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.

Coco (2017)

Coco (2017) movie poster

director Lee Unkrich
viewed: 12/02/2017 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

My kids are both teenagers now, so all Disney or Pixar movies are no longer mandatory screening. I was actually a little surprised when my daughter asked if we could go see Coco.

After the atrocious and annoying Frozen “short”, the double-branded Coco begins. Patting itself on the back for its innovations in CGI and its due diligence to Mexican culture, the film opens up on the story of a long-lost patriarch and the remembrances of the Day of the Dead.

My daughter said her Spanish teacher had encouraged seeing it. And she was pleased by how many words she recognized (though I frankly knew about as much of the  Español myself.

It’s vividly-realized. I mean, this is Pixar, after all. The land of the dead is gorgeously depicted with meticulous details abounding in shot after shot.

Still, I wasn’t enthralled in it. I’m still trying to weigh exactly why this was. My daughter did enjoy it.

And I enjoyed going with her. I don’t know how many more of these we’ve got.

How old were you the last animated film you saw with your parents as a child? What was it?

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) movie poster

director  Taika Waititi
viewed: 11/26/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I’m with the consensus on this one. My kids are too.

Thor: Ragnarok is fun, funny entertainment. Total props to Taika Waititi for this one.

I’ve always liked Cate Blanchett, but goth Cate Blanchett! What you do to me!

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird (2017) movie poster

director Greta Gerwig
viewed: 11/12/2017

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California, quite probably the very first cinematic love letter to the capitol of the Golden State. The film opens with a quote from Joan Didion, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” And that deprecation is part of the tone of the film.

It’s 2002 in Sacramento, very specifically 2002. And though Gerwig says that the film isn’t exactly autobiographical, it’s hard not to think that she found her perfect counterpart in Saoirse Ronan who stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. The whole cast is pretty perfect. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are impeccable.

Ronan is lovely and hilarious as the girl from the  (literal) “wrong side of the tracks”. Precocious and out-spoken, she struggles to define and understand her self-image as well as her self. It’s classic coming-of-age stuff. Authenticity and recognition are elements that make a film like this work, and I thought it was interesting that Ronan chose to play Lady Bird with her natural pock-marked cheeks (interestingly enough air-brushed in the movie poster). It adds that je ne sais quoi that I think she intended.

More than anything, it’s a very funny movie, with great character and characters. I took my two teenagers and they both really liked the movie as well.