to hearing your picks, Daniel.

Daniel: It’s been an interesting year both personally and for the cinematic scene. With the arrival of my first child came a drastic stall in my movie watching. That being said, I was able to scrounge up an adequate list and see most of my “most anticipated” movies, as well as a few I had been meaning to see. It’s really a shame I didn’t see Nightcrawler in 2014 because it would have made my top five then for sure. I’ve seen two of the Best Picture nominees this year, and *spoiler* they both made my list. This list was a fun one to make.

5.

Paul: The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson

An extended tribute to lost films from the silent era onward, The Forbidden Room is a whirlpool of nested narratives and dream logic. The viewer quickly loses hope that each loose end will get tied up, and yet the rollicking finale somehow encapsulates the spirit of the whole thing. Still, some of the vignettes are so bizarre that every time the film returns to its primary quest narrative feels like a gasp for air (which is ironic on a couple levels). That such a wide-ranging production should still feel like such a bald exploration of Guy Maddin’s psyche is a sort of miracle. This movie isn’t not for everyone, by any means, but I think its enthusiasm for old cinema makes an effort like Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse look half-hearted. Visually scorching, and funny to boot, it couldn’t have been made by anyone else.

Daniel: The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott

I watched this one shortly before sitting down to write this list. It instantly bumped Ant-Man out of the #5 spot for me. Bad news for Paul Rudd, no change for Michael Peña. I’ve seen a wide variety of survival films, and it certainly can be an exciting genre. That being said, it’s kind of a one trick pony. The change of scenery from your normal survival plot was a nice change, but the talent both in front of and behind the camera allowed this to stand out as one of my favorites of the year. Scott, no stranger to alien landscapes, brings the harsh environment of Mars to life (or lack thereof). The balance between the impossibility of the situation with the plausibility presented by NASA to rescue Watney makes it that good kind of tense that grips you after the credits roll. Also, the cast. I don’t have enough time to praise the variety of talent and how well they were all used. 

4.

Paul: Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg

There didn’t seem like much to recommend this one for me, frankly. It looked like the kind of movie I should see with my dad, that’s all. Only the name Spielberg (and Hanks, to a lesser extent) gave me hope, and I figured this would be a minor project for the director, something he could ease into after the passion project Lincoln. It ended up being his second-best film of this decade so far. The quietly confident filmmaking is supported by very strong performances, including the Oscar-nominated work of Mark Rylance, who exudes such a familiar presence I was legitimately shocked to learn I’d never seen him in anything before. As a tribute to American ideals from a filmmaker who really believes in them, Bridge of Spies acted like a tonic during this remarkably hideous election cycle.

Daniel: Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen

My valuation of Pixar films in recent years has dwindled. They’re still one of the best animation studios on the face of the planet, but it’s almost as if their sudden realization that they could make more money easier by compromising on quality, started to get the better of them. Thankfully Inside Out was good. Really good. The complexity of the theme was presented in a humorous and entertaining way that appeals to pretty much everyone. The story carried the weight and emotions of the situation tonally and visually so perfectly that it was so incredibly easy to get caught up in. The pacing was perfect, the film was visually vibrant and the cast was dead on in their roles. Delicate and difficult subjects are presented in ways that are easy to understand, but not watered down at all.

3.

Paul: Experimenter, directed by Michael Almereyda

There wasn’t another movie this year that eased me into its world with such cold precision. This is the story of Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist famous for his controversial experiments in the 1960s. The film explores all the ethical ins and outs while confronting the audience with the same questions. Peter Sarsgaard plays Milgram with charismatic nonchalance and icy composure, directly addressing the camera throughout. Many other deliberately artificial techniques are employed, including rear projection and the literalization of a certain metaphor. It all contributed to the eerie sensation that I was being tested, too. Experimenter is thought-provoking, informative, and emotionally true. These are all-too-rare qualities in biopics. As an exploration of the dark side of human nature, the film performs the same valuable service as the experiments themselves.

Daniel: Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro

Advertised as a horror movie, in that respect it fell short. However, as a Gothic romance movie it hit the nail on the head… or in the head, if you prefer. Del Toro’s at his finest in what is arguably his most gorgeous film to date. Every frame of Crimson Peak is filled to the brim with contrasting colors impregnated with tension and mystery. It absolutely has horror elements, but it relies heavily on the brooding slow burning, gut wrenching crawling terror rather than the hack-and-slash that’s all too prevalent. Visually, this was like the “dark Cinderella” (another movie that almost made this list). However, rather than optimism an impending sense of dread lurks around the corner waiting to pop out with every ghost. Even when the movie is at its low points there is something to look at and wonder about. At its worst it’s beautiful, at its best it’s beautiful and completely gripping.

2.

Paul: Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

I was actually on the fence about this one the first time I saw it, but I knew I wanted to see it again before the end of the year. With a second look, this movie now feels undeniable. George Miller’s big-budget cult film, the fourth of his sand-and-fire epics, is an absolutely marvelous action movie. Both the hand-to-hand combat and the vehicular spectacle are meticulously choreographed and vibrant. The sheer momentum of the thing is awe-inspiring. On top of that, Miller shrewdly sketches in character details, sometimes with only brief snatches of dialogue, bringing a whole society to life without needing to cut away from the action. The second viewing also clarified that the movie never repeats itself. This is a brilliant piece of entertainment that dares to argue for a better world.

Daniel: Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams

Arguably, this is on the list due entirely to nostalgia. That was, at least my thinking walking into the theater. I hadn’t had these feelings for a movie since 1999 with The Phantom Menace. In the middle of the film though, I realized there wasn’t anything even close to this caliber of storytelling and visual bravado in the sci-fi genre. The rich history of the Star Wars franchise could have allowed this to either go the way of Cars 2 or to be great. J.J. Abrams directed this film back into the level of filmmaking that Star Wars was originally known for. It continues the stories of the characters we’ve known for decades while giving us awesome new heroes to root for. 

1.

Paul: Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen

To be quite honest, I was hoping this wouldn’t be my #1 movie of the year. I think there are several Pixar films that are much better (although, compared to the studio’s output after Toy Story 3, it certainly stands out). No movie I’ve seen since was able to challenge it, although there are still a few from 2015 that I have my eye on. Anyway, this is an endlessly amusing, perfectly designed film that defines growing up as learning to process complex emotions. As a visual representation of the inner machinery of the heart, mind, and soul, the concept is right up my alley to a scary degree. Like The Forbidden Room, Inside Out takes a fresh look at the relationship between movies and dreams (the two films have nothing else in common, I assure you). The voice cast is impeccable, the score is lovely, and the ideas are placed in service of personal storytelling. There are more sequels on the way from Pixar, but I think they have their mojo back.

Daniel: Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

I don’t think anyone was expecting this. I’m one of the people complaining about remakes and sequels to decades-old movies. Good grief did the trailer to this get me excited. But I’ve been burned by trailers before so I reserved excitement. Not only did this movie deliver on what it promised, but it’s now winning awards? It’s nominated for best picture? This is essentially a post-apocalyptic car chase movie across a desert. But man is it fun. George Miller gives us the flavor and absolutely insane world of Max but with better pacing and the level of action and stunts that he had only dreamed of. That passion for the weird and dangerous universe translates to screen and viewer flawlessly the most exciting and visually breathtaking movie of the year. I hadn’t smiled that big in theaters since Pacific Rim.