Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man_Into_the_Spider-Verse_poster.jpgThe onus is on every new superhero movie to delineate itself from the pack by sidestepping the plethora of genre cliches. It’s almost assumed they have something fresh to say about superheroes with their origin stories, self-actualizations, inner demons, and ultimate ascension to defeat the enemy. We have Marvel and to a lesser extent DC to thank for these loaded expectations.

I speak for myself in admitting that I’m weary of this brand of story. Spider-Man is a prime example with now three iterations comprised of three different actors with 7 films and counting. Tom Holland might be dead in Infinity War Part I but heaven forbid he miss out on Far From Home.  He’s just getting started. However, yet another interpretation on top of this would seem nothing short of monotonous.

The brilliance is how Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse by no means spits on its traditions. In some miraculous sense, it’s able to have its cake and eat it too. Because the worlds occupied by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland have their place but everything is funneled through the original vision of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while being rejuvenated by new minds.

The trends continue with Spider-Man receiving another very simple facelift in the form of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) while still keeping him planted in comic books. Here is the film’s greatest asset. It is immersive in the best sense as we get a feel for the tactile world our protagonist exists in through music (including the instant earworm “Sunflower”), bustling NYC streets, and even graffiti subculture. But it does well to meld styles and techniques so the experience never feels flat or stagnant.

Again, with Marvel’s laundry list of entries, everything else has been presented through live action and in practical terms, it removes these characters from their true element. This animated work more closely realizes and adheres to the comic book format and maintains a suspension of disbelief, splitting the difference between our universe and the colorful collages of retro Ben-Day dots.

The subsequent explosions become an aurora borealis of trippy pyrotechnics. They prove as beautiful as they are psychedelic but this is an element the canvas of comic book animation allows. The Spider-Verse uses it phenomenally to tell a story of vision and verve. The sheer possibilities of it all stagger the imagination.

Nevertheless, it’s also full of real-world touches. A roommate might have an instantly recognizable Chance The Rapper album on his wall and yet a battle scene at Aunt May’s house (Lily Tomlin) plays out more like a round of Super Smash Bros. Brawl than any fight we’ve seen prior.

Like The Lego Movie before it (from Phil Lord & Christopher Miller), it does not fudge on the entertainment and nothing is lost by deigning to be a movie welcoming to the whole family. In fact, it probably gains something in the process by welcoming a wider cross-section of the viewing public and bringing moral dilemmas to the fore.

I’ve realized with increasing clarity why Spider-Man was one of the easiest superheroes to connect with from the get-go. It comes with the fact he exists in territory we can readily understand, whether it be navigating high school, maintaining relationships with parents, or even coping with personal loss.

In Miles’ case, he has recently been transplanted to a high-achieving charter school across town at the behest of his father who is a local police officer. Although his dad does harbor some reservations about Spider-Man’s tactics, both he and his wife nevertheless are loving parents. It feels like a normal situation. Even as it gets complicated by extraordinary circumstance, Miles still finds himself befuddled by adolescence seeking some kind of solace in his reprobate uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Instead, he is forced to look for role models elsewhere.

The conceit of parallel universes is a risky endeavor. In the case of The Star Trek reboot it can feel like mere convenience, but in this storyline, the multiverse pays heavy dividends. Far from being a gimmick, such possibilities allow this story to be far more robust. It has to do with this glorious mishmash of characters because they are necessary for this empathy to build up but in the most basic terms, they are satisfying extensions of the world — glitches and all.

If Miles is the unrealized, conflicted talent nervous about taking a “Leap of faith,” Peter Parker (Voiced by Chris Pine) is the fallen hero and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) is his regretful alter ego. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) starts as a love interest with a chill disposition only to be promoted and hoisted up as someone even more intriguing. The simple novelty of such sideshow attractions like Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glen), and Peter Porker (John Mulaney) wears off and manages to develop into something meaningful when it comes in the context of an ensemble. They are all necessary cogs even if Miles is at the center of this web-slinging collective.

To echo my praise of Black Panther, Into The Spider-Verse does well to layer its villains so there is a depth and true threat afforded them. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is not necessarily an extraordinary antagonist but his motives are clear. For him, these parallel universes are the one last hope he clings to in order to get his family back. Likewise, Doc Oc is not only an imposing opponent but loaded with killer intellect. The Prowler, for his part, strikes close to the heart of our story. There is weight to each character challenging Miles.

However, for the first time, it feels a superhero has true community because The Avengers never quite cut it. However, these people share the closest life experience you could possibly ask for. So although Miles has to make his own decision, he’s by no means alone. This feels like an utterly unique circumstance because masked vigilantism is normally an isolating venture. It’s strange to even admit, but here it feels like something galvanizing and full of mentorship and camaraderie.

It readdresses the core message of The Lego Movie though tackling it with a different protagonist. The bottom line is Spider-Man now being promoted as a universal concept, further championing a message of cooperation, acceptance, and selfless sacrifice. This is not new. The trick is executing it in fundamentally inspired ways, juggling all the expectations for thrills, laughter, and poignancy. Spider-Verse does it beautifully. It might just blow your socks off.

Though the late, great Stan Lee was the most visible, Steve Ditko, his partner in crime, also past away in 2018. Thus, it seems fitting to end with the quote dedicated to both of them at the end of the picture. There are no more applicable words than these:

“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real SUPERHERO.”

4/5 Stars

 

 

Lady Bird (2017)

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Greta Gerwig has a deep connection with Sacramento that I failed to appreciate when I first saw her in Frances Ha (2012). In that film, she’s making a life for herself in New York but stops off in Paris and returns home to the west coast. Now with Gerwig directing in lieu of Noah Baumbach, we have the inverse and the affection on display is indisputable.

A young woman resides in Sacramento with dreams of the culture of the east coast, namely New York. It’s the old story. We rarely appreciate where we come from or who we have in our lives until we have to leave and say goodbye. There’s no place like home.

Although I lived in California most of my life, it’s a big place and I do not know Sacramento intimately and yet I can deeply admire someone who does and takes care in portraying it on screen. It’s hardly a touch-up job but Lady Bird exudes an agreeable rose-colored nostalgia.

We are reminded that this is the post 9/11 generation which barely had cell phones and was still listening to “Crash Into Me” and Justin Timberlake. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I certainly recall the aftermath which will never be wiped from my memory. However, I increasingly realize fewer of my generation remember this era and so for me it’s a type of period piece that I can appreciate first hand.

There’s something about the story that evokes Anne of Green Gables for me. It is a mother-daughter movie. Our heroine Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has a gripping personality and like her predecessor desires a name change, in this case, Lady Bird. It leads to heated conflict with her mother and yet there’s a father too who has an affable spirit to play peacekeeper. We grow to appreciate them all.

The opening conversation between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is so very honest in capturing how as human beings we are so quick to cycle through emotions – bonding, loving, then arguing and instantly annoyed. I heard talk in an interview Gerwig gave about her writing process. It wasn’t so much about hitting all the right beats at first. She wrote so many pages and lived with the characters and let them take her where they would. In this regard, there’s a three-dimensional even lived in quality to each individual that cannot be fabricated. Far from being types, they overlap and interact in ways that feel refreshing and authentic.

The parents actually have an integral place in the lives of their children. They are not relegated to being killjoys or caricatures. There’s hard and fast truth to both Metcalf and Tracy Letts as they exquisitely inhabit their roles. There’s none of that leaving out a parent conveniently to make it easier to write for. Lady Bird pays respect to all of its characters much as it does its setting.

The best friend is another well-trod trope and you wonder if there’s any way to create something that has not already been done. Lady Bird and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) relationship sums it up precisely. As they quarrel, get involved in theater, and dance and daydream about all the things you’re supposed to. Eating unconsecrated communion wafers, feet in the air, backs on the floor chatting. It’s endearing and what we all craved in high school, whether we had that person or not.

Then, of course, there has to be the love interest. And yet again Lady Bird does something far more realistic. There’s not just one boy but two. The theatrical one, Danny (Lucas Hedges), from a big Irish family and then the hipster nonconformist one, Kyle (Timothy Chalamet), who can be found playing bass, smoking, and reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a cafe. And even by the end, we never know which one was better for her. That’s not the point.

They were all part of her discovering more of herself. You even have the cool girl who everyone tries to suck up to. She’s entitled and has a hunk boyfriend and her parents don’t care what she does but even she has some humanity and a moral code. She’s not the devil’s incarnate. None of these characters are. As one who has dabbled in writing coming-of-age fiction with varying degrees of success, I recognize the ability of someone who is able to balance the economy of the genre with something that feels so resonant. It captures that expanse of time that is high school colorfully and with a degree of variedness. There is little chaff.

Like some of its immersive and empathetic brethren — The 400 Blows (1959), American Graffiti (1973), and Boyhood (2014) spring to mind — Lady Bird is not simply a coming-of-age story from the female perspective but an eloquent articulation of the human experience.

It’s also a film of benevolent spirituality. It’s set at a Catholic high school with some of the hallmarks we might recognize — uniforms, mass, communion. But it never feels like a mere punchline and those in positions of authority are generally warm and understanding.

The bright-eyed sister (a venerable Lois Smith) shares her love of Aquinas, Augustine, and Kierkegaard. Later she’s the victim of Lady Bird’s practical joke to try to gain a new friend. She plasters a sign on the sister’s car reading “Just Married to Jesus.” At a later date, it gets brought up matter-of-factly, the sister smiling at the joke but noting it’s been at least 40 years.

She is the perfect embodiment of a spiritual leader, leading by example and a heavy dose of compassion. She nudges her students but there’s also enough sense to realize ultimately they will have to figure it out. I did have a momentary flash of how perfect it would have been to cast Dolores Hart in the role but that’s hardly a complaint mind you. I also felt compelled to quote Kierkegaard’s journalings right about now and so I will. He penned the following:

“Of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points–if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life… I certainly do not deny that I still accept the imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”

I’m not sure if I have anything to add to his words but they just feel applicable to all of us. And Christine gets somewhere in her personal journey. In one moment, she’s finally made the move to New York and like all good insecure college students, she’s having a drunken conversation with a dude about God. He asserts that he doesn’t believe that there is one. Then she mumbles to herself how people don’t think there’s a God and yet they so readily take on the arbitrary names their parents choose for them.

Eventually, she wanders by a church on a Sunday morning after a short stint in the hospital (nothing too serious) and stays to enjoy the choir. But in a moment of realization, she walks out and calls up her mom to reconcile because she recognizes how important that relationship is to her life. She’s willing to acknowledge her affection for her mom which is a step toward greater understanding and love.

Lady Bird paints in warmth and laughter, anger and tears, that all have deep abiding roots in the love of family and friends. That’s how a film about a red-haired teenager in Sacramento could manage to be for all of us. I want to see it again already as I know my esteem for it will only rise.

4/5 Stars

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

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Kyrie Eleison along the road that I must travel…” ~ Mr. Mister

Liam James is undoubtedly a kindred spirit to many young men because he’s the epitome of awkward. His posture is terminally awful. He has no confidence, no presence, his hair could use a trim, and he’s pale and unassertive. He doesn’t even have a go-to dance move, heaven forbid. He’s the kind of kid who wears jeans to the beach in the throes of summer.

But that’s what we have at face value. The problem is he plays into the narrative that others have written for him and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Trent (Steve Carell), the man Duncan’s mother (Toni Colette) is seeing. He calls the boy out on his apparent lack of social skills and criticizes him for being a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

That’s what Ducan has to go up against as his makeshift family travels to the beachfront for summer vacation. It looks like a dead end, several months that Duncan will simply have to survive tagging along awkwardly with Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter or getting systematically belittled by Trent in small ways.

And yet this same summer that looks like a veritable disaster ends up becoming the most formative time in Duncan’s life because in the thick of all the bad stacked up against him he is introduced to a world of so much good. It’s one of those moments of sheer happenstance. He begins riding a pink bicycle around town to get away from the suffocation at home and finds himself crossing paths with everyone’s new favorite friend Owen (Sam Rockwell).

They meet over a Pac-Man game and it’s awkward. Because every conversation Duncan has is awkward (ie. He talks to his pretty next-door neighbor Susannah about the weather). But not about to give up on a kid in need of some camaraderie, Owen lets the lad into his life and offers him something remarkable: A job helping him at the water park Wizz World.

In itself cleaning up vomit and stacking chairs isn’t the image of a perfect summer. But by reaching out and giving Duncan something, Owen impacts someone else more than he will ever know. Because that park represents so much for Duncan. It’s the family he’s struggling to find. It’s his fountain of confidence. It provides him a much-needed platform where even he can be cool and be known by others. That’s what we all want, to be known and appreciated.

That’s why he returns again and again. In fact, it’s so apparent how often he rides off that Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb) follows him one day and the rest is history. This girl who is different than her peers begins to take an interest in his paradise because she sees a confidence and enthusiasm in him that never existed before and she too seeks an escape.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s home life is still a shambles. Things are shot to hell as Trent is cheating on his mother and their vacation gets quickly terminated. He’s unhappy with it all and there’s very little his mother can do about the situation. Forced to say goodbye to the best family he ever had, there’s still some satisfaction in one last trip to the water park.

He emblazons his name forever in the lore of Wizz World and he gets the joy of Owen facing down Trent. Perhaps most importantly, the ride in the way-back of the station wagon is a little less lonely on the return trip. His mother has made the concerted effort to be by his side which is a statement of her new resolve to hold their family unit together.

This film is a dream. No one would go so far as to say that this is the dream summer or the dream job but it is a bit of a fantasy and we wish it could be true. Because Wizz World much like Adventureland (2009) before it is an oasis from the worries and distractions of the world at large. It’s one of those places frozen in time year in and year out, in this case, stuck permanently in the 1980s. But this Neverland, far from stunting your growth, helps one teenager discover more of his confidence than he ever thought possible.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell is a cinematic creation, the voice we always wish we had, the cool guy we wish we had in our corner, the jokester who helps us become a better version of ourselves by bringing us out of our shells. In some ways, he’s Peter Pan. Because if he existed in reality, it would only be depressing, but here there’s a special aura about him that instantly makes him our favorite character.

Meanwhile, Steve Carell much to his credit shows another side of himself and even greater range as an actor as Trent, a man who can best be described as a Grade-A jerk. Still, there’s something tragic in the characterization. Everyone else from Maya Rudolph a fellow Wizz World manager, Allison Janney the uninhibited mom-next-door living life buzzed, or even writer/director partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, all utilize their various quirks and qualities to stand out. Even Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet while playing a pair of obnoxious friends manage to leave their marks on those roles that feel surprisingly believable.

Faxon and Rash’s previous effort The Descendants (2011) is the kind of film that got award buzz and it’s a searing drama that’s almost brutal in impact. Whereas The Way Way Back is made for summer. It’s light, funny, full of life while still managing to be poignant. Coming-of-age nostalgia pieces are a personal weakness — a guilty pleasure even — and this film hits that sweet spot. Are there flaws? Yes, but why focus on those when there’s so much that’s refreshing like a summer vacation of old that you took with your family or ventures to the water park with your best friends? Sometimes we need films like this.

4/5 Stars

Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).pngEmma Stone portraying Billie Jean King was an idea that I had never entertained before but there’s a certain resilience to her coupled with that winsome go-getter attitude which shines through her brunette locks and iconic frames. Simultaneously Steve Carell feels like just about the perfect person to embody Bobby Riggs a man I know very little about thanks only to hearsay and one caricature of a performance on The Odd Couple. Admittedly that’s not a lot to go on but Carell’s comedic background does it justice.

However, despite enjoying Battle of the Sexes thanks to its leads and it’s subject matter, there’s still something inside of me that can’t help but desire a documentary instead. Because it’s one thing for a film to graft in references to the cultural moment and quite another to be a cultural phenomenon in itself.

The Battle of The Sexes between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was that type of event being televised and publicized like nothing before it in professional tennis. In the film, we have moments like Howard Cosell delivering coverage with Natalie Morales edited in. The lines between the real and the fictitious are so closely tied together.

It’s all so well documented. Billie Jean King is still with us and it seems more ripe for documentation than a dramatized biopic because with such a project there’s a questioning of how the story is being framed. Have certain things been repurposed or reimagined or are the majority of the facts delivered to us as they originally were?

For instance, it’s easy to read the relationship of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court through the lens of the present day and where they fall across the social spectrum now. Would that have been so cut and dry in 1973? I don’t know.

However, what is undeniable are the statements made by the likes of Rosie Grier and Ricardo Montalban commenting on the match. Those things particularly interested me because the words were pulled directly from the moment they came out of. They are as close to reality as we can get.

As a young boy, I had enough wherewithal to know about this event but the gravity of the moment never hit me until years later because I could not quite comprehend why it mattered. It was just one of the greatest tennis players in the world facing off against some old guy who used to play tennis.

Perhaps that might be selling Bobby Riggs a bit short because though he was in his 50s, he was already a member of the tennis hall of fame and won quite a few majors in his prime. But that completely misses the point of the argument.

As put so crucially by Billie Jean in the film, she was never trying to prove that women were better at tennis than men or even equals necessarily. What she was trying to show was that they deserved the serious respect and attention paid their male counterparts.

Because the inequality of pay alone seemed ludicrous given the number of ticket sales for both circuits. Billie Jean King had pioneered a new Woman’s Tennis League in protest only to be pushed out of the Lawn Tennis Association for those very reasons. The old guard represented by Jack Kramer was not yet ready to concede women’s tennis as a major draw and Billie Jean and the rest of her contemporaries were fighting up an uphill battle. They needed a major victory to turn the tides.

The stage had been set with Court, another preeminent star, getting fairly trounced by Riggs on Mother’s Day. It all but confirmed Riggs continued assertion that men were the dominant sex.

You could make the case that Billie Jean King was hardly just doing battle against Riggs because he was simply a gambler, a showman, and a clown who made the event into a media circus. It was the majority that sided with him that she was after. The men who would never concede that women deserved to be thought of in more multidimensional terms than housewives and marital companions. They could play tennis too and play it well.

So in its most gratifying moments, Battle of the Sexes suggests the import of what Billie Jean King accomplished for the sport of tennis turning the final match into a true cinematic showdown between Riggs and King. A singular event that has so much riding on it. Thus, I’m less inclined to be interested when it attempts to become didactic. The history speaks for itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Logan Lucky (2017)

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On a surface level, Logan Lucky is diverting for the basic fact that it proves to be the utter antithesis of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films as far as heist pictures go. As one savvy newscaster notes within the film, it’s Oceans Seven-Eleven, if you will.

Sure, the novelty of a red-neck heist is probably enough to get us started but the execution and the characters of interest make it far more than a run-of-the-mill endeavor.

What’s evident is that there’s a quirky down-home absurdity to seeing these country bumpkin types filled by actors like Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and especially Daniel Craig. Adam Driver’s not necessarily a classically handsome performer but he’s even more unique armed with a fake appendage and a fairly free and easy personality.

Tatum likewise is a miner saddled with a hard hat and a limp of his own. He’s a fairly sorry individual who gets laid off from work and has been estranged from his former wife for some time. The glory days as a high school quarterback with NFL aspirations didn’t really pan out. Still, he loves his daughter, loves himself some John Denver, and cares about his family. We can buy into liking such a figure.

Because even in their less than perfect life, an everyday dignity is attributed to both Logan brothers that feels relatable in human terms.  Even with these characterizations and as breezy as the scenario might seem at times, there’s still a kernel of truth buried under it all.

After being equated with Bond for so many years, there’s also this underlying sense that Craig relishes this opportunity to play such a weirdo as Joe Bang, a prison inmate with a penchant for salted eggs. His southern twang and bleached hair mask Craig’s usual British sentiments while his rap sheet leaves little doubt that he’s the man to help pull off the job, supremely capable of concocting homemade bombs out of gummy bears, salt substitutes, and bleach wrapped in a plastic bag.

Of course, the only problem is that he’s still in prison. Nothing for it but to break him out. Clyde gets himself sent to prison and starts their plan in motion. He and Joe orchestrate the perfect escape while the inmates cover for them by instigating a riot.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Jimmy gathers the talents of his sister Mellie behind the wheel (Riley Keough) and Bang’s two cockeyed yet surprisingly competent brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) to bring all the pieces together in a remarkably efficient operation organized on meager means.

However, somehow, through it all, there manages to be that continued dose of humanity on display and an uncertain amount of depth to our everyday antiheroes. Look no further than the former flame and physician assistant that Jimmy sends a donation to or his joy in seeing his little girl go off script and sing his favorite song at her beauty pageant. You aren’t going to find those scenes in Oceans Eleven (2001) or Baby Driver (2017) for that matter.

But the payoff is the kind of double-take ending that makes us rethink the events we have witnessed, suggesting that things are not always as they appear. Still more satisfying than any of that is that Jimmy still has his family and there’s this sense of closure to it all. We can sit back with a smile on our face and really take a moment to appreciate all that has transpired. No better place to end up than the old watering hole Duck Tape. Classic.

One of the film’s major pluses is the number of characters who just randomly seem to pop up within its frames. Foremost among them is Hilary Swank as a government investigator, an almost unrecognizable Seth Macfarlane as a batty racing promoter, and Sebastian Stan as his health-conscious driver. Fans of The Office and Parks and Recreation will also see a couple strangely familiar faces.

By my own admission, I have never considered Steven Soderbergh in the upper echelon of filmmakers but there’s no disputing his station as a skilled craftsman and Logan Lucky proves once more that he knows how to assemble efficient entertainment of quality and levity. Expect both in this much-appreciated riff off your typical sleek heist confections.

It’s perfectly fit for laid-back blue-collar, NASCAR-cheering, John Denver-loving Americans.  The kind of people who know full well that some days are diamonds and some days are stone. Logan Lucky is a crime film carrying that kind of sentiment.

3.5/5 Star

 

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw_Ridge_poster.pngHacksaw Ridge is not for the squeamish, its greatest irony being that for a film about a man who took on the mantle of a conscientious objector and would not brandish firearms, it is a very violent film, even aggressively so. But Mel Gibson, after all, is the man who brought us Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) while starring in The Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises.

Like its predecessors, this picture does not shy away from any depiction of violence but you can make the case that it is not violence for violence sake. There is a broader and some would say even a spiritual message behind it. Still, the chaos, the images of war, the killing, and the suffering are all there on the screen. No doubt about it.

Thus, Mel Gibson’s war biopic on Desmond Doss will not be a film for everyone. Perhaps it was not even a film that I truly needed to see (as I briefly skipped over some of the gorier sequences). Because the truth is I have some idea of what war can do to a man’s body. It was not something I needed to be reminded of.

However, this story is nevertheless an uplifting one and if nothing else it was a story I needed to unearth. Because as is usually customary, something as volatile and pernicious as war always seems to bring out not only the very worst in people but in others, the very best and those individuals take on the banner of heroes.

In the case of the unassuming Desmond Doss, it meant giving life instead of taking it away. And without a doubt, it’s a noble ideal and as a Seventh Day Adventist, he held ardently to that belief. Still, a major component of war is taking the life of your enemy. Some would say even that there is a time of killing especially going up against certain foes.

But Doss would not budge on the tenets of his beliefs and I think any person can laud him for that. There’s no hint of hypocrisy or contempt in him only an unswerving adherence to what he deemed to be right.

For these very reasons, it’s quite easy to draw parallels between Doss and Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981) who was another man of faith who would not compromise his belief in keeping the Sabbath either. What further connects these stories is how these men took those circumstances and made a name for themselves beyond them. For Liddell, it was winning gold during the Olympics and for Doss it meant saving countless men on the battlefield.

However, Hacksaw Ridge’s closest and most obvious predecessor might be Sergeant York (1941) which while being about a similar figure who held to his convictions, was nevertheless a great deal tamer and felt more focused on its hero in light of American’s imminent involvement in WWII. It was a patriotic propaganda picture starring one of the era’s icons in Gary Cooper and one of its up and coming girls-next-door Joan Leslie.

In fact, Hacksaw Ridge is carried by a romance of its own and while not a substantial portion of the narrative, the romance between Doss and a local nurse is one that does tug at the heartstrings for the very fact that we know a version of this meet-cute probably existed in real life.

There’s also something deeply moving when the camera dies and we first see Mr. Doss himself looking back on his earlier exploits. His humility stands front and center. Dare I say, he seems an ordinary fellow but sometimes it’s those very fellows who prove just what extraordinary things men can be capable of in the midst of tremendous duress. The numbers speak for themselves. He saved 75 soldiers in one day’s work. There are few words applicable except Awesome.

Andrew Garfield once again proves his seriousness as an “actor” and his joint performances in Hacksaw Ridge as well as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) make for an extraordinary one-two showing on the year. Meanwhile, both Vince Vaughan and Hugo Weaving inhabit roles that you would not initially peg them for. But all and all, if you can tolerate Hacksaw Ridge’s gore, there is a great deal that can be gleaned from this story of unassuming heroism.

3.5/5 Stars

Isle of Dogs (2018)

IsleOfDogsFirstLook.jpgIt only became apparent to me after the fact that Isle of Dogs sounds quite close to “I love dogs.” You might even say there was a certain amount of forethought in this play on words. However, the pun only works in English as the Japanese pronunciation of the comparable kanji is “Inu ga shima.” Here we have the inherent beauty and simultaneously what some would deem the problematic nature of Wes Anderson’s latest film in a nutshell.

It’s necessary to lay out how I come at Isle of Dogs because it does contribute to how I perceive it. I’m Japanese-American. I’ve lived in Japan. I know some of the language though it’s an admittedly meager amount. However, I’ve invested in the culture and care about its people and fostering cross-cultural bonds. That’s part of the reason I was drawn to live there for an extended period of time, more than any pop culture infatuation with anime and manga. In those regards, I’m very much American. I also revere Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and all the rest as most cinephiles do. There you are.

Wes Anderson is someone that I genuinely admire for his aesthetic though I would never necessarily sing his praises needlessly. He doesn’t need me to defend him nor do I look to. Still, when I consider Isle of Dogs I do not see a superficial homage. As with everything he does Anderson’s film feels fairly meticulous and the stop-motion creation is phenomenally precise. Beyond that, it’s infused with Japanese tradition. Certainly, there are markers that some might deem superficial like Taiko or sumo or cherry blossoms (さくら). They are all present. 

Thus, I do worry about people who have not interfaced with Japanese culture or the people. Specifically, the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), the foreign exchange student, feels problematic. I’ve met some folks like her where they let their own personalities take control of every situation and there seems to be no sensitivity or give and take. 

Because they don’t seem to have any sense of the culture they are in or at the very least they expect others to play by their rules. Hence why many Americans including myself are only fluent in one language. An example springs to mind of Tracy wandering into a bar and hollering at the man behind the counter in English that she wants chocolate milk. Then she berates a Japanese scientist (voiced by Yoko Ono) for not doing anything in opposition to the rampant government corruption. Again, in English. 

It was fascinating that I watched the film with an audience where the majority were Japanese so they were not ignorant of their country like Tracy or I might be. But how about viewers in another pocket of the world or even back home where I come from? The audiences saw a different movie altogether with different nuances and connotations.

Some people have noted rightly that a lot of the Japanese dialogue is lost because as the opening disclaimer notes: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” Except for the dogs, that’s a large margin for error.

Even the words of the little pilot, the intrepid boy Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) are all but lost on the dogs who don’t speak human and for me as well because, again, my Japanese leaves much to be desired. But the bottom line is that he almost always intuitively knows what the pack of alpha dogs is doing. 

They have a connection. He is looking for his faithful guard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schrieber) who has been cruelly deported by his distant uncle Mayor Kobayashi in his effort to rid the dystopian Japanese city of Megasaki of infectious dogs. Spots was the first of many canines to be deported to the putrid rubbish pile of Trash Island. There you have the film’s plot but it relies on the fact that the boy and the dogs work together.

It goes back to that core tenet of society that dog is man’s best friend. And strip away any amount of visual artistry or cultural layering and that fact remains universal. Kobayashi is a cat person and we surmise his decision was merely a vendetta against canines (going back generations) more than any scientific evidence would suggest. 

To be honest, it never feels like Anderson is putting out a giant placard with film references at least not like Tracy with her megaphone. If anything the film conjures up one of Japan’s great national heroes the faithful dog Hachiko. Any traveler to Tokyo will recognize his statue in Shibuya but he is a cultural icon — emblematic of the same bond expressed in this story.

It’s still an Anderson film and as such, I never get emotionally connected with the material (actually maybe I take that back; stop-motion dogs suffering is heartbreaking to watch) nor do I gel with his very personal idiosyncrasies all the time.

But somehow, though the film’s cultural representations and relationship with Japan are flawed, nevertheless it left me more impressed than anything. It seemed like a degree of care was taken. And in the end, this story of canines has moments that unquestionably do resonate with me.

I thought I would have more problems with all the quality voice talent distracting from the story itself and it happened at times where I was stuck on Jeff Goldblum or Bill Murray but more often than not it didn’t seem like one voice stole the show. It was a story that involved many voices.

Some that we are able to understand, others that we can only gather bits and pieces of. But for me personally, rather than that being a deterrent I find it fascinating that the same film can play differently for different audiences and that native Japanese speakers can be in on the movie in a way that I never could.

It’s not that we don’t deserve to know that part of the story necessarily or need to be singled out because we don’t know the language but isn’t that one of the confounding things about culture and language? Oftentimes we don’t understand one another and need to find points of mutual understanding. Things get lost in translation and I think one could make the argument that this happens in Isle of Dogs purposely.

Certainly, Wes Anderson doesn’t know Japanese culture like the back of his hand. In an interview, he said he’s been to Japan some but his references were namely Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. And yet if that is true, it still feels as if he’s surrounded himself with some voices different than his own even if his typical ensemble is in place.

We have Kunichi Nomura with input on the script and voice duty for Mayor Kobayashi. More include Akira Takayama, Mari Natsuki, Akira Ito and then better-known names like Nojiro Noda, Yoko Ono, and Ken Watanabe. That’s not to mention the countless other Japanese contributors whose names scrolled by with the end credits.

Admittedly this is only my perception of the film but when I watch it, I never feel like it is assuming the primacy of the English speaking audience or if it is then that assumption gets slyly subverted. I mentioned already that the character of Tracy often speaks in English, in her opposition to Mayor Kobayashi or to the man serving up drinks at the bar counter.

The implicit understanding is that the Japanese characters understand the English being spoken but they choose instead to respond in their native language. So they have met us half way but have we met them? Learning Japanese is difficult, maybe even impractical, but growing our cultural literacy comes in many forms that would only assist in deepening our ties with one another. Only later did I realize that Tracy, the “white savior” as it were, essentially fails in her attempts. If anything she needs the help of an audacious Atari, his guard dog, and the nameless hacker from her school. Without them she is powerless.

As is often the case, certain people use their voices and assertive personalities to push themselves into the limelight unwittingly but those people would be nothing without the taciturn heroes who willingly stay in the periphery until they need to stand up. While Tracy turns me off slightly in fiction and in real life, it’s the others like Atari that resonate with me. Just as the tale of dogs in both camaraderie and loyalty rings a universal note.

However, I realize only now that I didn’t talk much about the actual mechanics and formalistic aspects of the movie but I’ve spoken my peace. Do with it what you will.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Two articles that I found interesting on this topic were the following: What “Isle of Dogs” Gets Right About Japan and Justin Chang’s Isle of Dogs Review

 

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden_Figures,_2016In some respects, this feels very much like a paint by numbers biopic that takes us through the many paces of such a narrative. The rise, fall, conflict, and self-actualization of our heroes that navigates us to the film’s conclusion.

But this is also unequivocally a story that necessitated a telling for the very fact that stories like these have been hidden for decades — swept under the rug if you will. Because first and foremost Caucasians were usually the ones at the center of the master narrative of history and namely white males at that.

In one of my courses in university, the term of intersectionality would have undoubtedly cropped up in conversation right about now to denote a doubly marginalized group (African-American women). Feel free to consider the term if you are so inclined because there are others who can probably bring a lot more to the table on issues of gender and race and oftentimes those are very necessary conversations to entertain.

However, I am more interested in the actual story in question and so I will jump right to that topic. At its core, there are three women who you have probably never heard but that’s only a part of it. It’s that and the fact that they were integral cogs in something truly extraordinary.

Our first person of note Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who is promoted to the Space Task Group, given the pressure following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik and Johnson’s unreputed skill in analytical geometry. She moves from her own segregated division to an environment full of passive-aggressive bigotry and whites-only bathrooms. In her home life, she raises three daughters while falling in love with a handsome National Guardsman (Mahershala Ali).

The firecracker among her friends is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who has aspirations to finish her schooling so that she can become a full-fledged engineer. Lastly, is the sagely one, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who has seen a great deal of the world and continually shows tremendous qualities of leadership over her segregated branch which she leads with a self-possessed wisdom. One would gather these skills would apply well to any arena and so they do eventually.

For our parents’ generations events such as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the Challenger, Explosion left an indelible mark on society and it was all for the sake of exploring the great unknown of outer space. Those later triumphs and, yes, even the tragedies would not have come into being if it wasn’t for some of the unsung individuals who got John Glenn off the ground in 1962 as we desperately tried to counter Russia’s Sputnik successes.

There’s also a slightly refreshing reversal of the age-old supporting character archetypes where this film dares to put its white characters in secondary roles while still giving them a decent amount of importance in the overall trajectory of this narrative.

Kevin Costner is the most rewarding supporting character as the head of NASA who is looking for results more than anything and that causes him to push past the accepted walls of racial hierarchy not necessarily because he’s trying to make a social statement but because he wants to get the job done. Skin color has no bearing on whether or not someone is savvy and can get John Glenn into the wild blue yonder.

Jim Parsons part does not stretch the boundaries of his Sheldon Cooper image but it is underlined by a bit of prejudicial malice as is Kirsten Dunst’s turn which no doubt adds a touch of realism representative of the defacto bigotry of the era. Meanwhile, Pharrell Williams score of sorts while somehow anachronistic undoubtedly imbues these three women with a spark of energy following every step of progress they make with NASA.

The film’s decidedly punny title aside, Hidden figures is still full of joy even if it’s only a minor pleasure as a film. Because in some instances it doesn’t seem to take its material all that seriously and sometimes that is more refreshing than a dour and self-important exploration. Still, it takes itself out of the running among the greatest biopics for that very reason. It’s a bit too formulaic and probably too tongue-in-cheek with historical events. That cannot take away the full impact of this history or the enjoyment value of the film. We should do well do appreciate them both. The talent as well for that matter.

3.5/5 Stars