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Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: mother!

mother! (2017): Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Running Time: 121 minutes.  Based on: Fie on you if you can’t guess it. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            mother! is one of those movies that is, for several reasons, damn near impossible to review properly, not the least of which is that my autocorrect keeps insisting I must be mistaken about that uncapitalized “m” and the explanation point that keeps popping up in the middle of full sentences. 

            Tiring as it is, though, autocorrect can be worked around.  What can’t be worked around is that any discussion of the most interesting and important aspects of this movie- i.e., everything that makes mother! worth seeing as one of the most bizarre and frustrating cinematic creations of 2017- can’t be so much as touched on in a spoiler-free manner.  Which I very much want this review to be, partially because this is a movie where not knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes until you’re in it is a key part of its effect, and also because if I did try to spell out the depths of this movie’s madness, you all wouldn’t believe me, and would have me packed off to the madhouse before I could utter the words “auteur schmauteur.”

            Well, let’s at least try, shall we?  There is a house, still bearing the scars of a recent fire.  Two people, an older poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) reside there.  She struggles day by day to rebuild the house to something resembling its former glory, while he sits in his office and grapples with a particularly nasty case of writer’s block.  The house, much like its cousins in films like Crimson Peak, is place filled with nooks, crannies, and small rooms aplenty, enough to constantly make you feel like there’s always more to the place you haven’t yet seen, places which will inevitably be revealed in the most unpleasant of ways. 

            Their stable, if not necessarily happy, routine is broken up when an older couple they don’t know turns up out of the blue one night.  For reasons neither we nor the woman can fathom, the man acts as if his best friend has returned from the dead, and welcomes them into the house like family.  They proceed to make themselves increasingly at home, despite the woman’s very agitated attempts to get them to leave.  Then their sons show up, and an apparently very nasty, long-running family feud breaks wide open in the worst way possible, much to the woman’s horror. 

            And it is right about then that every semblance of normalcy the film initially possessed is cast to the four winds, the baby of rationality is tossed out with the bathwater, and an orgy of insanity soon descends upon the house, the theater screen, and the poor psyches of every unsuspecting soul who wanders into a theater seat expecting a by-the-numbers horror flick.  And it is here that I will not say any more.  If you want to learn the truth, you’re on your own. 

            Now don’t misunderstand me- it’s not that the ideas or thematic overtones within the movie are too obtuse or impenetrable- the overall structure of the film (and what Darren Aronofsky is playing at) is not very hard to make out.  It becomes very clear very early on that he’s using a rough template of several biblical stories, particularly the creation stories in the book of Genesis, to tie together clear religious and spiritual themes with reflections on the struggles inherent in unequal gender roles in marriage and the world of art, and how popular culture always carries an inherent, dark tendency to simply consume all it can of whatever person or thing it latches onto, no matter the cost to those caught up in its relentless maelstrom. 

            What IS amazing, baffling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once is seeing just how far the people making this mini marvel commit to taking it all to its logical extreme, and that they found a way to lay it all out on-screen in excruciatingly graphic detail.  The rising tension within the film- brilliantly conveyed by tight cinematography that rarely leaves the taught, stressed, and later frightened face of the woman- begins to snowball early in the second act, crashes into what would be the emotional highpoint in most other movies, plateaus for just a bit, and then starts rolling back up again, picking up steam and careening into a mad frenzy of a third act that, in terms of the sheer technical wizardry needed to make it function as a piece of filmmaking, is one of the most daring artistic endeavors I’ve ever witnessed. 

            I ultimately feel at a loss to judge whether or not all this really works as a functional narrative- the way many of its elements were so violently mashed together will struck some as too over-the-top, and its depiction of religion (specifically Catholicism) will be too crass and blunt for others- but that it took amazing skill and gumption to think up, create, and release this to the public is beyond question.  I would much rather see a film try and fail to create this sort of experience than something that plays it by the numbers any day of the week. 

            It is also an immense relief to see Jennifer Lawrence back in a role that suits her talents.  This may very well be the film that nets her a second Oscar, and unlike the David Russell tripe she’s been wallowing in for the past 4 years, this time around she’ll have earned it.  I had begun to have my doubts about her, but this movie puts quite a few of them to rest, and thank the Creator for that.   

            I have no idea who will like this film, and I know many people who would only hate it, but let there be no doubt- nothing else coming this year, or in many years prior, is anything like this, and if the experience of the unique is something you prize in a movie above everything else, this is where you need to be. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Death Note

Death Note (2017): Written by Jeremy Slater, Vlas Parlapanides, and Charles Parlapanides.  Directed by Adam Wingard.  Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, and Willem Dafoe.  Running Time: 100 minutes.  Based on the original (and vastly superior) manga of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba. 

Rating: 0.5/4

**spoilers for the movie Death Note follow.  Which doesn’t matter, because you really shouldn’t see it anyway**

            When making a movie based on pre-existing source material, there are two special pitfalls you can’t afford to fall into.  One is to stray so far from the story’s origins that you contradict or spoil what made it good in the first place, thus pissing off legions of pre-existing fans.  On the flip side, pander too much to said fans, and the end result will be too stuck up its own lore to make sense to new viewers, thus depriving the franchise a chance to expand is audience. 

            The new live-action, Netflix-produced version of Death Note (directed by Adam Wingard) is the type of sheer disaster that somehow manages to sniff out every possible way to do both.  Nearly everything about it- the casting, writing, development of characters, editing, music choices, pacing, and beyond- will be utterly odious to anyone with even the slightest respect or affection for the original manga and anime.  And yet the movie tries so hard to rack up Fanboy Brownie Points by dropping one pointless Easter egg after another and never bothering to explain itself that I can’t imagine anyone NOT coming in with detailed knowledge of the original story being able to make heads or tails of the damn thing. 

            Now, if you DO indeed happen to be reading this as an Uninitiated, here’s the skinny; a bored high school student named Light, frustrated with the state of the world, one day finds a magical notebook that, according to the rules printed in the cover, allows its user to kill people in whichever manner they see fit.  After being visited by a Shinigami- supernatural beings that normally use Death Notes to control human life spans- and having this spelled out to him, Light resolves to use this power to kill off all those he deems evil, so as to create a new world free of crime or corruption. 

            The surge of mysterious killings that result gets the attention of both law enforcement and the world at large, dividing society between those who support the idea behind Light’s actions and those who simply see him as another wannabe serial killer who needs to be brought to justice.  A police task is formed to stop him, led by a mysterious, genius detective known only as ‘L,’ who soon starts to suspect Light.  The race is soon on to see which one can figure out the identity of the other first and kill/arrest them before their own safety is compromised. 

            Except in the case of this film, it’s less of a “race” and more of a particularly drunk auto-pileup on the freeway.  And instead of the high-level, intellectual chess match that characterized the back-and-forth efforts of Light and L to out each other in the original series, here the second half devolves into a (literal) running competition between the two characters to see who can be the biggest dickwad to random civilians they happen to be passing by in a given scene. 

            This movie manages to fail so amazingly in ways both large and small that I’m honestly at a loss as to where to begin, but unlike the people who made this sucker, I will at least make an honest effort.   

            To whit; the editing is haphazard and nonsensical, with characters simply appearing on-screen as needed.  The deaths Light arranges, especially at first, are gruesome and graphic just for its own sake.  Whoever pieced together the pop-filled soundtrack deserves to be shot in the kneecaps.  The worst offender in that last regard is the track that provides the down beat for the film’s climax, a narratively and technically garbled mess that hinges on a gob-smackingly stupid error of judgment by Light, and is set atop a collapsing Ferris wheel (because, you know, nothing says Death Note like THEME PARK RIDES).  That particular scene was so egregious to everything I hold dear as a lover of good storytelling, it’s one of the only times in my life a movie has left me well and truly speechless. 

            Much of the fire thrown at this movie has centered on its whitewashing of a Japanese story by supplanting nearly every character with a white actor.  The only character that remains Japanese is Watari, and even that’s ruined by his treatment being more than a little racist; of COURSE Watari is his real (and ONLY) name, because those silly Japanese don’t have last names, amiright?  And while all those criticisms are justified, what frustrates me the most is that making the characters American didn’t NEED to be a problem; there are a lot of ways Death Note (or at least a similar concept) could be set in White America and work just fine.  Even the idea of having a white Light and a black L (the only non-white cast member outside of Watari) is actually kind of interesting all on its own; it could easily function as solid social commentary by flipping around real-world dynamics of racial inequality before the law, if you’re creative enough.  Sadly, the people making this movie weren’t, and aren’t, and likely will never be. 

            As bad as all of the above is, the way L is treated is probably the biggest sore point for me.  The guy they cast to play him (Lakeith Stanfield) was one of the few good casting choices in the entire film; at first, he puts on a different, but still interesting, performance, and more or less gets L’s mannerisms down well while still putting his own spin on the character.  But halfway through, some bumhole throws a switch off-screen, and when he reappears, L has turned into a different person entirely.  Gone is the crime-fighting mastermind, and in his place we’re stuck with a frantic, impulsive, bumbling moron who couldn’t solve his way out of the back of an open van.   

            Amazingly, this exact same problem plagues the one other really good casting decision the filmmakers made.  Willem Dafoe as Ryuk is absolutely an inspired choice- his voice is PERFECT for the character- and I dearly wish there were a better live-action Death Note film with him in it.  Sadly, there is not, and here again, while the performance and the voice fit like a glove, the screenplay misses the boat entirely on what his character was supposed to be. 

            Part of the whole point of the original story was that everything that happens comes about only because Ryuk was bored and wanted to play around with some silly humans to kill time.  There was no grand destiny, no greater spiritual or metaphysical purpose to what Light did- he just happened to find the Note by accident, used it until he got in over his head, and then Ryuk heads back to the Shinigami world to shoot craps with his pals, rinse, wash, repeat.  Light came up with the idea of creating a new world on his own to soothe his addled ego, and the identity and concept of Kira was later given to him by cult followers on the internet.  Meanwhile, Ryuk just stood in the background, eating apples and yucking it up. 

            Here, Ryuk shows up and mumbles some gobbledygook about it being his JOB to find human owners for the Note (wait, huh?), then proceeds to use his Force powers (oh yes, didn’t you know? Ryuk has effing FORCE POWERS) to directly push Light to become Kira and create scenarios where he’s forced to use the Note in increasingly slapdash ways.  That the filmmakers managed to so utterly sour the only two good decisions they chanced upon in the exact same way tellingly reveals that pretty much no one involved in this project bothered to actually try and understand what made the original Death Note so great, and why it continues to hold up today. 

            Christ almighty, I’m onto my third page typing this, and I still haven’t gotten to the mandatory love interest.  Right away, this character should have scored easy points with me for NOT being Misa Amane, one of my most loathed characters in any medium, but somehow- my God, SOMEHOW- she ends up even more useless and badly written.  Both her attraction to Light (we get exactly ONE GLANCE to establish her crushing on him before they start boning) and her insatiable bloodlust for using the Note are without purpose or reason.  She and Ryuk are basically there just to play Shoulder Angel/Shoulder Devil with Light, except that they’re both devils, and they both can’t be bothered to explain why.  Because reasons are for suckers, y’all. 

            This movie is a complete and total failure as both an adaptation of a great story and as a stand-alone movie.  It’s too sloppily-made and convoluted in its narrative to make a lick of sense to anyone not already a fan, and if you ARE already a fan you have even less reason to watch it, because truly, only fury and pain awaits you.  Yes, it’s only on Netflix and is therefore *technically* free to watch, but it’s not even worth the click in the Netflix database.  Don’t make them think people want more of this, because believe me, none of us do. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Get Out

            I had originally planned something much different for this month.  With the continued threats to Obamacare, I thought of looking at some movies about the rise of AIDS in the 80’s and the atrocious apathy the Reagan administration showed towards the crisis, something along the lines of Angels in America.  There are also a couple of really excellent recent documentaries out about climate change (no, not the one you’re thinking of), which will not cease to be a critical issue anytime soon.  And after doing Selma and 13th so close to another, I wanted to briefly move away from racial issues for at least a little while. 

            However, while the other movies I considered will all eventually have their time of day in this column, sometimes events overtake the best-laid plans, and must be faced accordingly.  After the terrible events of Charlottesville, including the murder of Heather Heyer and the absolutely revolting spectacle of a sitting US President playing the “many sides” game, this is one such time.  As such, in this month’s installment of Films for the Trump Years, I am featuring Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut and (so far) one of the year’s best films. 

            There’s a particular reason I chose to go with Get Out over other, seemingly more obvious choices when selecting a movie that tackles race; watching it is actually a hard, challenging experience for modern, white audiences.  Historical dramas like 12 Years A Slave or Hidden Figures, while culturally essential, are easy picks because they depict specific and particularly grievous examples of racism in the past.  The resulting space of time enables the modern viewer to form a sense of distance between oneself and what they are witnessing; “Yeah, that’s so awful, but thankfully it’s in the past, so I have nothing to do with it.” 

            The exact same problem of easy separation applies to non-historical movies dealing with white nationalism/supremacism in its most direct and explicit forms, ala American History X or Green Room.  Here again, it’s easy for 99% of white people to put such overt ignorance and violent hatred at arm’s length, scoring (in their own minds, at least) easy brownie points for saying that what the characters spew is clearly all wrong, and they certainly aren’t like that; they know what’s in their hearts. 

            Get Out is different.  Get Out doesn’t allow its white viewers to form such a distance, which makes it all the harder- and thus, more necessary- to experience.  

            In case you haven’t yet heard of it, Get Out is a horror movie about a black man about to meet his white girlfriend’s parents and their neighbors for the very first time, and feeling nervous about how things will go down.  While his more normal worries prove entirely correct over the course of the super-awkward garden party the parents throw the day after they arrive, it soon becomes clear something far more sinister is going on.  He can’t tell what it is at first, but once he finally does start to put the pieces together, he realizes he may already be too late. 

            Its qualities as a horror film aside, what makes Get Out so different (and important) in how it tackles race is where Peele chose to set the story; right smack-dab in the middle of upper-class, secular, “progressive” white suburbia.  No Deliverance-esque country backwater.  No super-conservative Christian community.  The white folks aren’t the Ed Norton gang from American History X.  No swastikas or Confederate symbols are to be seen.  They’re well-educated, well-to-do people proud to declare their love of Obama, Jesse Owens, and Louis Armstrong, and readily assure the main character how much they respect “his” people and culture.  And yet they, too, objectify the black body according to their own prejudices and biases, in ways ranging from the benignly silly to the actively destructive (how, exactly, I wouldn’t spoil for the life of me). 

            This simple fact is the key to the brilliance of Get Out as a piece of racial commentary, making it especially poignant and powerful in the wake of tragic events like Charlottesville.  The hatefulness and ugliness of white supremacist ideologies, and the forms of terrorism they encourage, must be called out, refuted, and denied the space to harm others as much as possible.  This is not to be debated, discussed, or watered down with morally bankrupt phrases like “both sides.” 

            But that alone is not enough, because in the end, the perpetuation of racial inequality in all its forms does not happen because “all” or “most” white people explicitly buy into such ideas.  It happens through the inability of self-professed “good,” or “woke,” or “enlightened,” or “progressive” whites to do the hard work of grappling with the huge racial legacy their very lives and cultural identities are built upon, of looking at themselves in the mirror and coming to terms with the ways in which they are every bit as complicit as the KKK in allowing and enabling the continuance of America’s political, economic, social, and cultural divides between whites and everyone else. 

            Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”  Get Out deliberately sharpens its blades to a razor edge before aiming them right at the hearts of those of good will still suffering under the delusions of their shallow understanding, and then proceeding to drive them home without letup. 

            There are, of course, far more reasons to see Get Out movie that just for the social commentary.  It is a masterfully crafted film, one of 2017’s best, filled out by a top-notch cast, impeccably shot, and is likely to become a huge game-changer within the horror genre.  I especially recommend checking out these lists detailing the astoundingly careful thought that went into every detail of the film.  It deserves to be seen and appreciated by all on its merits as a great film alone, and if we were living in better times, Get Out would be just that; a superb movie and nothing more. 

            Sadly, we aren’t living in better times, and as such Get Out is not just a great film; it also provides an essential service to our continuing collective efforts to reckon with the racial sins of our past, and how our refusal to do so continues to actively shape our present, whether or not we choose to acknowledge that fact. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017): Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cilian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.  Running Time: 106 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

**minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow**

            After his dalliance in the realm of sci-fi with his last film, the much-maligned Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has returned to far more grounded fare (both literally and figuratively) with Dunkirk.  The title refers to the successful evacuation of most of the British army after it was pinned down on Dunkirk beach in early 1940, at a time in World War II when Hitler’s armies were enjoying near-perfect success running across most of Western Europe.  It was immediately lionized by the British propaganda machine as a shining example of British virtue, and Churchill’s address to the British Parliament in the wake of the evacuation remains one of the most well-known and inspired bits of speechmaking in human history. 

            Christopher Nolan has been criticized for a lot of things in the past, including being too white-and-male heavy in his movies, dragging out scenes that make his films feel longer than they are, and relying on heady, pseudo-philosophical monologues by lead characters to convey the ideas or messages in his films.  But while the white-maleness is still here in abundance (and is a knock against the film), he works at a far more concise and economical clip than he usually does; Dunkirk comes in just under two hours, but it’s all so packed that every part hits just the right notes before moving on.  It’s also largely void of dialogue, especially in key action scenes, focusing on the sights and sounds of war and how masses of people instinctively react when their lives are all on the line.  The end result is one of the most technically impressive cinematic experiences of the year, and easily ranks alongside Inception and The Dark Knight as one of the finest works of Nolan’s career. 

            It should be said upfront that this is not a historical procedural meant to provide an accurate understanding of how the actual events at Dunkirk played out.  The familiar historical event ends up being nothing more than backdrop for Nolan to dig into the visceral, minute-to-minute experiences of trying to survive in war zone, and given what we know about PTSD and trauma and how it distorts one’s perception of time, taking this approach makes this the perfect fertile ground for Nolan’s twin obsessions with time and memory, and how the two can be changed or manipulated in our minds. 

            Loosely split into three parts, we simultaneously follow a handful of privates on the beach itself over the course of a week, a day-long trip to and from the beach by a private citizen and his sons to help in the rescue effort, and an hour-long flight to the fighting zone by RAF pilots assigned to fight off Luftwaffe bombers.  Though each segment of the movie occupies a wholly different space of time, the film constantly cuts from one timeline to the next, jumping from day in the cockpit to night on the beach after a sub attack, and then back again.  It’s probably best to arm yourself with this knowledge beforehand, not because the film does a poor job of piecing together the disparate parts (the three timelines eventually do converge in the final rescue sequence), but simply because, that way, you can get more out of the experience and better appreciate the artistry from the very beginning. 

            Given that another longstanding criticism of Nolan has been his inability to really grasp human emotions in his characters and dialogue, the lack of talking for much of the running time ends up being a major strength as well.  Nolan has a masterful list of actors he draws on for each of his films, and his regulars Tom Hardy and Cilian Murphy (plus newcomers like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Fionn Whitehead) are exactly the sort of performers who know how to deliver character and presence in a scene whether or not you give them anything to say. 

            This film has already been considerably lauded for its technical prowess as a big-budget, procedural war drama, and in this realm alone the film’s credentials are damn near impeachable.  I expect this movie to rake in technical accolades come awards season, and the fact that this is a World War II movie also has me betting that Nolan just might finally get his long-awaited Best Director nomination. 

            Not that the film is above some common Nolan criticisms; while the all-maleness of the film’s cast is not so out of place given the historical setting, there has been blowback about its whiteness.  Not only are all the speaking roles given over to white men, the only non-white actors even glimpsed are a handful of French African soldiers in an early scene.  In particular, a number of people have called out the absence of regiments of Indian soldiers who were, in fact, present on the beaches and took part in the evacuation.  There is also a particular part of Churchill’s famous speech (included in the movie) that is often glossed over in internet memes, a part where he insists that if the British Isles were to fall to Germany, Britain’s Imperial colonies around the world would “carry on the struggle” to liberate them.  It sounds wonderful within the context of the speech (like I said, it IS inspired speechwriting), but whether or not the many populations and peoples forcefully subjugated by the British crown would in reality have so willingly laid down their lives under such circumstances is something very much up to debate, especially if they can’t be graced with a presence said Imperial power’s war movies. 

            Dunkirk certainly does give the impression at times of being a lionizing portrait of British courage and of the nobleness of its Empire, notwithstanding Nolan’s protestations that the film is apolitical.  The music, swelling as the boats of patriotic private citizens appear on the horizon.  A lone soldier, lying on his back and defiantly firing his rifle in the air at an incoming German plane before being blown to bits.  A burning Spitfire framed by a setting sun.  Tom Hardy.  Just Tom Hardy. 

            All of this is there, but as I watched this film a second time, I couldn’t help but feel that it was undercutting the supposed glorification of these moments in interesting ways.  This is most noticeable amongst the privates trapped on the beach.  Although they are celebrated and lauded when they return home, we know exactly how desperate petty, selfish, and even downright savage they were when caught up in the machines of death.  Throughout the film, selfishness, fear, and anger amongst the British are often shown to be just as deadly or dangerous as German bombs.  A while after we see that one soldier firing his rifle at the planes, another soldier insists that the civilians coming in with their boats have no business being there because “they don’t even have any guns.”  To which Mark Rylance rather pointedly asks the soldier if his rifle did him any good against the U-boat that sank his ship. 

            Even the direct quotation of Churchill’s speech at the end, with all its soaring rhetoric, is read, not with joy or bombast, but in the exhausted monotone of a shell-shocked soldier.  He is interrupted by a fellow soldier whose not even paying attention, and when he’s done, after the camera has cut to black after the swelling-music-shot that would usually end this sort of film, we suddenly return to that soldier sitting in the train.  He’s finished Churchill’s speech, glances up with a blank look in his eyes, then drops his head once more and turns the page. 

            That particular ending, more than anything else, has stuck with me, the same way that the final shot of Inception stuck with me.  This is an excellent movie, one of the best of 2017 to date, but I can’t shake the feeling that many people both lauding and criticizing the film are missing some of its larger reflections on just how brutally unnecessary all this violence is, love of country or no.  Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, Nolan has once again delivered a remarkable and memorable experience that absolutely deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and then dissected to death afterwards. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver (2017): Written and directed by Edgar Wright.  Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal.  Running Time: 113 minutes.

Rating: 4/4

            Edgar Wright has proven himself time and time again to be a master of taking even the most mundane things- winding a camera, pouring a beer, walking through the rain, stacking dollars bills- and turning them into audiovisual punchlines.  His attention to minute detail, particularly his nigh-inhuman instinct for using sound effects, marks each of the films he’s made so far, making all of them unique cinematic treats in their own right.  Baby Driver, his first feature-length film since he concluded the Cornetto Trilogy with The World’s End, is no exception, reveling in all the wizardry we’ve come to expect from the man.  It is a masterpiece of technical filmmaking elevated by a pitch-perfect cast, a spot-on grasp of the genres it draws from, and a mixed soundtrack that outstrips those of both Guardians of the Galaxy films combined. 

            Baby (yes, that is his name, or at least so he claims) is a master of all things driving; think Ryan Gosling in Drive, but several orders of magnitude better.  He’s also an obsessive music lover, which is useful for him, because he’s suffered from tinnitus since his childhood, and the unending tunes in his ears helps him drown out the ringing.  As a child, he made the mistake of stealing the car of Doc, a legendary planner of bank heists, and as a young adult is still working off his resulting debt by being Doc’s go-to driver for each of his increasingly elaborate plans.  Now, though, he has just a few more jobs to suffer through for the crooks he spends way too much time with before he can make off with his last share and finally start a clean life. 

            As with all movies of this sort, of course, Baby has drastically underestimated how hard it is to shake off years of crime.  No matter how hard he tries, Doc just keeps pulling him back in.  At the same time, his budding romance with a waitress at his favorite diner (herself a massive music buff) makes the stakes even higher for him by giving him, for the first time, something he actually fears losing.  Not that there’s anything complicated to expect plot-wise.  The story is fairly barebones, so some of the twists might prove easy to call, but that’s hardly the point.  These are the sorts of movies where the journey is the only destination that matters, where simply experiencing the uniqueness of the film’s aesthetic and feel is all you need to leave the theater feeling happy and satisfied. 

            While the car chases and firefights are gripping and expertly shot, and manage to hold their own in a year brimming with amazing action movies (no easy feat), it’s clear the bulk of the creative efforts of Wright’s team went towards cultivating the soundtrack and shaping much of the filming and editing around it.  Either Baby knows his routines so well he’s sorted out the perfect tracks for every part of his day, or maybe this is simply one of those worlds where car sounds, city noise, and even gunfire all synch up of their own accord with the base line of whatever is playing on the closest radio.  Even the ringing in Baby’s ears plays a role of its own in moments where the music cuts out (or its source is destroyed by an antagonist). 

            The casting is top-notch as well- Ansel Elgort does an amazing balancing act as Baby, carrying the sort of quiet, reserved role that could either be too boring and fade into the tapestry, or one too oddball to be taken seriously (I do not lightly compare his character to the lead of Drive).  Kevin Spacey as Doc is in perfect House of Cards mode as the villain mastermind with more to him you might expect, and out of the assorted societal castoffs dregged up for each heist, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are particularly good at stealing the limelight whenever they are in a scene. 

            Put simply, this film is a joy to experience from start to finish.  A caution for Edgar Wright fanboys though- it’s not an out-and-out comedy, which might throw off those expecting the launch of a genre-bending new Trilogy.  There are funny moments aplenty, but this is a movie more focused on making you say “Wow, COOOOL!” than making you roll on the floor.  In a strange way, though, that makes it easier to note and appreciate the artistic skill at work in using every frame and splash of sound to fill out and complete a whole world and gang of characters in less than two hours.  This is the sort of film that most filmmakers are only capable of piecing together once in their lifetimes, if at all, and Edgar Wright has now made five of them.  He’s one of the best filmmakers in the game right now, and it might be a bit until we are treated to his next work, so see this one as soon as you can, and experience the glory that is Baby Driver

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: 13th

            There is a lot going on again in the news, including the GOP’s shameless efforts to deny health care to the poorest among us, internet privacy and net neutrality, the ongoing investigations into Trump’s Russia contacts, and the growing nuclear threat from North Korea (to name JUST a few), but this month I want to focus on one aspect of the Trump administration’s effect on society that might be slipping under some people’s radar; his executive return, through Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to the language and tactics of federal drug wars of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. 

            For decades, being “tough on crime” and finding creative ways to use mandatory minimum sentencing and other punitive measures to expand our nation’s jails became a political cottage industry all its own.  Since the 70’s, this has caused such a spike in our prison population that the United States now has the highest incarceration rate, as well as the highest raw numbers of incarcerated citizens, anywhere in the world.  The effects of this have been particularly concentrated within African-American neighborhoods, devastating minority communities in every corner of the country. 

            At long last, though, towards the end of the Obama administration, we finally had some grounds for hope that this was changing.  Amidst increasing partisan rancor, one of the few areas of common agreement was a growing realization across the aisle that our War on Drugs and the push for mass incarceration had been a terrible mistake.  De-criminalization of drugs like marijuana has been spreading state-by-state, Hillary Clinton’s past use of the term “superpredator” came back to haunt her during the primaries, and for a little while it looked like Congress might actually act to reduce or roll back harsh sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder used the levers of the federal government to push prosecutors towards using more reasonable discretion in sentencing, and the last months of Obama’s term in office included a flurry of Presidential pardons for people convicted of low-level offenses. 

            As far as federal policy is concerned, this has all been tossed out the window completely since Donald Trump took office and installed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sessions has already started rolling back federal investigations into civil rights violations (including, but not limited to, those committed by police departments), encouraged more widespread abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws, pushed prosecutors to return to seeking the harshest-possible sentences for low-level offenders, and lavished praise on old drug-prevention programs like D.A.R.E despite literally decades of evidence that they did nothing to prevent drug use among children, and in some cases may have even made things worse.

            This is to say nothing of Trump’s most-most-recent horrifying speech, where he urged police officers to be even more violent when arresting suspects.  Even if the current public spat between Trump and Sessions does eventually result in Sessions leaving or being fired, it is overwhelmingly likely that whoever else fills the Attorney General role will be of the same mold, since this particularly cruel brand of “tough on crime” populism was one of the core features of Trump’s campaign.  No matter whose face heads it, as long as the GOP is in power, federal policy will continue to shift towards the racist and counterproductive crime policies of the Nixon and Reagan years. 

            The scope of this idiocy is breathtaking, the cynicism and hypocrisy mind-numbing, and the potential further destruction that could come down on African-American communities as a result of all this is sickening.  There is already a lot happening, enough to make it hard for most to keep up, and the centuries of complex and emotionally charged history behind all this is a particularly dense topic that can be hard to parse through, especially since our culture bitterly fights any effort to recognize the racism inherent in our society today.  

            Thankfully, Ava DuVernay (yes, that Ava DuVernay) proved herself more than equal to this weighty task with her follow-up to Selma, the Netflix documentary special 13th, which came out last year and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.  Beginning with the titular 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which officially banned slavery throughout the country, she neatly draws us through how a tiny loophole in the original language allowed the eventual establishment of new forms slavery by criminalizing the very idea of blackness within our culture, and what effect that has had on current generations of minorities struggling to keep their hard-earned place in the sun.  DuVernay powerfully uses the visual medium of film to collect and present all this, including a brutal montage combining scenes from Trump rallies in 2016 with attacks on Civil Rights marchers in the 50’s and 60’s.  It is a visceral punch to the gut; it ranks as one of the best bits of historical filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and it was the primary (but not the only) reason I named this movie my Film of the Year for 2016

             Not that you should stop at just watching this movie; there is a bevy of excellent work out there, both artistic and scholarly, that tackle things like the myths of superpredators, the explicitly racist (and partisan) origins of the War on Drugs, and the current financial underpinnings of this sick subset of our economy, and all of them are worth your time.  This movie should merely be seen as a jumping-off point, as it clearly lays out the history behind all this while also pointing out some of the many ways we can push back and alter this system  going forward (provided, of course, we can find the collective will to do so). 

            It’s just one of many areas where history is rapidly catching up to us, but through movies like this we can quickly bring ourselves up to speed and do our best to not be blindsided by what comes next. 

            Stay strong, and keep fighting, my friends. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Nippon Review: Dynamite Wolf (Ossan No Kefei)

Ossan No Kefei (Dynamite Wolf): Written by Natsu Hashimoto, directed by Kohei Taniguchi.  Starring: Yota Kawase, Yusuke Matsuda, Haruto Kobayashi, Susumu Noda, Shiruya Jinbo.  Running Time: 71 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Dynamite Wolf follows the time-honored formula for a coming-of-age story revolving around a sport; establish the lonely, oddball nature of the main character and his small coterie of friends, have them discover through happenstance an entire sports universe previously unknown to them, arrange them to meet an older mentor-figure who himself is struggling for professional redemption, and watch their friendship bloom despite being deeply misunderstood by society.  Throw in a classmate bully who could (maybe) have a change of heart by the end, frustrated background parents, and a subplot involving authority figures at the school, and you have all the elements you need for a heartwarming tale of a boy finding his own little niche in the world. 

            Hiroto and his friends are all struggling over a simple questionnaire from the school asking all students to name their talent and to demonstrate it to the class.  Bereft of an answer, they spent their free time skipping stones into the river, until they notice a strange man on the other side who always spends his afternoons wrestling with a blow-up doll.  Intrigued, Hiroto follows hum and soon discovers a local underground wrestling scene, where the leading champion is one Dynamite Wolf, a mysterious figure whose real identity is unknown.  Hiroto becomes convinced that this lonely man by the river is THE Dynamite Wolf, and persuades him to teach him and his friends the art of professional wrestling, deciding that, at last, he’s found his talent. 

            There are a few twists the story takes from there, but while they are fairly predictable I won’t disrespect the film by spoiling them here.  This is a movie that follows its formula to a T, but does it so well that it really doesn’t matter in the end; this is a well-made, well-acted, fun, funny little film that hits all the notes it needs to, and doesn’t break itself trying to do more.  Hiroto and his pals have great chemistry together, and I was grateful the story never tried to toss an extra loop into the ring where they turn on each other over some silly misunderstanding; they know they can count on each other, even when they get on each other’s nerves. 

            Like with any solid movie, this film takes a world alien to my own experience (in this case, professional masked wrestling) and allows me to catch a glimpse of how someone can get so into it.  The filmmakers sought to shoot everything from the perspective of a child, and the best moments of the film succeed wildly in this regard, especially the first time Hiroto ever walks into a ring and sees a professional match for the first time.  It doesn’t reach spectacular visual storytelling heights, but it doesn’t need to.  It’s a small film that knows what it wants to do, goes out, and does it.  And that’s more than enough. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Nippon Review: Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48

Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48:  Directed by Atsushi Funahashi.  Produced by Documentary Japan.  Running Time: 121 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Amongst the many bits of Japanese culture that come across to a Westerner as particularly strange, few are as befuddling to someone like myself as the obsession with Japanese female pop idols and the supergroups they form.  Known mostly for relentlessly upbeat, schmaltzy songs with utterly nonsense lyrics, the contradictions and exploitations within this particular cultural industry have been debated in Japan for some time, but are still largely invisible to anyone not particularly interested in Japanese culture.  For such people, Raise Your Arms and Twist! provides an intriguing glimpse into a world I, and many others, neither know nor comprehend. 

            From what I gather, there are a number of these supergroups based in the city in which they were formed.  This film focuses on one in particular, NMB48, based in Osaka (the “48” refers to the number of girls officially part of the group).  We are taken behind the scenes to see the relentless work routines of the girls who form this group, most of whom are still just teenagers when they join.  We learn how the group was formed, that it has something of an underdog status compared to more established acts like AKB48 or HKT48, and we follow the routines of some of the head singers/dancers in the group, each one with their particular goals, desires, and reasons for becoming an idol in the first place. 

            And boy, are these routines exhausting.  There are near-daily live shows in smaller groups for select fans, unending rehearsals for the next performance, preparations for the major singles and music videos, conventions, and more, on top of their normal studies, since nearly all of them are still in school.  Much like the manga industry, it’s a massive factory system meant to churn out hits and produce silly amounts of cash, and people caught up in it are easily consumed by it. 

            This is every bit as true for the fans as it is for the idols themselves.  The biggest demographic for this particular type of pop idol are middle-aged, single men.  From a purely financial point, it makes sense to market to them- they have the means to buy CD after CD and pay premium prices for daily live shows.  They also have the time and cash to afford to come to handshake events, one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard of, where they literally get 30 seconds to shake their favorite idol’s hand until security steps in and forces them away (and they WILL force you away if you dally).  Following some of the more passionate fans and learning about them in parallel to the idols is funny, tragic, and a bit unnerving, all at once.   

            Arguably the biggest problem within the industry this creates is the secularization and objectification of these girls, which influences their lives in insane ways.  One such way rears its head in a scene where an older dancer, upset at having been stuck in the back for years, is finally presenting by the manager with the real reason they’ve been holding her back.  It’s one of the most irritatingly unfair, teeth-gnashing moments I’ve experienced in the theater this year so far. 

            Although the director of the film insisted he tried to maintain objectivity in presenting this subject matter, his distaste for the entire industry is clear throughout the film.  And yet, even with all the cinematic cards stacked against it, I still found myself drawn to it all more than I ever thought possible.  It is, on the one hand, horrifying to see how these girls are exploited, objectified, and used to turn a massive corporate profit.  But on the other hand, when you see the sheer energy, scale, and effort that go into every performance, I also found myself being able to understand why people can get into this.  It is impressive to see their shows.  Their energy is infectious if you’re in the right mindset.  As much as I could never envision supporting this sort of thing, I also found myself growing more and more emotionally invested in the stories of the individual girls interviewed, wanting to know more about what happened to them and where they are now. 

            There are not much in the way of new revelations for anyone already familiar with the broad strokes of the pop idol industry and its many demons, and some efforts at philosophical and artistic reflection on the film’s part often don’t jive with the rest of the movie, but this is still a fascinating and earnest work that leaves all its cards on the table, and allowed me to feel I’d gained a bit more insight into a place strange to my mind.  Which is, in the end, the whole purpose of documentary filmmaking. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Nippon Review: Eriko, Pretended (Mie O Haru)

Mie O Haru (Eriko, Pretended): Written and directed by Akiyo Fujimura.  Starring: Haruka Kubo, Atsuya Okada, Miki Nitori, Hiromi Shinju, and Mayumi.  Running Time: 93 minutes. 

Rating: 2/4

            Eriko, Pretended, the debut feature film of Akiyo Fujimura, centers around the curious job of being a mourner-for-hire, someone sought out by the deceased beforehand to fill out the seats at their funeral and ensure that people cry properly to help them pass into the next world.  Some of you may read that and initially assume it’s just another one of those weird Japanese things, but seat- and-crown filling is actually a tried and true ego-stroking measure across the globe, so hold back on the stereotypes there, pal. 

            The film brings us into this interesting field through the story of Eriko, your standard young adult protagonist in a deep personal crisis, with no passion or interest or idea in where she should go next.  She’s jolted out of her reveries when she hears her sister died in an accident, and she finds herself back in the country dealing with relatives she can barely stand, and trying to take care of a nephew she barely knows.  Intrigued by an old, local mourner-for-hire who seems to be able to make whole rooms cry at will, she decides to cast the die and see if this field of work is for her. 

            It’s a gentle, touchingly made film, but a bit underwhelming; the concept may have worked better as a short film, as the stretches to fill time are very noticeable in spots.  This is not a knock on the director, though, since that is a difficulty every filmmakers encounters at first.  Fujimura is able to bring a lot of her actors with fairly little; the two best shots in the film center on Eriko’s face as her emotions build up and up and up, and finally bubble over the surface.  It’s a role that effectively carries the feel of someone in deep personal crisis. 

            There are moments that bring much-needed levity to the proceedings- an audition interrupted by a request to perform an old beer commercial, and a hilarious scene where Eriko competes against rival mourners going way over the top- but unfortunately they are few and far between.  This is a film that could have benefited greatly from a more energetic tone, given it’s fairly quiet matter.  It is a unique and fascinating choice for a first film though, and I am very much interested in seeing what Fujimura decides to do next. 

-Noah Franc 

Nippon Review: Mr. Long

Mr. Long: Written and directed by Sabu.  Starring: Chen Chang, Runyin Bai, Yiti Yao, Sho Aoyagi, Masashi Arifuku.  Running Time: 128 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Perhaps the best way I could describe the character of Mr. Long is this; imagine if John Wick were Taiwanese, and could cook?  I know, it sounds a bit trite already to compare unstoppable hitmen characters to one of the best original action figures of the 2010s, but it really does fit here.  Mr. Long is impossibly good at what he does, stoic and cold in his bearing, and seemingly occupies a niche place within a dark, desperate world.   

            Mr. Long is sent out of his native Taiwan for a hit in Tokyo, which goes terribly wrong, but through a series of coincidences that only later become clear, he’s able to escape (barely).  He finds his way to what appears to be a shantytown of sorts, where the child of a smack-addicted Taiwanese woman finds him, brings him food and clothes, and eventually befriends him.  Mr. Long expects to merely have a few days to gather cash for a smuggling trip back to Taiwan, but he’s soon swept up in the fervent daydreams of a coterie of older Japanese living nearby; after learning just how good a cook Mr. Long is, they decide that he obviously must open a noodle stand near the temple, and plan everything out with nary a word from him. 

            What starts out as a graphic gangster film then turns into screwball comedy, as the silent, stoic, and (seemingly) emotionless Mr. Long finds himself dragged inexorably into the daily lives of the child that saved him, his troubled mother, and these hilariously pushy, borderline exploitative (scratch that- extremely exploitative) neighbors.  This is exacerbated by the fact that he can’t actually speak Japanese, and so mostly has no idea what these people around him are babbling about.   

            The film is anchored by a riveting performance by its lead actor.  For all his stern silence, he conveys worlds with every hardened glance at the world around him.  This is clearly someone who, long ago, learned of all the harshness of life, and can never be intimidated by it again.  This tough outer shell of his only cracks twice throughout the entire film, but boy, when it finally does happen, it is a genuine sock in the gut.     

            As chipper as the old folks are, though, and as adorable as the kid is, lives of gangster violence and drug addiction invariably create pasts that can never be fully left behind.  Pressed by Mr. Long’s forceful personality, the kid’s mother starts to pull herself into sobriety, only to be challenged at a crucial moment later on, and it’s in diving back into her story that the film inevitably returns to its dark origins.  This is a movie that goes unflinchingly into some hard territory, including severe drug addiction, depression, and suicide, and the mother’s powerhouse performance anchors those parts of the film that leave Mr. Long himself in the background for a time.  Her fate ends up being tied back into how the film started, and how Mr. Long was saved in the first place, but going beyond that would constitute major spoilers, and this is a film well-worth experiencing on your own. 

            Winding through all this at the same time that retired do-gooders are obsessing over a bowl of ramen involves quite a lot of emotional cork-screwing, the sort that most directors can only dream of pulling off, but Sabu works wonders here.  All the stresses, worries, and pressures finally build up to a climactic action scene that is absolute dynamite, one of the best scenes of hand-to-hand combat in a year already jam-packed with fantastic action.  From start to finish, Mr. Long is a trip, a remarkable experience that, in its best moments, is among the finest examples of genre-bending filmmaking to come out this year. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Nippon Review: Death Note – Light up the NEW World

Death Note – Light up the NEW World: Written by Katsunari Mano, directed by Shinsuke Sato.  Starring: Masahiro Higashide, Sosuke Ikematsu, Masaki Suda, Mina Fujii, Rina Kawaei.  Running Time: 135 minutes.  Inspired by the original manga by Tsugumi Oba. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            I still consider the original manga and anime of Death Note, written by Tsugumi Oba to be a bona-fide literary and animated masterpiece of storytelling, character design, atmospheric pacing, and suspense.  At the very least it remains an unassailable part of the Japanese anime canon, required for viewing for anyone wishing to have at least one iota of cred on the convention floor.  Ever since that initial lightning bolt, a number of efforts have been made to recapture its success, including (most notably) a live-action Japanese film based on the original story and (most recently) a Netflix original series based on the same.  This movie (and I will refrain from repeating its absurdly long title) is a continuation of that trend, providing an “official” sequel to the events of the original live action film. 

            An introduction reveals that Ryuk was not a lone actor in sending Death Notes into the world; after Light died, the King of the Dead decreed that anyone who found a fitting successor to Light/Kira would follow him on the throne, resulting in a large number of Notes being deliberately sent to the Earth.  The police catch on to this pretty quickly, and a new task force is soon formed to track down, collect, and seal away the Notes to prevent another Kira from rising again.  This force is, for the most part, an entirely new set of characters.  Matsuda and Misa Amane (to my horror) return, but otherwise these are all new faces and names, including the requisite ‘L’ stand-in, a protégé of his named Ryuzaki, whose main gimmick is wearing a silly mask when out and about that I actually found rather fitting. 

            For a wholly an unnecessary sequel as this was, I must admit I enjoyed watching it a lot.  You can only get anything out of it if you know the source material, but it’s slickly-made and well-paced.  Unfortunately, it just can’t quite capture the palpable tension that made the original story so compelling to follow.  It is also undone by a largely lackluster second act after a first act that is pretty well-crafted.  The notion of an expanded number of Death Notes in the world, and the added rules to their usage that follows, is a great concept, as is spreading the action around the world a bit more (because why should Tokyo have all the fun?), but none of the characters end up being memorable enough to stick the landing. 

            Having Matsuda back was great, but he’s not in the film nearly enough, and while it was fun to see Ryuk cackling again, he’s much more directly involved in the action in a way that somewhat contradicts his strict neutrality from before, which was a core part of what made his character so fascinating to begin with.  Instead of the chess-game turns and reversals that marked the climaxes of the original story, the last sequences of the film are mostly shootouts with helicopters and SWAT teams, and a final twist connecting the main police detective and Kira is not nearly earned enough to have more than a rote, perfunctory impact. 

            Ultimately, this is a film that neither had a reason to exist to begin with, nor manages to create one for itself by the end by being good enough to stand on its own.  It is not a bad movie by any means- like I said, I did enjoy it a lot- but I can’t recommend it to either die-hard fans or anime agnostics.  Which, in the end, is a death sentence of sorts for this kind of film.  As usual, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. 

-Noah Franc