Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster.pngThe opening gambit of Crazy Rich Asians feels like the scene some Asian moviegoers have been waiting for all their lives. We’re in a stuffy hotel lobby with the snooty staff looking to deny service to Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) and by the end of the conversation she winds up mopping the floor with them. It’s satisfying to get some sweet revenge but short of being malicious, it’s rewarding, setting the tone for the rest of the experience to come.

No one can understate just how impactful Crazy Rich Asians is for the Asian film community. Images speak volumes in this saturated world of ours and they are a meaningful reflection of the lives we lead every day. Thus, it means so much when they are able to reach out and resonate with a wide audience in a totally satisfying way.

Because doing a cursory look back over the past decades, the last times we had anything close to this in mainstream Hollywood would be The Joy Luck Club and then Flower Drum Song decades earlier and yet these movies were like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Hopefully, those days — when such films feel like noteworthy outliers — will soon be left behind us.

However, the beauty is that this is not just about Asian-Americans but Asians across the world from all different backgrounds. It is a stepping stone to greater representation and I believe that is all we can ask for. It cannot be the perfect film but it can lead to more opportunities in the future for Asian stars. If the box office returns are any indication, we’re on an encouraging road in this regard. This is a landmark picture for Asian audiences and they have shown their support.

It must be stressed above all else, this is not simply a showcase for Asian representation around a lifeless shell of a movie. This is universal, quality entertainment that can reach out and be relished by everyone. Because it starts with a leading couple who are warm and witty with the chemistry to tie a picture like this together nearly effortlessly.

Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, an Economics professor, smart, pretty, funny — all the superlatives of a rom-com heroine — and she is in love with a seemingly great guy. His name is Nick Young (Henry Goulding) and he’s a handsome stud full of warmth and thoughtfulness.

The most pleasant surprise about our central romantic relationship is how it’s forged between two people who genuinely love each other and treat each other well. It does not rely on contrived misunderstandings or sudden swings in character, making mountains out of molehills for the sake of the story.

Everything that threatens to destroy their relationship is the results of outside stressors. Specifically, because they are having to face Nick’s family together for the first time and the expectations that come in such circles. In his romancing of Rachel, Nick never flaunted the affluence he was born into. Growing up in Singapore his family was not just rich, their lives are absolutely overflowing with decadence. Right here, the film (based off Kevin Kwan’s book) earns its title; they are CRAZY rich.

While they are not the core sources of strife, Rachel and Nick are nonetheless taxed and forced to come to terms with who they really are and what their main priorities will be. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying result. We have this cross-cultural chafing between Rachel who was born of an immigrant mother in America. She’s worked hard to get where she is. Whereas Nick is culturally Singaporean and he is part of a rich tradition that cherishes the good of the family name above all else.

Michelle Yeoh proves a venerable and worthy adversary because she is one of the most authentic kind, a conflicted antagonist who has genuine concerns and capacities for immense affection. The key is a devotion to family duty and loving her son. It’s a very real issue that plagues her and the age-old dynamic when her boy brings a new girl to meet the parents. It just so happens they’re really, really rich.

Many viewers with only a nominal interest will probably be engrossed in this world of complete and total excess. You have opulent clothing, jewels, sprawling mansions, and almost unimaginable riches. It will give a view of Singapore — a place many Americans might be unfamiliar with — that we can probably somewhat call into question. Again, it’s important to stress this is not a blanket representation of the entire country but it does give us some sumptuous sights to enjoy.

You have private islands for bachelorette parties, bazookas going off on gigantic yachts, and any amount of other luxuries. True to form, I was most enraptured by the food. Thankfully, this is not a completely hollow world because we are given a road into this space through the vast array of players. The film is especially rich in vibrant secondary characters who breath humorous and touching life into this tale of family and cultural identity.

There are the catty women looking to tear Jessica down because she had the good fortune to catch Nick instead of them; they even go so far as to leave a bloody, dead fish on top of her bed in an act of vengeance. Then, the gossipy old women can’t help but get distracted during their bible study, sharing the latest tidbits and watching Jessica like a hawk when she makes her first appearance. It’s true everything seems to exist inside this magnified petri dish where every action is being monitored and everyone is just waiting for the wheels to come off.

The men are little better, obsessed with money, personal reputations, and their own perceived masculinity. Nick’s closest cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is saddled with such a relationship. This B story is not as strong nor as beneficial to the full arc of this narrative but for those who have not read the books (like me), there’s an inclination it is setting up future arcs. Regardless, Gemma Chan is a sympathetic figure and she tries to navigate her own guilt about coming from money and concerns over feeling like she’s emasculating her wet-noodle of a husband.

The true standouts are the showstopping trio of Awkquafina in her blonde wig, Ken Jeong as her CSU Fullerton-graduated father, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver the one with the family fashion sense and enough covert gumption to help Rachel stand up to his Auntie.

The final glowing jewel of the movie has to be Lisa Lu who plays Nick’s grandmother. Though a smaller part, she is no less crucial as the family’s oldest matriarch. Lu acts as not only a connection point to the last major landmark of Hollywood Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, her career also had ties to less heralded but no less historically fascinating work like The Mountain Road where she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Right up until the final shot of  John Chu’s blockbuster romance, I am happily reminded this is an unabashed fairy tale. The wedding scenes have license to feel magical and it’s not merely gaudy decadence anymore but real, sincere fairy dust floating over the moment that makes them feel innately special. Kina Grannis lends her gossamer voice to the moment and even Harry Shun Jr. makes an enigmatic cameo (her costar from Wong Fu’s Single at 30).

I was also somehow strangely entranced by Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” which felt like a perfect capstone. The best movies are an experience and Crazy Rich Asians certainly fits the bill.

4/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

MI_–_Fallout.jpgTom Cruise is the closest thing we have to a modern marvel on the current cinema landscape. Despite being over 50 years old, it seems like he continues to redefine what it means to be an action hero in the 21st century. A lot of his brilliance stems from taking a page out of the playbook from generations gone by.

He is by no means Buster Keaton but he channels that same fearless energy that makes the movies feel like an arena of adrenaline-filled possibility. The important distinction is the very fact his films do not shy away from CGI and yet they find this perfect medium between real and practical stunts, paired with the limitless canvas current technology allows for.

Despite the obvious implications, it’s hard not to think of the double meaning of Fallout as Cruise finds himself skydiving, fighting, chasing, leaping, and bounding his way through his mission. He hangs suspended from an escaping helicopter in one perilous stunt that looks deserving of our trepidation.

There’s the noted seismic jump that literally leads to him breaking his leg because his convincing flailing momentum took him right into the side of a building — clinging to its edge — instead of lifting him over. Any number of toils and sacrifices he takes for the movie pay heavy dividends. As an audience, we can see his effort and applaud him for it.

Like Keaton before him, there is something attractive about a hero who is implacable. Nothing can stop them. Cruise even gets a motorcycle chase of his own no doubt worthy of Steve McQueen, if not even better (I can’t believe I said that).

It’s always a pleasure to admit a film has some stellar twists and Fallout more than delivers in this regard. Some are easily foreseeable and a couple might catch just about everyone off guard. As it should be. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the story does not put all its eggs in this single basket. Once the twists are done with, there are still so many other reasons to stay engaged.

If we are to believe Hitchcock, it is not about these sudden payoffs but this maintained sense of constant tension and impending doom. Fallout grabs us in its opening scene and will not dare let up. Writer-director Christoper McQuarrie is in such a unique position because, with the aid of Cruise, he has created his own personal sandbox to work with, while running with Ethan Hunt and the Mission Impossible universe that has been bequeathed to him.

He feels more than comfortable with these characters and the world and this allows him to employ a certain amount of torque and elasticity to stretch it to its utter limit. This is far from Bruce Geller’s franchise headlined by Peter Graves in the 1960s. MI has been cross-pollinated with Bond, Bourne, and anything else you can imagine from Jackie Chan to the plethora of modern spy TV programs on the airwaves.

What sets it apart is the specificity of this world and this we can attribute back to McQuarrie. Vagueness, austere execution, and bland beats will get you nowhere in this day and age. Sure, we have the overarching MacGuffin. There are the three plutonium cores being bandied about for the life of Ethan Hunt’s nemesis Solomon Lane, underlined by the threat of mercenary terrorists operating based on his influence across the globe.

A plethora of covert organizations all have a hand in these international affairs. One of them is MIA headed by Alec Baldwin, another the CIA with Angela Basset. She has brought in her own man (Henry Cavill) to finish up business. In her eyes, Ethan Hunt has already jeopardized the job; he cannot be trusted to see it to completion. If these organizations are purportedly on the same team (along with MI6), one can only imagine what happens when they cross paths with their real enemies mixed in with social terrorists and opportunists like White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). But every antagonistic, tension-filled dynamic is all crucial for there to be a story of any conflict and consequence.

However, the meaning is aggregated because of what our hero is up against. Stakes of a personal nature are almost imperative because they take these broad social issues with heady implications and place them right in the wheelhouse of a hero. It’s no coincidence Ethan Hunt is touted for caring for individual people around him because this influences how he saves the world. It’s full of humanity. It also complicates his life like nothing else.

Not only is Lane still on the loose, conducting a mission of not simply anarchy but out and out revenge, he’s after Ethan and those close to him. Because the friendships of Luther and Benji run thick and deep. He will do just about anything to protect his buddies. The same goes for Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who inevitably ties into the action. In my estimation, Ferguson remains one of my favorite action heroes, full of resiliency, wit, and most important of all, a believable amount of humanity.

In this particular story, their relationship is plagued by the hazards of such an occupation, making excruciating choices, and finding people you care about on the other end of a kill list. But to Hunt, the important differentiation is that these are not liabilities (although they might seem to be), as much as they are what sets him apart. And if you thought the connections end there, you’d be very much mistaken. Someone else very important to him (Michelle Monahan) turns up again.

This film is constantly twisting and turning, bursting with movement and setpieces galore but it simultaneously builds to a genuinely satisfying crescendo. This would not be possible without the legitimate character dynamics built over the years. Even someone like me — a relative latecomer to the franchise — can feel the gravitational pull between these people. There is a weight to the relationships even within this context of cloak and dagger danger.

In the end, the final act feels like a textbook example of cross-cutting because we have three strands that we’re constantly invested in. We care about the characters in peril but also about their objectives. Each one ties into this greater mission and the ultimate resolution of our story.

Disarming a bomb is a staple and alone it would seem trite. It’s reinforced by the other parties tracking down the second plutonium core conveniently stationed with a clandestine Lane, now in hiding.

Simultaneously Hunt fearlessly tracks a helicopter carrying the prop that must be retrieved if all the other tasks are not to be for naught. It’s a throwaway object really but what makes up for it is the continued tenacity of Cruise to take on the stunts and make the action sequences compelling — that and special effects, of course. But we don’t feel completely bloated by them. There is enough personal interaction to make it feel accessible even on this harrowing scale.

We finally reach the peak and just as it seems we’ll either be blasted to oblivion or tossed over the cliffside, the release valve is hit with ultimate satisfaction. This is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating rushes available over the past summer. There’s little left to do but be flabbergasted by Tom Cruise. Top Gun was so long ago. Even the original Mission Impossible is now over 20 years old. Yet he remains as a lucrative action star and for the time being, he isn’t going anywhere.

4/5 Stars

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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Madeline’ Madeline takes the very individualistic nature of its title and boldly realizes it through POV and metaphor to begin digging around in the perplexing head-space of a teenager. The first words we hear are as follows, “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” We are in a hospital and then within a feline pawing and purring, followed by a turtle sliding its way out to the ocean into the depths of the sea.

In the midst of the movie, I had an epiphany that I would have difficulty being an actor if the part strayed away from human qualities. Because when I look at animals there is wonderment there but I never feel like I could bring anything to them. I cannot understand or comprehend them.

Likewise, it would be difficult for me to invest in the perspective of a turtle and a cat, not that they are not important but they do not seem to operate, think, and act in the same way that we do as human beings. Because Madeline (Helena Howard) is a character who is playing a part and the metaphor is extended across this entire film. One could say she is playing a version of herself — the version that she perceives and wants to exist as — while others have another version of her that they want.

In playing her part, she willingly sheds her skin and puts on the guise of other creatures and gives herself over to them completely. One of the inherent fascinations in the showing Howard gives is the meta nature of playing the role of someone else playing a role.

So, in theory, we have the layers and the complexities of this whole patchwork of theater people and normal everyday humans playing their parts both real and fabricated based on the world around them. A certain ubiquitous Shakespeare quote is overwrought I know but it is also quite pertinent. “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” We can break this film down to these more basic components as well.

Madeline’s involvement in her theater troupe not only facilitates this layering of a part on top of a part but it creates a visual dichotomy between the two women in her life who carry weight over her adolescent years. Her nervously concerned mother Regina (Miranda July) is always worried about her behavior, if she’s eating, taking her medicine, being safe about sex — all sorts of things. Her high-strung nature is a result of a daughter she deems to be unpredictable.

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Then, there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker) the drama director and empowering free spirit who continually encourages Madeline in her physical expression and touts her in the devotion she gives to the stage. In this carefree communal environment, the girl feels truly herself and at ease with the beings existing around her.

They do some of the familiar improv, turning the story of an incarcerated man into literal expression. They do photo shoots and costume runs with giant pig heads and garish ensembles. When they sit in a circle together sharing their emotions and insights I could not help but feel the portrait epitomized the stereotypical acting experiences seen in a show such as Community. Needless to say, someone like me repressed and stunted as I am, looks on such a showing with a skeptical eye.

In one solitary scene, Evangeline even sits down with Madeline and starts expounding upon the philosophy of Jung. All is chaos in the cosmos. In the disorder, there is an order and the pendulum perpetually swings between sense and nonsense. While not necessarily reassuring, perhaps these words allow us to piece together a certain perspective to see the world. Maybe…

It becomes increasingly apparent — certainly beginning with the opening shot — this is meant to be a very intimate film. The camera hugs Madeline’s face and really provides close-ups for just about everyone while simultaneously blurring the screen artistically with exposure techniques to allow light to constantly seep into the frame. That’s when we’re not literally inside the camera’s viewpoint. Audio is often being funneled to us with dulled or hazed effects as if we are seeing the world through interference and distractions like others do.

At one point the stage performance is about prison and then it is a metaphor and then it morphs against into a piece on mental illness until Evangeline literally turns into a performance of Madeline’s most intimate details thinking they are all part of a character named Zia. Of course, the mask is only Madeline. She becomes a daughter regurgitating the words of her mother — imprinted on her brain — in a very public forum and it becomes a bit too real.

Then, Madeline winds up seeing a different side of Evangeline, not unlike her own mother, and once more we have drolling adults communicating on an altogether different wavelength than the teenagers.

The inevitable happens and Madeline and her troupe create a near funhouse of performance art all overtaken by an idea and rebelling against the forms their fearless leader imparted to them.

There is a unique voice and a vision that is unlike most anything else. But I’m not sure it even knows what it is striving for. There’s not necessarily an issue with this and yet it does lack what we would ascertain to be a central conceit for the rest of the film to orbit around.

If I had not just If I had not just recently seen A Bread Factory I would say this movie existed in a stratosphere totally its own. Regardless, it boasts a wholly original perspective from director Josephine Decker coupled with a mesmerizing performance by Helena Howard.

Whether we know what to make of it or not is up for contention. I still haven’t decided if this point is really worth dwelling on. The onus should not always be on a film to provide answers and if that is the case Madeline’s Madeline is a success because it arguably offers something more valuable — food for thought. For now, I am content ruminating over my multitude of questions.

3.5/5 Stars

First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2002). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Roma (2018)

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Alfonso Cuaron is always a director whom I’ve admired from a far whether it be Harry Potter or Gravity (2013), but I would stop short of saying I’ve felt a connection to any of his work. Not that it is not there, I simply have not been affected in a specific way.

Roma, right from the outset, is vastly different from those other titles. Here is a man who has carved out success for himself in Hollywood along with his fellow countrymen like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Still, by taking stock of his life, stepping back, and returning to his roots, instantly I have a more profound understanding and subsequent appreciation of Cuaron.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for monochrome and Roma is by far the most gorgeous movie that I’ve seen from 2018 in this regard. Also, the world being documented intrigues me. The only film I recollect existing in a comparable space is Machuca (2004) and even that story was very pointed in putting the social and racial elements front and center.

Roma somehow manages to work wonders by bringing those normally existing outiside of the spotlight into the forefront while nudging usual focal points to the periphery and yet they are no less a part of this world. It’s a deeply admirable endeavor to try and pull off and it generally succeeds.

Because this is a story of a family living in the Mexican quarter of Roma but if it is about children, a grandmother; a husband and wife, then it is more specifically about their in-house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s made plain she is the glue to hold everything together in this story and within this splintering family.

The camera itself follows suit, with Cuaron making a concerted effort to keep his visions broad and encompassing (He served as cinematographer as well as director and screenwriter). We still know we’re being guided albeit by someone coaxing us to observe and take in scenes at a certain distance. It’s the overall impressions and a sense of the gestalt that is more important than mercilessly driving our focus. Soft pans at times turning a full 360 degrees make all the space fair game. I’m not always a fan but they generally work.

The freedom is exhilarating and at the same time pensive because it allows space to really sit back and relish scenes unfolding at their own pace. I can’t help but be reminded of Tati’s Playtime (1967) where so many things might be going on in the frame and you are given license to enjoy all or none of them at any given time.

Beyond these shots, the most gratifying are the tracking ones moving right to left along street corners. Maybe it’s a pair of young women running to their favorite lunch shop to get a torta for or little kids scampering ahead to get to the movie theater to see the new movie Marooned (a Gravity inspiration perhaps). It’s not simply a technical appeal but a complete immersion in the landscape that we can appreciate.

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But the drama is also evident, especially following a tumultuous one-two punch instigated by rioting and blood in the streets, an outcome of the notorious Corpus Christi Massacre. The historical moment gets personal and the sheer volatility of it all feels palpable. I cannot help but remember the rumblings of unrest and chaos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. For Mexico’s people, it was far more than a pair of black power salutes.

This is augmented by a moment that proves equally bleak. It feels like a dream out of 81/2 (1963). Stuck in a traffic jam — not moving an inch — except this is very real and disconcerting. There are some real issues with not only the social and economic unrest but the very infrastructure of the nation.

Cleo is on the verge of pregnancy and yet they are not moving anywhere. The hospital seems desperately out of reach. When they do finally arrive it too is full of tumult. Pulling strings, they manage to get Cleo to the doctor. However, nothing can prepare us for the devastating drama with the birth of Cleo’s child.

The news finally drops that father is not gone away in Canada. He’s simply not coming back. In the aftermath of all this excitement and the family vacation, life settles into a new equilibrium. Cleo tries to get over her heartbreak as the family accepts that dad is not coming back and they must be brave and move forward with life.

These encompass many of the moments already mentioned but it seems just as necessary to mention hail storms, barking dogs, hanging up the washing, nights in front of the television, and the complete decimation of automobiles simply in an attempt to park them in the narrow family garage.

A story like this thrives on these moments just as much as the overt drama because Cuaron has pulled from his own memories — the personal recollections of his childhood — and so when we see these very mundane sequences there is an appreciation for the details.

The only caveat that should come with Roma is the necessity to be aware of the social structure in place within the context of our story. If we were taking an anthropology course we would probably call it hegemony. Because our central family is part of the middle class, the social elite, and their background shows connections to higher education and the world at large.

The first tip-off Cleo is different is simply how she looks and her occupation as the family maid. Even the fact she speaks both Spanish and her indigenous Mixtec. These are elements we would do well not to gloss over.

Then, we see the community she was raised in and it becomes obvious the poverty present. Everyone does not live like her employers because they are part of the privileged few who can manage with multiple cars, many vacations, a fridge full of Twinkies, and money for frequent trips to the movies.

Again, these stark contrasts cannot be taken for granted. We have this strange process of dealing with these complex relationships deeply rooted in the country itself. Cuaron is attempting to acknowledge an unsung hero in his life while coming to terms with his ownpast. It’s imperfect but I have difficulty finding fault in it because this is essentially his existence with the curtains pulled back.

It is not for me to pass judgment on the merit of his life or his upbringing. What I can hold onto and feel drawn to are the moments of pain and suffering that feel human. We have instances of quiet strength and dignity, affection and bravery. Cleo is a beautiful figure. That doesn’t make her station in life right or the world around her okay but she gleams with something powerful. There are deep reservoirs of emotion evident here but they are not of the conventional sort.

In my estimation, pulchitrude will always hold precedence over ugliness. It’s not about being complacent or ignorant towards the dark tendencies of this world but it hinges on a resolute hopefulness. Roma is a meaningful ode even as it reminds us both the past and our current reality are deeply flawed.

4.5/5 Stars

Summer 1993 (2017)

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Summer 1993 is a testament to subtleties which can make a film into something imbued with deeper meanings than what we might initially realize. It begins with the title immediately asserting this is a period piece and also implicitly we have the suggestion of the autobiographical. The postcript dedication is the final confirmation.

Otherwise, the film does not project a sense of self-awareness nor does it continually remind us what we are watching. Instead, it works in terms of intimacy and nuanced beats which lay out a world of the past that is piercing for the very transparency it projects. The personal becomes obvious in the ways it is handled with grace and an emotional candor.

This is a story of a small girl named Frida. She owns a pair of beautifully expressive brown eyes. Her hair is curled like a perfect little cherub and she is introduced in the midst of tragedy though we know very little about it. Being a child, she cannot quite understand the circumstances either. Much of the film occupies her head-space and point of view. Conversations waft over her. Things she cannot understand the gravity of. All we know is she has been affected. But even that rarely comes out of her.

She is defined mostly by pensive and measured actions. Her grandma teaches her the words necessary for her first communion. She repeats them obediently. Then, comes the move out of her family home with her new parents — an uncle and aunt — who have agreed to take her to live with their baby daughter.

They are caring and yet as with any change, there is a difficulty in adapting — a disconnect because she must become acclimated to a new life and even as the familiar has been replaced with something novel, we question how the transition will go.

Her doll collection is most important to her — and she plays house with her baby cousin — taking on the persona of the emotionally-detached mother even smoking a make-believe cigarette through her garish mascara. In town, she joins in a game of tag with the local kids and like it always goes — being the one new person — she gets shouldered with the task of being “It.”

She scrapes her knee scampering about and one mother becomes frantic that her child might be infected.  It’s an overreaction but it gives a hint to Frida’s past — the very reason her parents are no longer present in her life. Later there is a solemn conversation held over the kitchen table with all the extended family discussing her as she sits docilely by.

At night she’s lying in bed, saying her prayers and the barely audible notes of a marital argument can be heard between two people who nevertheless seem kind and in love. Life has a way of weighing on our hearts and minds. It is never an easy road to traverse.

When the baby daughter gets lost in the woods, injuring her hand, there is another change. Husband and wife, with prodding from the wife, in particular, agree limits must be put in place for Frida. She can hardly be trusted to look after her sister in this state.

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Even against this backdrop, Summer 1993 is a reminder of the beauty and inquisitiveness of children. Their hands so meticulous, their eyes searching and innocent. In many ways, they are not jaded and troubled by many things as we often are as adults. Still, they are capable of selfish acts, defiance, and naughtiness. They do not understand how their actions affect others besides themselves. What ties us all together is the very fact we all have feelings and emotions. These do not change. They are the universal connector between us all.

The greatest pleasure is that the film very rarely — if ever — feels like artifice. There is such a measured and sensitive eye at work here to be able to capture a moment in childhood and do it without unheeded histrionics.

Better yet are the sweet refrains like the whole family snuggling up in bed together. Double-fisting ice cream as a reward for another successful doctor’s appointment after a whole slew of tests. I was there once as well except it was always Cheetos and strawberry kiwi Snapple.

The other moments are just as real. Frida watches her baby sister tumble into the water and watches wide-eyed as her father jumps in after her. She is scolded for her inaction in the face of the helpless cries for help. Then she drops her grandma’s gift nightdress in the dirt — ungrateful and jealous of her baby sister’s — even spilling milk on it. Her mother tells her to go wash it even as Grandma tries and make concessions.

She likens her plight to that of a Catalan Cinderella but then again for all kids childhood is a bit of a fairy tale even the bad parts. It feels like the whole world is against her. Of course, it couldn’t be farther from the truth but she is blinded by her own childish narcissism.

The fact her adopted parents are so loving, understanding, and have her best interest in mind makes it all the more striking. How can she view the world in that way? One evening she finally gathers her meager belongs, all but prepared to go off on her own, loading her bag with all the necessities including fruit from the kitchen table.

Her baby sister tells Frida she “loves” her and she reciprocates by leaving behind the doll she had packed. It’s undertaken with the sincerity of youth and that’s what makes it so sweetly affecting. There is this gravity to the proceedings even as this innocent girl does not understand all the intricacies of her situation.

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A fitting final scene comes over the kitchen table again. Frida finally seems happier, at least she is getting used to life, but then out of the blue, she asks her new mother how her first mother died? Then, what follows are a row of very honest questions.

Her new mother fields them calmly in a reassuring way so her daughter can comprehend but you also sense there’s a touch of relief as Frida is opening up and willing to talk about the things she’s been aching to know. It’s a moment of deep personal connection. The impact is heady because it is hidden inside something seemingly so mundane in nature. But to those involved, it means the world. It is the beginning of greater understanding, moving them closer and closer to a whole family.

Getting ready for bed Frida spontaneously breaks into tears. For the whole film she has kept it in — remaining surprisingly unemotional — and yet now she can let her guard down. She doesn’t know why she is crying but we have some inclination. Could that be an eye getting misty? Not unlikely.

It recalls one lovely summer I spent living overseas because it is the one and only time in my life where I have lived on the edge of nature where you can hear and see the wildlife and walk around in it. It truly becomes your backyard. But it was in such a paradise where I had to rebound from personal grief as well.

It was not in the Catalan countryside but I was going through the same sense of isolation. Being a bit older I tried to cope in a different manner. What I realized is there is a need to gravitate more toward others opposed to falling away. But even as an adult it is difficult to do. It goes against our impulses in such moments where solitude is our greatest friend. Ultimately, Frida got there and I did too; it simply takes time. What a beautiful elegy to a childhood, to a mother, and, ultimately, the rebirth of a young life in the midst of tragedy.

4/5 Stars

Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters_(film).jpgHirokazu Kore-eda has quickly become one of my favorite Japanese directors and I consider it fortuitous that this affinity has cropped up in such a fertile period. Shoplifters is a high water mark in his already illustrious career.

Many folks are probably quick to label him the modern generation’s Ozu because it is an easy and harmless claim to make — a very complimentary one at that. Though, Kore-eda himself rightfully likens his work to Ken Loach or even Mikio Naruse. But if we conjure these names it seems equally apt to consider Vitorio De Sica’s, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.

He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us different strata of Japan. It is more personal, humble, and if we can make the claim, more realistically transparent. You will not see his world in Lost in Translation (2003). Because he shows us something that many people probably would not want to acknowledge, much less those making the laws and running Japanese society.

His central characters are a husband and wife, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who approach life as countercultural enigmas within the country at large. He is a struggling day laborer, hampered by a sprained ankle and she is ultimately laid off from her position at a local laundry firm. These are hardly spoilers and more remarkable indications just how extraordinary their relationships are. Because together they form a ragtag yet tight-nit nucleus of a family.

Living with them are Grandma (Kiki Kirin), a runaway hostess club worker named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a taciturn son named Shota. The beauty is how we know these individuals as part of a symbiotic unit. We assume each one is a sister or a son until we realize just how unique this “family” really is.

It begins coming into focus when the “parents” take in a lost little girl named Yuri. There are signs of neglect and even abuse on the part of her parents that leave her seemingly detached from the world. But through constant nurturing and their own brand of endearment, she begins to come out of her shell and feel safe once more. It is through the lens of her situation we most distinctly view the discrepancies apparent in such an overtly unified society.

It is a movie that I must consider in the context of actually spending a great deal of time living in Tokyo. Because the city itself is wonderful, the streets are clean, everything has order and tranquility. But it all comes down to being perceptive. If you look around you begin to see the flaws, the skeletons in the closets, and the issues residing very near the surface.

You have this monumental epidemic of loneliness in this sea of humanity, the reality that many old people die alone without a network of community or because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowing declining.

All types of folks fritter away their days (and money) in Pachinko parlors, or they seek out some kind of intimacy through tawdry forms of sensual pleasures. Even well-to-do families — those who represent what we might call “The Japanese Dream,” fathers with well-paying jobs, a beautiful wife with fine, intelligent kids — they can be dying a little bit every day on the inside too.

If the Shoplifters is capable of pointing us to anything meaningful, at the very least, it suggests how imperative personal relationships are. They must be built on affection and genuine concern. There must be space for feelings and love and closeness. Ironically, for a place with so many people, Tokyo is just about the most isolating place you can possibly exist in.

The film also creates this utterly riveting dichotomy that we might tie back to De Sica’s famed neorealist picture. Because many people will see the film’s title and frame the entire narrative through that window of perception. Here is a family living in poverty and stealing produce and things to make ends meet. On a surface level, this is all true. In fact, we meet Osamu and Shota in the act of their very meticulous thievery of a grocery store. It begs that question of what would you do to provide for your family?

However, one could argue Shoplifters takes it a step or two further along this moral gradient. What really is right and wrong? Are the ways we monitor the differences in society really just or is their more nuance to the definitions than we normally give allowance for?

To another point, yes, this family is breaking the law. There is no doubt about it whatsoever and yet you look at how they treat one another and live with such close-knit bonds and you wonder. Again, it is the so-called “honest citizens” who treat their children’s lives with such detachment or worst yet derelicting their duties as parents completely. They substitute material things for true concern. There is no competition. One is utterly infectious and meaningful, brimming with life and authenticity. The other feels callous, shallow, and fake.

If it is a critique, then it works in the most benevolent commentary known to man. Kore-eda has such an elegant, nonconfrontational approach to his material, you never feel like you’re are being preached to. Instead, he rightfully invests in onscreen relationships to make them feel genuine.

Because if shoplifting is in the title this movie is nevertheless an exploration of so many vast and varied topics that are well worth our time and money to consider. Kore-eda makes each one more than worthwhile through his deft touch and handling of each character. His children feel real and genuine even as his adults have multi-faceted contours worth pulling back.

In Matsuoka’s scenes at her work, the few solitary moments we have there somehow evoked Paris, Texas (1984) for me. Because in one sense, we are provided certain expectations — this outer veneer with preconceived notions of what this place will be — only to have them be subverted in the most beautifully illuminating manner possible.

The most meaningful revelation comes when she finally comes face-to-face with one of her customers in a small, intimate space. The man, who barely utters a sound, does not even crave sexual intimacy but simply contact of the most basic nature He’s lying in her lap docilely just listening to her talk and sharing a moment for a couple of solitary minutes. They form a connection even in this short span — perhaps more affecting than anything else that has happened to either of them in recent memory.

Out of all the scenes in the movie, this one literally broke my heart. It’s difficult to describe but it is one of the best examples I can put to the debilitating loneliness often found in a place like Tokyo. You begin to understand how monumentally alone people might feel. These are not depraved folks seeking out sensual gratification; these are the isolated men and women looking for some human contact; any contact. You don’t hug in Japan. Even the physical touch in itself is life-giving. Our main family embodies this kind of affection to the core of their being.

While the final act takes us into new territory and for different reasons the makeshift family gets pulled apart at the seams, there is still this wistful sense of relationship. It was never discord that was going to break them apart. It always had to do with the outside stressors and rigid reinforcement of the world around them.

Even in this social structure they still find brief momentary nuggets of continual joy and familial warmth. These emotions are so powerful and so very difficult to hold onto but when you can they imbue life with so much meaning. One prime example is a family pilgrimage to the beach — getting them out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life — for a bit of freedom.

Kirin Kiki is phenomenal again in this picture and while not her actual swan song, it is a fitting final testament to her versatile and highly perceptive talents. Although I’ve become acquainted with her quite recently, she will be dearly missed on the cinematic landscape.

The ultimate beauty of this film, however, is the very fact it is not about one individual but the whole interwoven network of lives stitched together. It does feel like a humbling experience. It is a film that suggests revelation can come from the most unassuming of places. We can learn more from a lowly thief than we might ever learn from all the professors, salarymen, and bigwigs in Tokyo. It is a stirring reminder of where true worth and priorities need to come from.

4.5/5 Stars

 

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