Your Name

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As a fan of Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away and the Toho production company, I enjoyed the animation in this film immensely. The film directed by Makoto Shinkai was a mash up of Freaky Friday, Memento and Vertigo and at times didn’t seem to make sense. But I had that expectation going in so it didn’t bother me. The film itself is the fourth highest-grossing of all time in Japan and the highest-grossing anime film worldwide at over 350 million.

Oddly, I felt the overtones of guilt and sadness as if the comet that we know will destroy a small seaside town was a nuclear bomb and the director/producer/writer feels bad they can not take everyone to shelter. The main characters in the film feel that way. Of course, I may be reading too much into it but that was a passing thought. And obviously, the movie did resonate and have a strong emotional impact on many viewers for a reason.

The film was quirky with one character constantly feeling him/her self up to good laughs. And just some non-sequitur situations and shots like why is the boy/girls underwear prominently seen in a bike riding scene? It’s a Japanese thing, you wouldn’t understand.

The film certainly had strong spiritual and humanistic dimensions, including a Cyrano de Bergerac subplot which I found to be refreshing. One of us here at the L & D fell asleep during the screening but since a lot of the action occurs during dreams I think the filmmakers wouldn’t mind too much. If you’re into Japan, anime or any type of animated film I highly recommend this film to you.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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As you know, the comic book / graphic novel genre is whoosh, right over my head. When I see these films, it’s like some kind of social experiment. Like, how confused can one person be if they walk right into the middle of a Hollywood tentpole franchise? Well Guardians 2, didn’t make me feel like that. Even if it was only days later when I figured out who Gamora is. …The raccoon, named Rocket and voiced by Bradley Cooper, keeps me scratching my head, except to think, the creators are super imaginative and/or must have the ickiest of the stickiest on heavy rotation in the bong.

I enjoyed the film as it did make plenty of homages to the 70s, including star Kurt Russell. Though it did give me a real desire to see Escape from New York again…almost to the point that I wished I was watching Escape from NY instead of Guardians Vol 2.

The film seemed to drag on sadly. And though the special effects of this 200 million dollar VFX masterpiece were inventive and of the highest caliber production value, the story itself seemed to be locked in a repetitious death spiral. The film could easily have been 30 minutes shorter.

Also, there was some serious plot strain / suspension of disbelief needed when it was reveled that Ego, Russell’s character, had killed the main protagonists’ mother. Isn’t it enough that he is an egomaniac hell bent on destroying life on several planets. It was a forced addition to the plot line that seemed over the top even in this universe. (When reviewing this genre I have to say “universe” at least once.)

Overall, I liked this film. It had spectacular camera work and special effects. The acting and voicing were all strong and the only ding I have is that it seemed repetitious story-wise in the final 30 minutes. I think sometimes directors or producers just fall in love with their work and there is no one there to simply say “No” to Stan Lee, when he needs to hear it. And yet, if you are a fan of this genre, I would strongly suspect that you would enjoy Guardians Vol 2.

The Lost City of Z

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I had a feeling that LCoZ would be a pretty good movie when I found out it was produced by Plan B. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s production company. Plan B has distinguished itself with academy awards for producing The Departed, 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight among other enlightening and entertaining works. LCoZ falls in that category, a film that on its face could be chalked up as just another adventure yarn instead pulls in the long arm of colonial mentality and history.

The story follows Col. Percy Fawcett, (Charlie Hunnam, who has an indisputable Pitt aura)  on his journeys in the Brazilian Amazon.

One aspect of the film that rings false is the relationship of the Col. Fawcett with his wife. It’s high minded to include a strong female character but in this case, it comes off as forced and doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test (did at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man). Nina Fawcett, played well by Sienna Miller, really doesn’t have that much to do. She is neither a foil, as she acquiesces to Percy and then their sons’ requests to leave nor an active participant in the search for the lost city, as Col Fawcett does not allow her to go. There is a lot of lip service paid to how heroic domestic life is but that just seems to reinforce how great it is to jet out of there and hit the jungle. And hit the jungle they do in this film. There is plenty of high stakes action, tribal and expeditionary drama and just sick scenery and cinematography by the great Darius Khondji, who also shot Seven.

The Lost City of Z is an epic tale that takes you from the bunkers of WWI to the most remote ares of the Amazon. If you are into adventure stories this one will satisfy you and leave you with a thing or two to think about in your own life. One of the lines in the film that really spoke to me, and I paraphrase, was “Keep your goals just out of reach so you will keep striving to achieve them.” I thought that in the end, LCoZ is a film that gives the audience something to think about and that alone deserves to be applauded.

Life

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Once again, like Collide, the sum of its parts does not make a movie whole. This film suffered with the casting of Ryan Reynolds, not because he didn’t steal the movie, which he did, but because again, you would rather be watching the Deadpool sequel (which is not out yet). This film tried to be Alien but the little bad guy, Calvin the Martian, was simply not all that. The alien in Alien had more horror packed in its pinky than all of Calvin’s ever shape shifting body. Actually Calvin had a lot of similarities to the heptapod aliens, Abbot and Costello, in Arrival, with his spongy physique and springy arms. Which leaves me to ask, what’s with all the cephalopod aliens all of a sudden? The visual effects designers must find them easy to create and animate. Though it is kind of a cool throwback to the legends of giant squids attacking old schooners out on the wild high seas.

I actually thought the acting was solid. Except for Jake Gyllenhaal who must think we won’t notice he just did Donnie Darko in space. The set design was well done, but nothing we have never seen before. Perhaps the Passengers set surpasses it.  Seamus McGarvey, a genius Cinematographer who has done everything from High Fidelity to The Accountant is outstanding as usual. For me this movie meets our $5 threshold just for that. But in general, nothing here is anything that you haven’t seen before or you can’t see coming a mile away. And I mean a mile away. It seemed to take forever to unravel. ACT III really should have been preceded by a pop-corn / hooch break.

I would say it was a totally forgettable film. Except that it wasn’t. There were some good acting moments that did elicit existential angst. The film was able to sustain tension well. D in fact, did jump a few times. We should quantify those reactions and start charting the “D Scale”.  Also, I was creeped out enough to start seeing Calvin in all sorts of places. Even the nose blowing emoji in my text message app. So that should count for something.

Logan

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If you want to see what Stranger Things would look like on a cocktail of meth and BGH then Logan is for you. Also, if you don’t mind or even relish, if that is possible, watching a giant forked hand go through about 10 skulls like a serving fork through and overly ripe cantaloupe — then again, this film was literally made just for you. As for the rest of us, Logan was really was a downward spiral but did have some redeeming qualities. The film did show some heart, some actual human emotion, at least more than the more recent films I have seen like Collide or John Wick 2. I think Marvel takes a lot of pride in their output and you can see that they tried in terms of production value. One big mistake here was tacking a Deadpool coming attraction to the beginning of the film. For the first 30 minutes you are left wondering how long until Deadpool comes out. And ultimately, I think Patrick Stewart is wasted in this roll, though again they try to give him screen time and something important to say. Apparently it will be his last time playing Professor Charles Xavier. I just never got used to his character. However, that may have to do more with me, since Superhero/Comic Book films are not my forte. I spend half of these films trying to get comfortable in “the universe” (I have learned to use this term since beginning to write about this genre) and wondering about the references I seem to be only half getting or totally missing.

It’s interesting how comic books, or in the case of John Wick, a video game, can become a movie. Or did the movie create the comic book or video game? And does it matter anymore? I remember a cheap paperback of a Dirty Harry movie. The book was written after the movie was a hit, as a way to cash in on it. You could tell after the first few pages. I was watching Linklater’s Waking Life on Netflix last night. It is a live action film, tweeked to have a comic book look. It really does have a unique feel. I don’t have any problem with all of this style and genre and format mashing but each work should take advantage of the unique values its particular medium. If I want to play a video game, I will do that. If I want to read a comic book, the same. All to say, once again, that Deadpool for example, got it right. There is a line to walk here and it should be respected. Notwithstanding, if you go in for the comic book genre, Logan is a must see.

Collide and John Wick Chapter 2 — Essay

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I am not the intended audience for these films. In fact, they demand a suspension of disbelief that only a child could allow. “Collide” could easily be renamed “Implausible”. Let’s consider human consciousness, it resides in the brain, right? But you can’t quite put your finger on it. It doesn’t reside in one exact part of your brain. You can’t take human consciousness, put in a bottle and then display it in a museum. In fact, human consciousness, like PTSD resides in every part of your body. My friend, the filmmaker Wynn Padula, just released his latest documentary, Resurface, about combat vets who take on surfing as a way to deal with PTSD. It’s an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Wynn did a Zoom session with the documentary film class I teach and told us about his experiences with the soldiers and how PTSD affects them. No one in Collide or John Wick ever had PTSD. They just get a few scratches, dust themselves off, elude a thousand rounds and keep going.

When Collide gathers together bona-fide actors like Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley to rehash successful performances, when it takes us on high speed chases on the autobahn and includes sexy, sexy, ladies. Well, isn’t that a recipe for success? Or is it, as it turns out, just a recipe for a Frankenstein monster of film. One with no consciousness and no heart. If it was that easy to stick together a hit film, then everyone would do it.

Now if you are going to be over the top with violence, totally blurring the line between first person shooter video game and movie — in a sense creating a first person shooter game where the player can eat pop-corn and never be killed or even wait to spawn again — you should at least have a sense of humor and some humanity about it. When John Wick enters the Continent Hotel after one of his many bloody firefights, he doesn’t even ask the concierge, who is in charge of his beloved dog, how the old fella is. Those seemingly benign moments are perfect opportunities to inject a little comedy, humanity and even sympathy for a protagonist whose exploits make them more and more robotic. And besides, the audience wants to know how the dog is doing! Don’t forget about us. We paid to watch this. Even if it was only $5 and with free pop-corn in the reclining La-Z-Boy red leather loungers of the Valley Grand Marcus Cinema. We. Still. Care.

I watched another film last night. It was at the Wildwood Film Festival here in Appleton, Wisco. The film is called Halfway and stars Quinton Aaron, who you might recall from “The Blind Side”, as an ex-con who ends up living with his extended family on a farm in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin.  Aaron’s portrayal of life on the outside was truly stirring and there were times in the drama when I got chills. Films like “Halfway” are the ones we should be watching and celebrating as a society. If I want to play a video game, or in the case of these films, watch someone else play a video game for me, I will go to gammer convention or head over to D’s house. I know he gets his video game on in the basement.

Finally, I would like to mention that I love action movies and even enjoy violent ones. “Shooter”, “Deadpool” (one of our combined top movies of last year) and even last years’ over the top Hardcore Henry were all films I really got into. And also, this is not a knock on Keanu Reeves who I worked with on a documentary called “Sunset Strip”. He was the nicest, coolest person, sincerely. He will probably start a foundation to help Hawaiian sea life, if he hasn’t already.   It’s just that if a film has no heart, I can’t get into it and it becomes a meaningless series of gore and cinematic mush. I am not the intended audience for these films.

Lion

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For anyone who has done any significant exploration into their genealogy, Lion is going to be a powerful experience. I watched the third act with a lump in my throat.

This film, whose simple story could easily be described in a line or two, to the point that you might consider not watching it, was actually layered and complex. The film is carried by a brilliant young actor Sunny Pawar (I haven’t seen such great acting by a child, in fact all the kids in Lion, since Beasts of No Nation in 2015) and also Dev Patel who is deservedly up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Lion has enormous heart. In this past year of weekly movie viewing, I have come to realize that it’s one of the single most important elements in a film. In current movies, technical capabilities are limitless and have generally been conquered via VFX and/or tons of cash. So for me, production value, though key, will not save a movie if the story is about let’s say two self-absorbed kids seeking fame at the cost of their own love. But in Lion, the story is one that, like Moonlight, centers around self-discovery. And this journey is absolutely necessary for the continued survival of the protagonist. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.

Lion made it right under the wire into my top 10 list for 2016 and I highly recommend it.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

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This Werner Herzog doc from 1997 was screened as part 3 of 4 in the series I am putting on at The 602 Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. I chose the film because I watched it in the theater, the Roxie in SF to be precise, when it first came out. One of the descriptions that remained with me for decades was the young Dieter Dengler, in his home town in the Black Forest of Germany, being bombed by American fighter planes. From his window, he and his brother could see clearly the face of the pilot in the aircraft. It was at this moment, that he knew he wanted to fly.

One of the cool things about screening a film with a wide range of people there is the discussion you can have afterward. In fact, people requested a Q and A because “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a heavy film, it is Herzog after all, and folks wanted to decompress —to use an aviation term. Our discussion revolved around psychology: Stockholm Syndrome (i.e. sympathizing with your enemy), PTSD (symptoms like hoarding for fear of starvation) and also truth in documentary. According to Herzog, some stories in Little Dieter are fabricated, like the scene in which Dieter talks about constantly opening and closing doors due to his time as POW. Does this change the certain facts of the story? That he was shot down during the Vietnam War over Laos and then reappeared on the other side of the country, his body ravaged and miraculously spotted by a reconnaissance pilot? No. Dieter’s account of the POW camp, his exact details and reconstruction seem unassailable. But in his own words, he was hallucinating. Ultimately, the point may not be that this or that event exactly occurred. Which is implied in the weight of the word “Documentary”. But that from the many accounts of those who survived to live to tell POW stories and stories from Europe in WWII for that matter, Dieter’s story is utterly believable if not 100 percent accurate. This pairing or Herzog and Dieter, who passed away in 2001 with full military honors and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, an epilogue to the film tells us, seems complimentary. They are both artists of the poetic and epic story and storytelling. Their point is to illustrate human struggle, suffering, striving, compassion and even humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In the end, I was happy I chose “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” as it sparked a personal and thought provoking group discussion. And I think that’s some of the best inspiration that Cinema can offer us.

Moonlight

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—SPOILERS —Moonlight is a highly stylized indie film that has reached great acclaim and is nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Writer/Director Barry Jenkins. It depicts the life of a person who knows he is gay and must contend with his own personal identity crisis under intense societal and family pressure. The film is told in three acts. It is as much the story of the main protagonist, Chiron, as his friend Kevin, the one person who seems to be in Chiron’s corner. Operative words, seems to be.

As I overheard someone say when we left the theater, it is a character driven story, not a plot driven story. Some people characterize films as either, or.  Though I think it’s an easy argument to make, it’s also an oversimplification. Within the three act structure and the passage of time chronologically, Moonlight certainly does have a plot and is driven by a traditional beginning, middle and end. However, the drama within the structure may surprise people. Even though there are drugs and violence spinning and threatening at all times at the periphery, the story is not so much about that but how all of that is interfering with Chiron’s growth and attempt to simply be himself. Chiron’s transformation in Act III is a powerful revelation and the denouement of the film is an intense, honest and moving portrayal of love and friendship. The film did remind me of a short Italian film I saw many moons ago but that stayed with me. That film portrays a child who is constantly bullied. He eats a lot of protein, works out, gets strong. In an alley, the bully is confronted by this seemingly new threat. But once the bully figures out that it’s the same kid he regularly beat up, he proceeds to do it again. Moonlight shares this intrigue on human psychology. What you see on the outside can mislead you about what a person is really like.

I think the film is different in that it deals with youth, gay issues and African-American issues in a sensitive way. As we noted, our last three films, “Live by Night”, “The Founder” and “Gold” were all about white guy protagonists out to conquer the world. Antithetically to those, Moonlight is a film about an African-American on a journey to discover himself.

REVIEW: The Founder

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Possible Spoilers Here – I have been letting this film sink in. And have had more than the typical quick convo with D after the movie. Its been a few days now and I have already recommended it to a few people. This is truly a great movie. Michael Keaton lands every single note in key. The film deals with so many things including psychology, incentive, behavior, marketing, real estate, Realpolitik, history and of course, burgers fries and milkshakes. Full disclosure, I went to Mikey D’s directly before and after I saw this film. I won’t get into deforestation for cattle raising or the Disneyfication of our culture here. Suffice it to say, a McDonald’s opened not so gracefully in the Vatican itself a few weeks ago. Sure the Bishops are denouncing but if you stay up late, who knows, you might see Francis himself sneak in there for some fries at midnight.

The film is about the hubris of a man. And as his empire grows his ethical choices sour. Most relevant, he decides to not be a man of his word following an important deal. He cuts corners on quality. He dumps his wife for no legitimate reason. He enacts revenge when it is not necessary. His business philosophy became, in short, not “Only the Paranoid Survive” but “Only the Ruthless Survive”.  Curiously, the lies he told himself became the reality that he became wealthy enough to own and tell others. His own myth maker. A good storyteller. …And posthumously, known as a great philanthropist due to the work of his third wife.

The spin is on, big time, with Ray Kroc. I actually thought he was the founder of McDonald’s. That’s all I ever knew. I had no idea that the “speedy system” belonged to two brother’s from California. That their original burger stand, called McDonald’s, was what Kroc took and transformed into the international behemoth, the good, bad and ugly thing some of us love to hate and some of us… don’t bother us, we are eating our Big Mac. The bottom line is that Ray Kroc envisioned a need, he knew this country would grow in all directions and he wanted there to be a church, Old Glory flying and a the Golden Arches in every town in America. And that you could get that same burger under the same lighting, for essentially the same price — anywhere. This truly horrifies some people, like the McDonald’s bothers when profit came before quality and exalted others, those travelers on lonely roads in the middle of nowhere or people hoping to get a franchise and make the promised land work for them. It’s an amazing and complex story that is well told here, honestly, with powdered milk and all, for you to chew on.