The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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director Robert Wiene
viewed: 09/15/2018 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As a kid, I’d read of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as being “the first ever horror film” and long desired to see it. It wasn’t until my first film class in junior college that I heard the term German Expressionism and came to realize that term more accurately described the numerous German silent films I had longed to see.

Robert Wiene’s 1920 film utilizes wild, literally Expressionistic set designs to stage the foremost and “quintessential” Expressionist film out there. And initially, I was pretty disappointed that other classics of Expressionism didn’t use as much crazy set-design and make-up as Wiene and company employ here. Much like the poster, it’s as if Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” came to life, in the film the lurid color translated to black and white, chiaroscuro, shapes and forms.

This viewing of Caligari was a special show at the Castro Theatre, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra, part of a day-long performance of their “greatest hits” alongside other classics of silent cinema. This was the only showing my son and I hit.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Sorry to Bother You (2018) movie poster

director Boots Riley
viewed: 08/18/2018 at Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Inventive and funny, Sorry to Bother You is a born cult film.  It echoes of a variety of things but also feels like an unique amalgam of them. The most significant echo for me was of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), though there is much, much more at play than that.

Dense and complex, while at the same time, surprising and hilarious, there is a ton going on in and throughout Boots Riley’s debut feature film.

Among its many qualities, Sorry to Bother You paints an interesting and affectionate portrait of Oakland, both literal and figurative. 

Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (2018) movie poster

director Bo Burnham
viewed: 07/21/2018 at Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission, SF, CA

I went to see Eighth Grade with my 14-year old daughter who had herself just completed this educational level. Bo Burnham was not a known quantity to me really before this, but part of seeing Eighth Grade at an Alamo Drafthouse, you get the added pre-film educational material to go in an educated viewer.

I have joked as a parent that I’ve been a 13-year old boy, but I’ve never been a 13-year old girl. Bo Burnham is young enough, and his fanbase is the right age, to be able to write and depict this contemporary world of young teens in a way that feels accurate to my daughter at least. Some things stay the same (skeezy boys trying to get fresh with too young girls, general middle school social awkwardness) while some things are new (vlogging, SnapChat).

Elsie Fisher is great, the center of the film, in almost every scene. The whole cast is good and Burnham works writes and directs with confidence and care, honed from his many other endeavors.

I saw a little too much of myself in the Dad (Josh Hamilton), thinking he’s amusing while really just embarrassing and awkward in the eyes of his teen. It’s one of those things of getting older, especially in teen genre movies, the point of identification has shifted for me and so the experience of these movies is different.

Really, Eighth Grade arrives as an impressive, sensitive, and funny first feature narrative movie from Burnham. My daughter enjoyed it too, though doubtfully from a different angle.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Three Identical Strangers (2018) movie poster

director Tim Wardle
viewed: 07/08/2018 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Some true life stories are just inherently compelling. As a documentary film maker, if you luck onto such a tale, you almost can’t go wrong.

The real story that drives Three Identical Strangers is pretty freaking wild and only gets more so, the deeper it dives and wears on.

In New York State, in 1981, 19 year old Robert Shafran discovers his doppelganger in  Eddy Galland. They turn out to be identical twins, separated at birth. When this hits the press, David Kellman realizes that he, too, is a doppelganger, and actually a triplet. They become the toast of New York City and are celebrated on every TV show around the country at the time. They go into business together, opening a steakhouse, Triplets, in Manhattan.

But the story of how they became separated, by a Jewish adoption agency and an important psychologist crafting a secret experiment, deepens into a mystery.

I’d read a moderately informative review, so I don’t know how much it matters if you know the twists and turns Three Identical Strangers takes, but it is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and absolutely a stunner of a tale.

Tim Wardle structures the film well, and while I don’t know that he adds a lot beyond the interviews, reenactments, and old footage, it’s still a very worthwhile documentary.

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary (2018) movie poster

director  Ari Aster
viewed: 06/16/2018 at Century 20 Daly City and XD, Daly City, CA

The hot horror movie of the moment, Hereditary, is a break-out first feature from writer-director Ari Aster. An original and intriguing concept, Hereditary is shaped like the more artsy classics of the horror genre, ranging away from the pulpier fare.

As well-crafted and inventive as it is, the film’s true power comes from its cast. Headlined certainly by Toni Collette, a lot of credit should also go to Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, who play her son and daughter, respectively. It’s familial terror, tinged with personal tragedy, mysterious histories, grief, loss, and something ultimately evil.

Definitely, the less you know going in, the better. Because the unknown is a dark place for the film. And significantly a component of its success.

All that said, its ambitions possibly outstretch its means. Some plot elements are blurted out in dialogue/monologue, successfully enough, but this drew my attention to plot holes or other flaws.

That said, I definitely think it’s a successful horror film and a promising start for Ari Aster.

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 (2018) movie poster

director David Leitch
viewed: 05/27/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Deadpool 2 is the lesser Deadpool of the Deadpool movies. I’d commented about its predecessor that I didn’t think that the movie was as clever as it thought itself. That’s even more true here in the sequel.

Ryan Reynolds and just about everybody from the first film is back, along with Josh Brolin as Cable, Zazie Beetz as Domino, and surprisingly Julian Dennison (from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Russell/Firefist. Oh yeah, and all those guys in X-Force.

Knowing jokes about lazy writing don’t make lazy writing okay. They pack in the gags, cultural references, and R-rated raunchiness into a story that also tries to have a heart. That having a heart thing is the mushy muddle that undercuts a lot of the film’s potential irreverence making it much more like the things it attempts to lampoon.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 04/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Even as a fairly inveterate Wes Anderson film aficionado, it’s pretty easy to see the problematics of Isle of Dogs and its version of Japan and the Japanese. Even while trying to be overtly respectful (the film is meant in part as an homage to Akira Kurosawa), you can still wind up with something that is culturally tone deaf and resultingly offensive.  The fall-out from responses to Kubo might have been a signal if caught early enough in production.

In part, I think Anderson’s approach here works. The whole film is taken as translations. The dogs barking is translated into English. The Japanese is paraphrased in translation, whenever actually translated.

The film is totally gorgeous. And if you’re apt to like Wes Anderson films, it’s certainly that with snappy dialogue, amusing characters, deadpan humor. Though Anderson himself is not an animator, this stop-motion design and animation team is so perfect for his aesthetics, which I’ve compared before to cinematic dioramas or shadowboxes.

What’s most interesting to me about this movie is that its Wes Anderson doing speculative fiction. The story is set 20 years in the future and the world is totally garbage and destroyed (or at least Garbage Island is, where we spend most of the film). It starts from a pessimistic point, in which “man’s best friend” and a metaphor perhaps for what is good in humanity is removed from human society due to a variety of diseases. To further the dystopia being shoved down society’s throat, the replacement dogs are robots, capable of viciousness only.

Ultimately, the film resolves itself too easily. The villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a change of heart for no apparent good reason. The stakes in a Wes Anderson film are typically not so high, and viewers can usually guess that things will work out in the end more or less.

I enjoyed the film, as did my teenage daughter. But I tend to like Wes Anderson constructions. It really is beautifully rendered.

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther (2018) movie poster

director Ryan Coogler
viewed: 02/25/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

“A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairy tales.” This may describe writer/director Ryan Coogler as a kid, though these are the words he gave N’Jadaka to say about his childhood fantasies of Wakanda. But it also may describe many children to come, having been instilled with a fairy tale to which they can relate, Marvel’s superhero Black Panther.

Black Panther is a superhero movie like no other, none especially of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. As much as Disney and Marvel have allowed directors to add their character and tonality to the movies and franchises that they’ve crafted, Coogler has gone leaps beyond that and has made something not just personal but ideological, creating a world within Marvel’s universe of an idealized, though flawed, politicized metaphor and heroic figures very different from the norm of typical cultural and ethnic diversity of their fleet of characters.

No other Marvel enterprise has striven to be anything more than entertainment. Coogler has given the world something much more rare and still developing in its significance. He has deeply imbued Black Panther with a cultural awareness of not just African-American identity but identity within the whole of the African diaspora. Coogler also offers a healthier image of feminist identity in superhero garb than even one single frame of Wonder Woman.

When the film opened in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland, local reporter and native Bay Area son, Peter Hartlaub, was on scene at the Grand Lake Theater to witness not just the latest blockbuster, but a cultural happening, one that Coogler himself parachuted in for at the last minute, surprising movie-goers.

All this is not  to say that Black Panther is wholly successful even as the genre film it is. Some of the plot elements are stronger while some are more shaky. The same could be said for some of the visual design and digital effects. As interesting a conflict as arises out of  N’Jadaka’s resentment toward T’Challa and Wakanda, I didn’t feel that Michael B. Jordan’s character was as well-developed as he could have been.

But Black Panther is going to be so much more than its shortcomings.

And at the end of the day, I’ll take as much Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Leticia Wright (my favorite of the film), as Coogler will give us.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) movie poster

director Rian Johnson
viewed: 01/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

For maybe the first time, I sat in a theater seat when the Star Wars theme cranks up and the scroll starts that I didn’t have the brief flutter in my pulse. This has less to do with Star Wars: The Last Jedi than perhaps just me and where I’ve gotten to in my relationship with the film series. I mean, it had been out for three weeks before I finally saw it. I don’t think you could have explained that to my 10 year old self.

I wonder how anyone has a personal relationship with Star Wars anymore. It’s so globalized and ubiquitous.

I won’t try to add to the myriad litany of discourse here other than to say that, yes, I liked The Last Jedi. I liked the new characters, I liked the development of Luke and Leia and definitely did indeed feel that flutter at seeing Mark Hamill’s (and all of our) goodbye to Carrie Fisher. Kudos to Rian Johnson on taking the series into new spheres. I hope that they continue to do so.

It was most definitely too long of a movie.

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 12/10/2017 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Though it’s not post-modern in most ways, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a revisionist horror fantasy.

It’s the movie in which the monster gets the girl.

Del Toro mashes up and masticates a lot of different things here, including the 1960’s aesthetics and period shorthand of TV’s Mad Men, all while simmering in the sauce of lush designs. With its initial tone of fairy tale, I first thought that the world of The Shape of Water was indeed a fantasy, like one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. But as the film wears on, this is very much meant to be the Maryland of the 1960’s.

The creature, beautifully designed indeed, is the romantic hero here. How is it so different than the Abe Sapien of del Toro’s Hellboy films? Inhabited by Doug Jones, as in the other films, the creature is really only a shade away.  I find this somewhat perplexing.

The film, however, isn’t some miraculous fantasy love story. Well, it is and it isn’t. The writing is less than great. After watching del Toro’s television show The Strain (a bit), the cracks and lacks in quality are more acceptable in pulpier genre junk than vaguely arthouse dreamwork. As inverted as the concept is, the execution is almost pedestrian outside of the design work.