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.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 11/04/2017 at the Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission, SF, CA

A slow-burn blackly comic, surrealistic thriller. With the heaviest emphasis on “slow-burn”.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s second feature in English, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is on a continuum of his other awkward worlds, ruled by random logic, in which human connection is ultimately impossible.

Like his breakout film Dogtooth (2009), The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the study of a family and its patriarch. Though Colin Farrell’s heart surgeon here isn’t so much controlling the world of his nuclear clan but rather trying to somehow protect it from an ill that he has brought upon it.

The whole thing uncoils very slowly, impregnating the strangeness of the world and the characters with a sense not just of discomfort but of dread. Something is behind Farrell’s unusual relationship with sleepy-eyed teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan). His illegitimate son? His teenage lover?

Of course, it’s not anything remotely so straight-forward. When Farrell’s son and daughter fall ill with paralysis, lack of appetite, and eventually bleeding eyes, it takes the surgeon a long time to figure out that there isn’t anything medical but what? supernatural? uncontrollable?

Lanthimos continues to be one of the most interesting directors to me. Always a lot to ruminate on afterwards.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) movie poster

director Denis Villeneuve
viewed: 10/09/2017 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

The film nerd world is seeing its deepest desires brought to light. A new Star Wars trilogy? Ridley Scott returning to Alien? A new Blade Runner movie?

As we have come to learn, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Unlike the others, commercial success has not overwhelmed Blade Runner 2049 yet. So we may not be awash in the franchise-ization of the beloved 1982 film. Which may well turn out to be a good thing.

First and foremost, it’s overlong, by a long shot. Its 163 minutes move slowly, steadily, intentionally. But in the end, it drags, perhaps where it most certainly shouldn’t.

Yes, it’s gorgeous. Villeneuve and Roger Deakins along with some very pretty production design absolutely craft a film worth looking at.

But what’s with all the giant naked ladies in advertising and ruined statuary? Issues of the film’s representations of women aside, I’ve cultivated a theory. When watching Alien Covenant earlier this year I began to wonder if Ridley Scott’s Alien movies and his Blade Runner movies were meant to exist in the same universe and timeline. And whether or not that is true, the statuary of Prometheus (2012) featured giant sized men. Is this somehow a feminine counterpart? Sure, this is Villeneuve’s film, but Scott is still executive producer.

I watched this with my son, who managed to sleep through the original when I showed it to him. So, he was a little confused about the story, but he wound up really liking the movie.

Still several days out I’ve not really come to a full conclusion. It’s a gorgeous spectacle, though a slow-moving performance. Still contemplating its meanings and ideas.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) movie poster

director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 10/01/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My kids both wanted to see this so I complied.

None of us was overly impressed. We had watched and kind of enjoyed the first Kingsman movie, though the political reading of the film I’d read at the Guardian made me feel a little dirty.

I started to try to get my head around a political reading of Kingsman: The Golden Circle and it’s ripe for criticism and analysis. Matthew Vaughn is a talented action director, one of the few fairly conservative mainstream big Hollywood directors still pumping out A-list stuff.

I have to say this Kingsman is kind of interesting in its un-PC brashness, but it’s also kind of a flop as a successful action flick. The action is so over-the-top that from the opening car chase, we’re seeing wildly impossible flights of physical impossibility at such breakneck pace that even if you don’t have the time to question it, it’s impossible to pretend this isn’t anything but highly manipulated CGi.

I could go on but it’s not really all that worth it. A couple other thoughts:

  • Elton John was maybe the best part of the movie.
  • Channing Tatum was a bit of a bait-and-switch as he spends most of his time not doing anything.
  • I’ve got a feeling that this was more “cartoonish” than any of the comic books.