Jojo Rabbit (2019): Taika Waititi’s Newest Coming-of-Age Story

Jojo_Rabbit_(2019)_poster.jpgWe must acknowledge the elephant or rather, the rabbit in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.

The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.

I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.

For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.

Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.

These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).

However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world known as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe. 

Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”

This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.

It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.

He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.

In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.

Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.

Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.

One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.

Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.

What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.

In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.

It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.

3.5/5 Stars

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 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

 

Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

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30 minutes into Lost in Translation our two traveling misanthropes finally meet in the hotel lobby at the bar sharing a friendly exchange. They are two people who share one striking similarity — they are Americans in a foreign land — and they’re looking for a friend.

It’s a very pertinent film for places I’ve gone as an American who has traveled to Japan of my own volition but still as a bit of an outsider. Not because I am rejected or an outcast but for the very fact that there are obvious cultural and linguistic barriers in my way. I resonate with this film not so much because it takes on the point of view of the Japanese and empathizes with them but on the contrary, it focuses on those on the outside looking in. Like Bob & Charlotte and you and me in our manifold cultural illiteracies.

Bob is a big shot movie star. Probably not unlike Bill Murray. Big in the 70s and 80s but now his popularity is slowly waning as the years begin to catch up with him and he’s demoted to cameos. In fact, maybe Murray has fared better. Bob’s in Tokyo promoting Suntory Whiskey in their latest ad campaign. It’s good money but certainly not what he wants to be doing with his career.

He’s Suntory Time’s latest spokesperson. It’s the epitome of culture becoming completely muddled along language lines. My Japanese admittedly leaves much to be desired, but the Japanese director’s stage directions are full of passionate vision of what this scene will be, a shot out of Casablanca, full of emotion and heartache. The translation Bob gets is simply “He wants you to turn and look to the camera.” He feels like he’s missing something. Just as each reference that’s tossed haphazardly his way is never fully understood.

The Rat Pack, Bogart, Sinatra, Roger Moore, even Johnny Carson. Each of these names comes with so much more. But the context has been ripped away from them and appropriated and transplanted to different settings. It’s nothing to be up in arms about it’s simply the reality of our internationalized culture and it’s utterly befuddling to Bob. He can’t navigate it at all.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a recently married philosophy graduate who looks hardly a day over 20. Friends back home seem too preoccupied to listen as she calls them up over the phone. Meanwhile, her dweeby husband with a particularly whiny voice (sorry Giovani Ribisi) is consumed with his own career as a photographer and distracted by old acquaintances ( namely Anna Faris). He says he loves his wife but he certainly doesn’t spend much time with Charlotte. Her loneliness shows. She’s even hit the bottom of the barrel listening to CDs to discover the purpose of her soul.

Bill Murray’s characteristic deadpan cheekiness feels entirely at odds with the culture that he is thrown into where you’re forced to cook your own food (Shabu Shabu) and he dwarfs the national average in terms of height. Bob is the prototypical American movie star making his press junket of Tokyo but at the same time, he’s also oblivious that he forgot his son’s birthday again until he receives a reminder.

In fact, Murray never feels like he could be anyone’s best friend because he’d either be a flake or he’d never open up to you because he’s too busy making jokes in lieu of actual conversation. Still, maybe there’s a grain of hope.

Bob and Charlotte are totally adrift in the city. Lost in the sea of Tokyo and it’s really no fault of the city despite its astronomical population and unfamiliar customs. It only serves to magnify the real problem — a small-scale parallel to what is going on in their lives. Their problem doesn’t start with Tokyo. It starts with the person who looks back at them in the mirror. Though they come from two very different stations of life, their current state of affairs is all but analogous. Bob and Charlotte are in the midst of personal crises — the biggest ones imaginable — what’s life really about?

That’s why when they break out in conversation it means something. Of course, he leads with an extended joke, “I‘m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?”

Their meeting in the hotel lobby is a lifeline that they both willingly grab hold of and it leads them out into the world around them. They frequent the video game parlors, traverse Shibuya crosswalks, perform in late night Karaoke joints, and sit up talking with Japanese surfers as Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate the night air. Coppola even drops a nod to her significant other with Phoenix’s “Too Young” exemplifying the vibe around town.

The film hints at infidelity at times and Bob’s marriage is a flimsy one at best but the beauty of his relationship with Charlotte is that first and foremost it is a friendship and by the time they must part ways it’s heartbreaking. They’ve grown so close. But a hug can be as meaningful as any sexual relationship might have been. They genuinely care about each other. It turns out Bill Murray can be a good friend and one with wisdom and grace no less.

In its fleeting moments, Lost in Translation, captures just how horrible goodbyes can be. There’s so much you want to be able to say and nothing you can begin to say. In fact, Bob cannot leave it there and so he goes after her, tracks her down, and shares one final embrace and one last word. Both of them go their separate ways but there’s no doubt that Bob and Charlotte have grown and helped each other to a better place. It’s still a work in progress but that’s part of what life is about right? Living and growing alongside other people.

We can scour YouTube to come up with the latest and greatest, definitive enhanced audio video to tell us exactly what Bob leaves her with, although each one undoubtedly claims something different, or we can bask in that ambiguity which while so maddening in some way feels satisfying for the very same reason. Floating through Tokyo has never been so wistfully affecting.

4.5/5 Stars

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. It’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with bated breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess I didn’t much care whether any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In this regard, there’s nothing lacking and if it’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility lifting entertainment above the mediocre and allowing it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deus ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterIn spite of being a jaded viewer at this point, the Russo Brothers (Arrested Development and Community) and the screenwriting duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Narnia Franchise) proved still capable when it comes to keeping the Marvel Franchise afloat and, nay, helping it to flourish like few franchises ever have.  The pair of directing and writing duos who brought us Captain America: Winter Solider were able to add another link in the armor, and Marvel has remained stalwart. There are moments of misguided drama, times when the fight sequences become monotonous rather than momentous, but Marvel always does well to keep their funny bone intact.

As with any superhero movie Civil War calls for a suspension of disbelief, but it also becomes a balancing act, because for any movie to truly resonate with a mass audience its characters must feel human in some way shape or form. Where their powers and superhuman abilities must be on display for all those awaiting a popcorn thriller, but still restrained enough to keep them relatable.

In this case, Captain America (Chris Evans) is swayed by the love of a friend he’s known for over 70 years. Bucky Barnes is once more in the middle of a manhunt, and yet Cap has faith in his old friend. But it’s exactly that kind of loyalty that lands him on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, our other force of nature Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) rehashes the tragic death of his parents and tough times with Pepper Potts leave him conflicted. He’s ready to concede to the United Nation’s demands to put the Avengers in check and that’s where he breaks with his former ally. When the two undisputed leaders of the Avengers become polarized that forms the dividing line between factions and the whole film becomes fascinating as the sides are slowly drawn up. As an audience, we are forced to make a choice. It’s either the true blue Steve Rogers or the wonderfully snarky Tony Stark or perhaps we watch as an impartial observer. But, nevertheless, a mental decision must be made.

And it’s not only a balancing act of super versus human qualities, but the sheer size and scope of the cast could easily be a hindrance. Equality of screen time or at least moments in the spotlight for everyone are key, and the film generally does that capably enough. Marvel revels in the callbacks and Civil War is no different. In this installment alone we have the pleasure of seeing numerous returning players sans Hulk. In fact, the most entertaining fight sequence involves everyone duking it out, and the fact that it feels almost like play fighting rather than full-fledged combat is of little consequence.

But the new additions are also noteworthy including the likes of  Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spiderman. Credit due to Tom Holland for in some ways making Peter Parker into an invariably entertaining persona, who feels different than his predecessors. There are a few others in smaller roles of note including the likes of William Hurt, Martin Freeman, and even Jim Rash.

By this point, we have long grown tired of villains rising up from outer space harnessing some unfathomable amount of power. The antagonists that are truly compelling are those who are closer to home, more realistic, and sometimes even within our own ranks. Built into this film’s title is that type of conflict, between former friends, between people who used to be close or would be on the same side given any other circumstances. But Civil War ups the ante not by getting bigger and grander necessarily. It’s the fact that it gets more personal that makes it work surprisingly well.

Daniel Bruhl is a delightful actor, and he does well to play what some might call a villain and others might simply label a pained, vengeful man. That’s oftentimes far more interesting.

It’s overstuffed with players, many who are admittedly wonderful acting talents. Its editing and cinematography is at times overly frenetic and mind-numbing. While Civil War is the expected superhero extravaganza, there are dour, more mature interludes that are difficult not to appreciate. If Marvel has not completely kept me enraptured, due to so many subsequent films, they still have me coming back and if I’m any indication, there will be many far more ardent fans than me who will truly enjoy what this film has to offer.

4/5 Stars

Lost In Translation (2003)

Lost_in_Translation_posterStarring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson with direction by Sofia Coppola, this film is set in the fast-paced, technological, and modern world of Tokyo, Japan. That is where Bob and Charlotte find themselves and they both are lost, simply going through the motions of life. He is a middle-aged, former movie star filming a whiskey commercial. She is a newly-married wife of a fashion photographer. Despite their age differences, they find out that they have a lot in common. Over the week they spend time together in Tokyo and become friends. When the time comes for Bob to leave neither one wants their time to end. They say goodbye but do not forget each other. This film was enjoyable because it portrayed two people who could be good friends without getting romantically attached, at least in the conventional sense.

I must say that this type of friendship intrigues me. It is understandable that if you go to a foreign country alone it would be nice to have someone you could at least converse with, without any barrier getting in the way. It might be at Narita airport for a moment, at a Hotel, or walking the streets of Shinjuku.  It would act as a comfort in a world like Tokyo that is so fast paced and high stress. These unusual circumstances could throw together two very different people, with little in common except the language they speak. That is something that does not happen every day.

Needless to say, after gaining the opportunity to visit Tokyo two years in a row it has given me some new insight. I can now wholly empathize with Bob and Charlotte because although I knew a few people, Tokyo is such a highly populated, fast-paced world that seems so easy to get lost and overwhelmed in. There is so much to see, so many lights, so many hurrying folks, so many subway lines, so many surgical masks, so much etiquette, and so much technology. True, some of my ancestors were Japanese but the language still baffles me, making it very easy to get “Lost in Translation.” Being in Tokyo it also helped me realize that it is not only tourists who get lost. It has been over 10 years since this film came out and a lot can happen in that time like more Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner.

Despite the westernization and technological advancement, Tokyo also has a time-worn aspect, and its people are often worn as well. They might not be lost because of a literal language barrier. However, they, like Bob and Charlotte, are often lost because they have difficulty getting close to their peers. Often they, like the two protagonists, seem to be searching for someone to talk to, but in their case manners keep others at arm’s length. Coppola’s film gained an even more personal note now that I have walked in these places and interacted with or at least walked alongside the Japanese people. They like anyone else can be “Lost in Translation,” it just might be a different type of “language” than what we struggle with. They too are humans who have their share of struggles, worries, joys, hopes, and dreams. Hopefully, this type of understanding will help us transcend any barriers so we no longer find ourselves “Lost in Translation.”

4.5/5 Stars

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

8c89f-vickycristina2Although he is not present you can hear and see the undeniable hand of Woody Allen behind this romance set in Barcelona. In a film that at times feels like a precursor to the more interesting Midnight in Paris, Allen takes on romance in another elegant city with two young Americans who have been transplanted there from their everyday lives.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the practical one of the two with a fiance who is kind but by no means a romantic. Cristina (Scarlett Johannson) is the more adventurous type and she is intrigued by a forward Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) who invites them to spend a holiday with him. All the red lights are going off in Vicky’s head and she will not have it. But Cristina is interested enough to drag her friend along on this whim. They have a matter of fact narrator to guide their little tale of love and personal revelation.  Enter Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) stage right and things gets a bit complicated.

This is a Film about love. A Film about people having their mini midlife crisis and a film about trying to figure things out. In that ways it is relatable and yet I have this uncomfortable feeling that Woody Allen is speaking to me veiled behind the worldviews of his characters. It seems like I can hear his voice obviously peeking out behind many of these characters so they lack interest. There’s nothing new and exciting. For instance, I liked Rebecca Hall, but to be honest her character is bland and she soon comes to realize that herself. It’s not just her either but the social circles she interacts in. The people are dull, middle class, American types. Cristina might have a little bit more mischief in her, but that does not necessarily make her all that interesting.

However, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz play a pair of characters who are perhaps the most interesting. Maybe it is just a result of playing artists but they are often difficult to read and do not make complete sense. They are both romantics but they are prone to violent passion or angry fights. That’s the dynamic Vicky and Cristina get thrown into and I doubt either one expected it.

The story ends like other Allen films as a quirky romance with touches of comedy and strange acts of fate. Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona perhaps a little wiser but with little more figured out about life.

3.5/5 Stars

The Prestige (2006)

87836-prestige_posterStarring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson, and Michael Caine with director Christopher Nolan, this film is about two magicians who ultimately become rivals. After the death of Robert Angiers’ wife, he blames Alfred Borden and thus begins their quest to become the greatest magicians the world has ever seen. Along the way Borden finds a wife and has a daughter, while Angiers tries to discover Borden’s secrets various ways. Both men will stop at nothing to succeed even if it means sabotage, wounding, or even traveling to Colorado in Angiers’ case. With Borden in jail for murder of his rival, it appears as if Angiers has won. However, in the end all is not as it seems and it is revealed to the audience. Once again Nolan uses non linear storytelling to develop this intriguing mystery. I was not much of an authority on magic but now I know you have the pledge, the turn, and of course the prestige.
 
4/5 Stars

Her (2013)

e69ce-her2013posterHer is a film that examines hyper-technological culture through a lens that has been around for centuries: romance.  In a not so distant future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly is a craftsman of greeting cards. The only difference is he dictates personal messages, which are then transcribed by computers to be given to loved ones. He himself is going through a rough patch in life after a breakup with his wife and it has left him taciturn and distant.
Then one day he purchases the new OS or Operating System. Samantha, as she is called, is a very high level of artificial intelligence (Siri on steroids), who is able to openly communicate, do tasks, and even show emotion to some extent. Even though she does not actually have a tangible body (unless you count Theodore’s phone), he still finds a way to become enchanted by her. Not only can she check his emails, but Samantha also has access to vast amounts of data that allow her to evolve with Theodore, and she soon becomes his closest confidant and companion. Her desire to constantly discover the world invigorates Theodore, who is constantly used to the same technological, yet monotonous existence. Ironically, he develops his deepest relationship with Samantha, because she reflects how lonely technology has made him. 
Real human interaction seems foreign and awkward, whether it is with his estranged wife, work friends, or a blind date. For that matter sexual relations have also been perverted and, in a sense, trivialized by technology. Theodore’s complicated relationship with Samantha brings these and many other realities to light. 
Samantha can never truly be Reality. She can never have physical contact. This causes Theodore to put greater focus on the other aspects about her. Yes, she is not a normal human, but her knowledge on everything and her curiosity opens up numerous beautiful avenues for them to explore together. It could be love letters, the music she is composing, or even the sensation of ambling down a street. 
Ultimately, there is a downside to technology because despite being in an advanced future it cannot fully emulate the human experience and as Theodore painfully discovers there are terrible complications in relation to Samantha. 
This can be a difficult film, a strange film, and at times even a crass film, but for the most part Spike Jonze gives us a very thought-provoking piece that is pertinent to this social media and technologically saturated culture that is also our everyday reality. The world shown to us is washed out in its pastel shades, and yet it does not seem too far removed from us. 
It certainly brings up some interesting dilemmas about Her, whoever she may be. How do you reconcile technology whether computers, phones, video games, etc. with the human interactions that still make up (or should make up) most of our existence? For Theodore, Samantha leaves him with wonderment for life and an inquisitiveness which allows him to unplug a little and truly live in the present. 
Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, but everyone really wants to see, or rather, hear Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Others who take on smaller but crucial roles are Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde. Her is invariably melancholic but undoubtedly powerful stuff all the same.
 
4.5/5 Stars