Thursday, April 19, 2018

Love, Simon (2018)

I can only describe it, assumedly, as being preternaturally complementary, mildly annoying, and a lethargic default when a really solid, critically-acclaimed, emotionally accurate teenage film is compared to the works of John Hughes. We've all seen it happen more than once and at first glance, it doesn't particularly seem to make sense. While of course it's easier, albeit less artistically nor personally fulfilling, to make a bad teen film, as opposed to a good one, and we suffered through an epoch of pretty juvenile, insufferable ones, typically relying on crude humor rather than crude truths, the good teen films we have received lately aren't exactly scant in supply.

However, what those good teen films have now that the good John Hughes teen films had then were an unfiltered perceptiveness of teenage sensibilities, legitimate humor that bridged the generational gap of the audience, an affectionate identifiability for their characters, and a variously executed, yet primordial feeling of isolated anguish.

I could create a post comprised solely of the names of these modern teenage films that possess these attributes, but today, we're talking about love...

Simon.

The film centers around our aforementioned protagonist. On the surface, he has a happy life with a warm, sweet-natured family and very dear friends. However, he has a deep secret: he is a closeted homosexual. The pressure to maintain this secret becomes slightly more bearable, in the wake of becoming online pen-pals with a secret admirer, who happens to go to his school and is also in the closet. In the midst of strengthening this developing relationship and trying to find the man behind the messages, he also must help a fellow schoolmate try and get with one of his friends or else his secret will be revealed to the entire school.

I could begin by merely reiterating the obvious cultural significance and emotional, moral bravura of having the homosexual identity of a character be the narrative focus of a film, but I'd rather discuss what makes it so strong in the context of this film and other teenage coming-of-age films, because much like Simon, there's more beneath the surface. Most coming-of-age films are about exhibiting the psychological and emotional metamorphosis of a character (hence the term, coming-of-age), but in most of those, it's usually facilitated and affiliated with a love relationship between the character and another, typically of the opposite sex, or it's linked with an incipient friendship and all its peaks, valleys, and revelations. 

In this film, yes, the plot revolves around Simon trying to figure out his mystery lover, but the main atmosphere of his story can be described with an adjective I just used: isolation. It's not the simplistic trope of one character bringing another character out of his shell or making him think more maturely. Most teen films rely on rapport, but this film is first and foremost about Simon discovering himself as a gay man. It's not about someone else necessarily making him grow, but about him growing on his own. The interactions with his mystery lover, while they do give him some valor and motivation, don't bring him totally out of his comfort zone. Because the other person involved is anonymous, the mood of the film is still taut, anxious, and once again, isolated, which mirrors the tangible feeling of dealing with your sexuality.

One specific feat of the film is that Simon's plight for concealing his sexuality doesn't center around intolerance, ostracization, or derision per se. Hell, he describes his family as "progressive." It's merely based around his contentedness on when he chooses to come out. One of the most emotionally effective scenes is when Simon berates a character for putting him into an awkward position, simply stating, "I wanted to come out on my own time and you took that away from me."

It's not always about the environment or about self-doubt, but rather a matter of specific, desired timing. Teenagers don't typically get to choose their schedules for anything. Their sexuality and when they choose to disclose it is usually (emphasis on usually) the one thing they can control. Kudos to screenwriters Issac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger for being able to comment on this, giving the gay-identity narrative a more heartfelt, honest, stripped-down angle to it.

Also, kudos to the screenwriters and for director Greg Berlanti for crafting a film this riotously funny. Not only is it funny, not only is it penetratingly funny, not only is it skeweringly funny, but it gives the opportunity for all of the characters to be funny. There are a lot of teen films that disproportionately allocate the humor, giving big laughs to some characters and mere cutesy, kitschy jokes for others.

This film is refreshingly inclusive, not only giving us big laughs from the teen characters, but from the parents, the principal (played with sheer, awkward virtuosity by Tony Hale), and even from the black drama teacher, who gets some real gut-busters. One example being when she confiscates a mini audio speaker from two troublemaking students and states she's going to sell it and use the money to get her tubes tied.

The performances are also uniformly, specifically precise. Nick Robinson has all the courage, vulnerability, and angst needed for the role of Simon, Jennifer Garner gives one of her most inviting, natural performances in years as Simon's mother, Josh Duhamel is stunningly, complexly fragile as Simon's dad, Logan Miller has a helplessly awkward gusto that he lends to the role of Martin, the schoolmate who blackmails Simon, and this film also managed to rope in two actors from Thirteen Reasons Why (Miles Heizer as Cal and Katherine Langford as Leah, one of Simon's closest friends). Given the themes of that show, they basically are legally required to give good performances, which they do.

HOWEVER...I do have one gripe with this film and I will do my best to explain without the use of spoilers, but it involves a fallout with Simon and his friends. For a film that's so meditative and insightful about gay identity and coming out and what not, I felt that this particular scene needed to be more thoughtful. There were so many more nuances and quiet, profound, emotionally consummate beats that could've been tapped into had they chosen a more warm, empathetic, and mature approach to this moment, instead of focusing on, in the grand scheme of things, mild errors on Simon's part and trying to penalize him at his most emotionally fragile state of being, without realizing the root cause.

Despite this, I commend this film. I commend this film for being able to make sexual identity both a hardship and a normalcy. I commend this film for being biting with its humor and with its truths. To me, this is the Same Love of "gay movies." It's not the first example of this kind of film. It's not the most harrowing example of this kind of film, but it's a universal breakthrough; that one step closer for the term "gay movie" to be not some simplistic appellation, but merely a component that doesn't define, but complements a film. And for that, I thank you.

Love, Stephen.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Foreword: "Oh, Stephen! Great timing! Way to get on this on the dregs of its popularity." I...well...eh.

So, I think it's official now. Sorry to all the milquetoast, simple-film-palate-possessing, sappy, romance-yearning, middle-aged, suburban white women of America, but black people have officially claimed and annexed the month of February, as far as movies go. The full-on invasion came last year with Get Out, a horror film that not only confronted the shrillness of white oblivion and ignorance and the ugliness of white, pseudo-bleeding heart passivity and sanctimony, but also delivered on its own as an eccentric, dark, penetrating comedy and an engrossing, visually unique horror film with a pro-black twist. Seriously, the black guys survived in the end. If that isn't iconoclastic of horror tropes, I don't know what is.

This year, we have...well, you've seen the title of the review, the box office returns, the impact it's had on the audience, the mystifying amount of toy revenue, which has since been stalled due to short supply, and you're still listening to Pray for Me on the radio, either voluntarily because it's rad or involuntarily because...fuck it, it's either this or Post Malone.

I can only purport that this is an ancillary cultural riposte to the Trump presidency; an effort by African-American filmmakers to rebut his notion of making America great again by making February at the movies great again. This is Black Panther! Hear it roar!

The film takes place in Wakanda, formed ions ago when four of five African tribes united after a war over a meteorite containing vibranium. When a warrior ingested an herb containing the material, he became the Black Panther. Vibranium is used in Wakanda to produce advanced technology and sustain their world, which is subterranean beneath a Third World country. T'Challa becomes the Black Panther after his father's death. When Erik Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue steal a Wakandan artifact, T'Challa, along with fellow Wakandian native, Okoye, and his former lover, Nakia head off to find and arraign them.

However, it is soon discovered there is more to Killmonger. He actually is the cousin of T'Challa, whose father killed Kilmonger's for spreading the secret of vibranium outside of the secure parameters of Wakanda. When Killmonger confronts what he sees as sheer betrayal to his fellow brothers and a disgustingly selfish refusal to help the world outside of Wakanda, he fights to seize the throne and become the Black Panther.

It's one thing for a superhero movie to excel due to a grand vision, a cult of personality, and visually striking, enthralling entertainment, but this is the first superhero film I see that is purely, unmitigatedly driven through vicious emotion and provocative, searing content. This film has so many cogent statements and allegories of black power, black culture, and black progression, sometimes expressed in straightforward, bold lines or through scraping, biting humor.

Consider a scene where Okoye dons a wig to look casual when on the trail to find Klaue. She says to Nakia, "I can't wait to get this thing off my head," celebrating black hair, or in her case, no hair, and attacking not just the stigma of black hair, but those who actively attempt to smother, forcibly conceal, and outwardly sublimate their natural style for cultural acceptance and to abscond ridicule. Or how about another scene where Erik Stevens, a white CIA officer who ends up allying with T'Challa, is barked at by an African tribe, identically to how blacks were barked at by...you see where I'm going with this. That specific moment is one of the most brazenly brilliant scenes I've seen in the MCU, in black cinema, and in all of cinema.

It's also enlightening, albeit completely applicable, that the superheroism of this universe is not a gross, lucky error or some horrid permutation, but actual power; a standard to strive and aspire for. It's not something to conceal or employ as a gimmick for an alter ego, but something to embrace and exhibit loudly and proudly and also is embedded intrinsically.  However, there is one theme that is conveyed both naturally and allegorically: black loyalty. This film seems to abhor betrayal on all parts: Killmonger's betrayal toward the protocol and structure of Wakanda, T'Chaka and N'Jobu's betrayals toward each other as brothers, and T'Challa's betrayal to the outside, indigent world. 

The film doesn't impugn radicalism, nor it is solely about finger-wagging at T'Challa for its seclusion and excessively stringent preservation of Wakanda, but it is moreso about finding the middle ground that preserves our bond. Destruction in the name of black grievances isn't inherently wrong, nor is a self-aggrandizing appreciation of black power, but either way, it is imperative to understand the source; the source of the destruction and the source of your acquisition of power, and determine whether or not you're justifying either. It's the ones who stand with our black brothers and sisters unconditionally that contribute to our progression and our incipient, ferocious strength.

The notion of understanding the source is, in my opinion, best conveyed in the first scene involving the Ancestral Place, which is, oddly enough, my favorite scene of the film. T'Challa enters the gorgeously, serenely dark Ancestral Place and is first confronted by the ancestors existing as black panthers. Again, how evocative and symbolic! Standing awestruck, face-to-face with black panthers who have to confront and fight the same struggles for generations and possess an almost melancholic, watchful alacrity for the next Black Panther to carry the torch. He then converses with his recently deceased father, who states, "A father's job is to prepare his child for his death. Have I failed you?" I've never cried at a movie before the half-hour mark and I still haven't, but this was the closest I've come to it. It is the apex of this film's masterful integration of content, emotion, and visual marvel.

On that note, let's talk about what keeps those butts into those seats. The visuals and action sequences are some of the most sprightly, rousing, and vivacious to ever exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The universe of Wakanda is one of the most vivid, captivating, and awesome settings ever portrayed on screen. When Wakanda shows any portion of its universe, you are locked in, continually impressed by this self-sufficient universe, crammed with surprises, yet always functioning and portrayed as a world filled with culture, nobility, and veneration. It's the most embracing, congratulatory, stately expression of Africa in pop culture since...shit, The Lion King?

The battle scenes are all marvelous, as well. While it's easy to immediately draw attention to the climactic battle scene or the stakes-driven, motive-fueled duels, my favorite is the casino fight, solely because a portion of it is done in ostensibly one continuous shot. This could seem dull and dissonant if done incorrectly, but the way the camera glides, rotates, and swerves up, down, and around is utterly immaculate. I feel that several Oscars should be in order for this film, obviously in visual design, but also for set design, costume design, lighting (why not), and for cinematography.

I personally would also give an Oscar nod to the score, a.k.a. the greatest superhero movie score ever! Move over, Williams! Take notes, Elfman! Hear it and weep, Silvestri! Ludwig Goransson has crafted, as of writing this, the most sweeping score of 2018, marrying a standard orchestral score with beautiful, percussive African soundscapes and hip-hop sensibilities. Of course, at the marketing center of this film is a pulpable soundtrack produced by hip-hop's Black Panther, Kendrick Lamar.

Kudos to director/writer Ryan Coogler, for not merely having a knack for timing and for effective storytelling, but also for talent. Not only does he reunite with Goransson, but also with Michael B. Jordan, portraying Killmonger. He and all the actors deliver potent, gripping, gut-wrenchingly nuanced performances. I honestly loathe that Killmonger is being marketed as the villain, because Jordan portrays him not as villainous, but as lost and as sincerely ardent for change; as someone who wants to repair, which he was not given the luxury of. Chadwick Boseman owns this role as Black Panther, being flexible and malleable to handle the nuances and gravitas, but also genteel and confident enough that he typifies what power is, in more ways than one.

Lupita Nyong'o plays it straight more-or-less as Nakia, but her presence is one with ripe with bonhomie and a sweet nature that you can't help but admire her. She exhibits enough valorous hope to inspire change, yet never intrudes on anyone else's sensibilities because she doesn't need to. She singularly empowers herself. Danai Gurira is ferally effective as Okoye, display doughty, steadfast, warrior sensibilities and a pitch-perfect comic timing. Oh, and remember when I discussed Get Out? Well, I'll be damned if this film and Get Out share an actor: Sir Daniel Kaluuya. I recall stating in my Get Out review that I was uncertain as to whether his performance was star-making. I guess I was right, but hell, if it means seeing his chill, charismatic smile in more movies, that's all I really need.

This film is not escapism. Escapism is just that: an escape; a means of circumventing the wretched realities of the modern world. This film is here, forcing us to confront the ugliness and inescapable blemishes of our world. What begins as a superhero film unveils as a story of hope, but with an undercurrent of pessimism. It states that we can and should use power to forward and ameliorate the conditions of mankind, but as long as the need to sustain power exists, it'll truly never be without its kinks.

I honestly get ebullient, thinking about a child of today growing up with this film yearly. As is, he'll see the visual flair, the epic narrative, and he'll hunger for that extra action figure, but I can't wait for that boy/girl to become a man/woman and can finally comprehend it. I don't know if we'll have another Black Panther or not, but to me, it's crucial that we don't. Let's not undermine the importance of this film, a film that manages to both conform to and evade the confines of being a sheer popcorn flick with numerous marketing potential. Once the magic of those toys are relocated elsewhere, the magic of this film will stick around. It sure has for me, earning the ranking of being my favorite superhero film of all time and being my favorite film of 2018 so far.

So yeah, Marvel. On behalf of all black people, you're welcome.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

You know, I think that this current time, more than never, is when audiences truly constitute what is classified as a flop. Sure, flops have existed since before the days of Ed Wood and his gobsmacking pictures, but I must ask: Has any group of consumers ever had second thoughts over their dissenting views of a film after they see it advertised as "Certified Fresh." That emblem didn't stop people from persisting that The Good Dinosaur is one of PIXAR's most mediocre pieces of work, or purporting that La La Land is overrated fluff, designed to appeal to the most pedantic, square and/or most trendy-nostalgia-loving crowd and possibly to spark a racial outcry if the Oscars night hadn't ended the way it did, or angrily insisting that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an appalling facsimile; a featureless, corporate product bereft of any sort of identity...

Or from The Last Jedi being described as "divisive." *sigh* Time for me to jump on that hype bandwagon.

The film begins with the First Order hot on the trail of the Resistance. During battle, Poe Dameron executes a counterattack on the First Order, which is successful in context of his intentions, but causes many deaths on his part. Soon after, Finn awakes, recovering from the wounds he obtained in the previous film. He embarks on a mission, along with a mechanic named Rose, the sister of one of the women killed in the battle, to find the Master Codebreaker to earn them access onto the main Destroyer and disable their tracking device.

Meanwhile, Rey has discovered Luke Skywalker on a remote island, beleaguered, disheveled, and a self-disgraced Jedi, who believes that he should be the last Jedi. In spite of this, he begrudgingly agrees to train Rey on the Force. However, he is getting some uncomfortable vibes from her, akin to his failed protégé, Kylo Ren.

One aspect of this film that struck me, moreso than in the last film, was the cinematography. I mean, it's gorgeous, to be sure, but it also feels more concentrated this time around. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin frames the film with such crisp focus and ferocious intent that it immediately transports the viewer and not merely engages them into this universe, but strikes it down on them in a good way. It's almost daring you not to paying attention to the obvious visual tricks (i.e. the green screen and certain obvious CGI moments) and instead instructs you to comprehend the weight of everything. It immerses the viewer into the environment and the emotions. And, oh boy, are there plenty of emotions!

When it comes to the emotional level, this is the strongest in the Star Wars franchise. Every possible feeling (the sadness, the excitement, the tension, the uncertainty, the confusion, the angst) is delivered with an august boldness to it. Every emotional moment just gives a searing, aggressive punch to the gut. The action sequences are more captivating in this film, not due to the visuals themselves, but because the stakes and the ramifications are more intense. Not only does every death hit home, but every almost-death feels that much more like a frightening close call. This is the first Star Wars film I've seen where the characters truly seemed in peril for their life.

It is, to my surprise, also the most philosophical and the most cerebral film in the series. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson has taken the controls of the Millennium Falcon this time and certainly possesses experience from off-beat films, such as Brick and The Brothers Bloom, to another intricate, Nolan-esque science-fiction film, Looper. He brings principles and ideas to this film that are second-to-none for this franchise. The idea of themes such as loss, love, failure, and regret being tackled sounds corny, but it is incredibly, powerfully cogent. The disgruntled master or the former wizard denouncing his own teachings is nothing new, but with Luke Skywalker, his perceived mistakes and his temperament and reaction to them bring a nihilistic, yet veritable edge to the film, stating that the Force shouldn't be used to deify Jedis because hell, it's not life's emollient. Life still exists, in spite of it.

It goes even further from that. In this film, the Force has telepathic benefits and Rey is able to communicate with Kylo Ren. The interaction between them is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of the film, as it's a rivalry with an element of potential respect and profundity. They both detect the same vibe in each other: the same ineffable facet that terrifies Luke Skywalker. However, Kylo wants Rey to cross over to the Dark Side and Rey wants Kylo to convert out of the Dark Side and reconnect with his good side and heal his inner trauma and turmoil, in relation to his family troubles.

However, in the midst of all this emotional bargaining between the two, Kylo sends Rey to her own personal darkness, with Rey expecting to confront some unpleasant moments of her past, but she finds no answers. Her silver lining seems to lie in the possibility of Kylo being reformed. Luke Skywalker believes that all darkness should be avoided and when one meets with darkness, they are doomed. However, Rey believes that the cure for darkness is not to ostracize and ignore it, but rather repair it.

That element of Luke's intentional avoidance of darkness pervades through parts of the film is such fiercely, stunningly astute ways, as in a scene where [a cameo I will not spoil] encourages Luke to burn all his teachings, because the Force will still continue to exist and even states the greatest teacher is failure. Typically, I would refrain from comparing a Star Wars movie to Inside Out, but this is some of the most spellbinding screenwriting that the franchise has presented.

The film also manages to get the same great actors of the first film to ameliorate their roles this time around. I could drool over Mark Hamill's impeccable, angst-ridden revamping of Luke Skywalker for hours, as I could over John Boyega, who has thus far not done anything to sully or revert his reputation. Oscar Issac is very effective as the warm-hearted maverick, Poe Dameron. Adam Driver's emo-esque image works impressively well this time around as Kylo Ren. In Force Awakens, when he was merely this force of power, his emo vibe was too distracting and separated me from truly buying the character outside of the mask. Here, it's still present, but when focused on the character's inner conflict and struggle and coming to grips with all parts of himself and how he uses his thoughtless, mindless, insatiable desire for power as a substitute, it is colossally powerful. In this case, the actor doesn't particularly dictate the strength of the character, but moreso the character's functionality and what the character has to confront.

Daisy Redley is, once again, fantastic as Rey, allowing herself to be inquisitive, uncertain, and sensitive internally, while maintaining her surface fortitude. And, of course, Carrie Fisher is a sweetheart. As she displays her warm smile, while simultaneously bearing that plaintive, forlorn gaze, it seems as if she could detect that this would be her swan song. She portrays Princess Leia with her unalloyed heart, unbeknownst to her that she would no longer be able to. R.I.P. to the Princess, indeed.

I can't say that this film tops the immaculate melding of wondrous magic and perfect escapism of Empire Strikes Back, my favorite Star Wars film to date, nor will I controvert the freshness and the ingenuity of the first film. However, this film truly is a triumph for Star Wars and for now. On a logical and emotional level, this film achieves heights previously inconceivable. As much as I adore J.J. Abrams, I'm already mourning for Rian Johnson, as he will not be returning to write and direct the next film. It's rather ironic that the best Star Wars film in years gets the solemn, glum subtitle.

Last Jedi? Fuck that. THIS is the new hope!

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco (2017)

So, how does PIXAR warm us up for the feature presentation this time? The short answer: They don't, but Disney does!

The short film, Olaf's Frozen Adventure, is not only the longest short film to precede a Disney feature film, but it's also their best, boasting beautiful animation, winsomely sweeping music, a breezy, crisp, amusing, and gently profound story, and it provides a return to form for the characters we've grown attached to. If this is any indication, I actually endorse and am anticipating that Frozen sequel.

It's also proof that both Disney and PIXAR can concurrently achieve the same outcome in the same immaculate, beautiful way. I had the same instant, infectiously visceral verdict twice. Frozen makes me happy. Coco makes me happy.

Coco begins with the story of a family that got torn apart. By music, so it seemed. At first, music united a certain husband and wife, but the husband decided to go off and play to the world, leaving the wife to be a single mom. Angered, she abolished all music and began a shoemaking business, which became a family business. Throughout the years, the family had two common bonds: making shoes and hating music.

That is, except for Miguel, who loves music, has a hobby for playing guitar, and idolizes the late musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. His zeal for music drives a wedge, at times, between him and his family. After running away, hoping to seek solace in a talent show for Dia de los Muertos and to confirm that he is his great-grandfather, he stumbles across la Cruz's old guitar. Once he strums it, he's transported to the Land of the Dead. In order to escape, he needs his family's blessing...but it may come at a cost.

This film was a tough one. Not in terms of watching it, but critically perceiving it. I wasn't awash with adjectives, nor was I given the urge to jump out of my seat and proselytize its mature, acute ideas. I was just mesmerized throughout the whole film. To me, the greatest feat of all was how they managed to treat Mexico, not just with dignity and veneration, but also without the sanitized, outsider, Americanized attitude that can linger over films like them. I mean, sure, it's still specifically an American film. The prevailing language is English, the dialogue contains an occasional truism on family and seizing the moment, and the "action climax" sometimes feels a little technical and clichéd, in a way which you've seen in American films.

However, the meticulous detail that has given to Mexico is whoppingly extraordinary. The Spanish they drop is relatively rudimentary and yet it still feels genuine and the niceties in speech of the locals, the all-Spanish signs, and the varied appearances of people are all on point. PIXAR has gone to space, ant farms, France, Scotland, and in prehistoric times, amongst a myriad of other locale, and yet this is the first time I felt that PIXAR immersed themselves in a world unlike their own; a world that seems bigger and more unique than they have ever experienced. Given how they are portraying Mexico, that's an enormous compliment.

And ALL of it is exhibited and constructed with glorious animation. I said that Moana might just be second place, in terms of solely animation in the Disney canon. Now, it's third, because Coco literally has some of the most precise and perfect animation I've ever seen. Ever. The gorgeous, stately colors are perfectly lit and composed, being either evocative and redolent of Mexican culture or contributing to an awe-inspiring universe. There is so much vibrancy, vividity, and virtuosity that describing it all needs a separate thesis. The character designs can be cartoony, but given how the humor is solid, that's just an aspect of the film. There happens to be a dog in this film, similar to the chicken in Moana, but way superior, because he (1) has more an emotional range and (2) is given more to do. The  Even the design of Coco, Miguel's great-great grandmother is resplendent, showcasing every wrinkle and squint to represent her debilitating condition.

In this progressive, bleeding-heart, delicate time in America, it can be seen as either a shrewd personal decision or a shrewd corporate decision on PIXAR's part to cast all Hispanic actors for the voices. Either way, it's a wonderful, gracious decision, as all the actors are perfect, especially ostensibly-12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez, who gives Miguel the innocent strength, juvenile boldness, wide-eyed, effervescent zeal, and the emotional heft needed for the role, as well as displaying an infectious charisma and nuance in the musical sequences.

Speaking of which, it would be a sin to have a PIXAR film with a music-centered narrative and not have music. And when one sets the stage of this having to do with Mexican culture and the recruit at hand is Michael Giacchino, you get a wonderfully indigenous, buoyant, and effective soundtrack, which does include some tunes all sung in Spanish. The song of the film, as stated by everybody, is Remember Me, but not particularly because of the song, but because of the evolutionary journey it travels. First, it's a cute song, then it's used humorously as "the obvious song," and finally, it's used as a painful plea to do just that, while also adding layers of regret and sorrow. All of it is beautifully culminated in one of the most emotional, tear-jerking moments in the Disney-PIXAR collection. *sniffles* Goddamn it, PIXAR! You did it again.

The story and content of Coco is enriching, as well. I wouldn't deem it the most influential (see the Toy Story films) or the most thoughtfully complex (see Inside Out), but it's the most emotionally effective. It manages to tackle death in a way that doesn't totally tackle it. This may seem like a cop-out, but how they add multiple layers to their conceits makes it all surefooted and finessed. The Land of the Dead contains the bridge, where lost ones cross over to the real world, unbeknownst to the living, to be with their families, on Dia de los Muertos. Instantly, it gives hope to not just kids, but adults that all deal with the queries and quandaries of not merely life after death, but the presence of the dead.

However, it doesn't stop there. It turns out there's another world, unbeknownst to the dead. It's a world the dead are sent to when they are forgotten. To kids, this aspect may be a little disorienting or just a simple part of a unique world, but to adults, this is likely one of the most audacious and sympathetically morbid things ever seen on film, specifically those who either don't care about death or don't care where they go afterwards. The insouciance of these attitudes can be stripped away when they ponder how much they contribute now, as a living soul. The film, however, doesn't do it to condescend, but rather inspire to not merely to settle as a human; to actually be a stand-out, but not always in the loftiest superlative.

Through all of this, death is never perceived as the antagonist, or even particularly redoubtable. There is a death scene in the real world, but it's done offscreen. The final scene of the film reinforces this film's tenets that death is life, not merely in the sense of being the final destination, but also in the sense that the dead don't leave. While it's an idea that being presented before, the methods of visual representation, emotional connection, and thematic conveyance as done by Coco make it a distinct, powerful story.

It's odd. The screening I attended was comprised all of adults. Granted, it was 9:00, but given their investment with the film, laughing, blowing their noses, wiping their eyes, akin to I, a 21-year-old, born one year after PIXAR's first film, it affirmed a specific belief of mine: the term, "just a kid's film," is more denigrating and debasing now than it ever has been before. Just because we'll always get our Emoji movies doesn't mean that the vogue isn't for children's film to progress, provoke, and challenge. Where My Little Pony lagged, Coco accomplishes, sustains, and consistently surpasses.

It's also proved my belief that Disney and PIXAR are the gift that keeps on giving. This film, surprisingly, can act as the half of a double feature with Detroit (thematically, of course. Don't try this at home, kids.). Both films possess heavy racial contexts and environments. While Detroit dealt with a group being infiltrated and having to cope with hell, Coco offers hope. In presenting the beauty of a culture and group of people, the film has been treated with respect, not just by the inhabitants of that culture, but by those who view it as foreign. The film offers hope that all cultures and peoples can be treated with the same honor and humanity in real life.

Also, through an ingenious plot twist that I won't spoil, this films offers us the image of an evil, maniacal, dissolute, arrogant figure beloved by many being exposed and censured for being a fraud, a phony, and a criminal. Given what's currently going on in Hollywood and our own society, this is both commentary and wishful thinking. Although, to all you PIXAR execs, keep it in your pants and/or to yourself. I want to belief the insertion of this aspect of this film is allegorical of the ills of our society, not ironic and hapless in revealing the ills of you.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Monday, October 23, 2017

It (2017)

Y'all know that the sole reason that this film is solid is because they covered the best part of the original film, right? Like, are you guys sincerely anticipating part two? I mean, if you are eagerly awaiting for a mummy being warded off by birdcalls, then...different strokes, I suppose.

It's funny. The history of Stephen King film adaptations, be it in theaters or on television, could not be further from spotless than if it was recorded in a notebook doused in warm water and then splattered with Gerber baby food. We all know the classics...and we all know the failures. And yet, out of all of them, the most captivating with audiences seems to be Stephen King's It. But why? Well, I guess that outside of the primary fear presented in the film, which has deemed the film "scary," it's also been the one that's been examined the most critically in the years after its release, with the prevailing discovery being that...*gasp*...it's actually not very scary. Or very structured. Or very good.

While the original, as a whole, is underwhelming (and, at times, ridiculous), I do admit that the first half is effective. Cornball at times, but still effective. Coming 5 years after one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King work of fiction, Stand By Me, the first half is adept in creating an ambience of naïve uncertainty, bravado, and natural camaraderie.

This film is that first half seen through the lens of 2017. Which means better.

The film takes place in Derry, Maine, a town that is witnessing a painful epidemic of missing children. According to the film, deaths and disappearances occur six times the national rate in Derry, Maine. During summer of 1989, seven children are being terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown, personifying each of their most deepest traumas and phobias and possessing the ability to attack any child, having killed the brother of one of the children, Billy, the year before. While horrified and tormented, they make it their mission to band together and destroy the monster.

In our era steeped in a perpetual obsession with nostalgia, there is a retro feel that envelops this film. The intro is shot in such a tint that it resembles the 80s and 90s. The score is gloriously retro and evocative, composed wonderfully by Benjamin Wallfisch. Above all, this film replicates the chemistry of the children in the original film with ease and passion. However, the film melds the amiable, good-natured camaraderie of the past with a 2017 sensibility of having an unflinching, veritable perspective on life and all its niceties.

Director Andy Muschietti, following up his directorial debut, Mama, with this film, perceptively and sagaciously accentuates the fact that these are middle school kids and their vibes and energies are right on the money, displaying raw innocence, adolescent awkwardness, and even unremitting nastiness and puerile vulgarity. Billy, the main character, isn't particularly a leader, so much as he's just unwilling to back down. Each of the other kids manage to inhabit individual authenticities, as opposed to hiding behind their prominent traits.

Beverly demolishes the "token girl" syndromes, allowing herself to be damaged and yet living life straightforwardly, carefree, and, occasionally, even emitting acerbic irony. Ben, the fat kid, is given much more of a heart and a warm humility, rather than just being a victim, and it helps craft an inadvertent, yet a fitting, engaging, and perfectly handled love triangle between him, Beverly, and Billy. My favorite of the bunch was Richie, bearing a fiercely salacious and riotously funny potty mouth. All of the child actors are damn impressive, having the forthright, unadorned nature and spirit that the roles require. As Henry the bully, Nicholas Hamilton gives a deeply cruel and demented performance, looking very similar to the bully from the original and yet beefing him up emotionally. Bill Skarsgard one-ups Mr. Curry as Pennywise. Curry was more entertaining, but Skarsgard is the more loonier and more scarier actor, occasionally resembling Johnny Depp, if Johnny Depp actually still took challenging roles.

Speaking of which, the scares. How are they? Well, to elaborate, the purpose of the novel and the original film, outside of compounding half of America's coulrophobia, seems to ostensibly be to combine fear and tragedy. Fear can spring from tragedy, or they can even be synonymous with each other. I can't speak for the novel, but in the original film, the fear aspect is the focus and seeing how it isn't incredibly scary, it falters. In this film, they coexist splendidly, not only exploiting tragedy, but also inadequacy. This allows for the film to expand, enlarge, and emphasize certain aspects of life to not just project fear, but to damage. Aspects such as racism, deadly fires, realities repeating themselves, personal losses, diseases, even the ramifications of sexual abuse (yeah, it goes there). 

Because the fear is from a provenance that's identifiable and real, it highlights and intensifies the supernatural surface horror even more. Skarsgard's Pennywise outdoes the original in one crucial department: action. In the original, Curry just seemed like some growling, cartoonish monster. I guess the intent was to make him seem more cunning and studied, but...Tim Curry doesn't really do cunning and studied, per se. I just never felt like the kids were in any formidable danger. This film...holy shit. Pennywise is a straight up leviathan, knowing not only how to torment and allure, but how to demonstrate his intentions. There were three specific scenes, in which Pennywise lunged at the kids, all the while shrieking and shaking his head, that absolutely terrified me. All of it comes to a head in a thrilling climax that produces some of the most jaw-dropping and vibrantly freakish special effects I've seen.

So, to condense all this and put it bluntly...pretty scary. Intelligently so, too, thanks to screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman. Also, props to the film company for timing the release of this film to be literally one year after that crazy clown phenomenon of last year. Like...seriously, am I the only one who noticed that?

Watching this film is a breath of relief after having to watch, for the most part, mediocre horror trailers that routinely remind me that we are always going to be awashed with uninspired, churned-out dreck made merely to capitalize on tried-and-true trends, ingratiate with flashier special effects, and to satiate the most simplistic film palates. They also remind me to (a) be grateful of and cherish the shining glories even more and (b) the shining glories will never lose their luster.

It's revealing how certain theatres have already rid themselves of six talking ponies after only two weeks and yet a month-and-a-half later, this film can still draw in a sizeable audience. I guess it's also revealing how up in arms we get when a fresh, enterprising horror film gets its 100% status unjustly stripped. What it reveals is that ingenuity and vigor is profoundly sought after in the horror genre, moreso by audiences than critics. This may not be Get Out, but it's...It.

So....y'all ready for part two? *groans*

RATING: Three-and-a-quarter stars out of four


Monday, October 16, 2017

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)

Oh, what a week it's been for feminism. Not only has Harvey Weinstein been rightfully dragged through a morass of embarrassment and exploitative scandal, but I think the My Little Pony franchise may be back in the hands of the original fans.

I've elaborated on and on about how much of an astonishing and invigorating detour the MLP franchise has taken with the advent of Friendship is Magic. However, given the unexpected influx of male viewers, commonly known as "Bronies," it can be said that this show has been forced to allocate the adulation. While this development did help transcend gender expectations and reaffirmed the age-old adage that it's what's on the inside that counts, men have imposed an overarching, sanctimonious, haughty streak on feminism for years in a multitude of different versions. It was great that men could admit to liking something made to please little girls. However, dispersed amongst bronies is a mild aura of re-appropriation; a self-righteous, selfish, entitled latch on this franchise. Now that men was sharing a fandom with females, they feel that they must be entertained, as well; an additional group of mouths that have to be satiated.


Well, good news! My Little Pony: The Movie has cracked the code by making a cinematic translation so frothy, insular, and simplistic, it'll restore the obloquious perspective towards the men who go to see this and will proudly entertain little girls with seven years old being the maximum age.

*sighs* I'm a brony. Let's do this.

The film takes place in Equestria with Princess Twilight Sparkle setting up for the Friendship Festival, with a performance by Songbird Serenade (voiced by pop singer Sia) at the centerpiece. As Twilight and her friends prepare for the festival, catastrophe strikes! A vengeful, contentious unicorn, Tempest Shadow, comes to capture the magic of the princesses of Equestria and deliver it to her boss, The Storm King, in order to repair her damaged unicorn horn. With the other three princesses trapped, it's up to the Mane Six to restore harmony and joy to Equestria.

I'm disappointed to announce that this film doesn't have the vitality and spirit of the television series, which is currently in its superb seventh season. One aspect that drew my ire was the animation. In the television series, the animation is created through Adobe Flash, but the series has an edge to it, a unique flair to it, which draws upon multiple influences to create something stylistically singular and stunning. Here, the film was obviously was given a budget to refine and polish the animation, but surprisingly, it actually makes it look cheaper. Everything moves so sluggishly and stiltedly. The action sequences are not done with any verve or splendor. They act as merely segues from one scene to next, acting as oleaginously linear, but visually ho-hum. The animation shows such reticence and restraint, which doesn't allow for the superlative of effervescence in the characters.

In fact, the characters themselves are not as sharply presented. For the majority of the film, it seems to rely on Pinkie Pie to carry the film, bringing, to be fair, her signature zany, ruthlessly madcap humor that does translate equally on the small and big screens, making her the saving grace of this film. However, the rest of the Mane Six are seen not having personalities, but having traits, particularly to launch thin, one-dimensional gags, which only a few are amusing. Even Twilight Sparkle is a crushing bore. She's just in the forefront, not stoic or sagacious. Just a leader. Additionally, none of the emotional moments resonate whatsoever, either being perfunctory or just forced.

The rest of the characters are typical uninspired stock characters, whose purpose are only for the Mane Six to come in, charm them, and then move on to the next, with the exception of the seaponies, voiced with much fervor and energy by Uzo Aduba and Kristen Chenoweth. Tempest Shadow, while seemingly having potential for more depth in the beginning, unfolds into a predictable arc. Grubber, the henchman to Tempest, is a labored attempt at comic relief, who wears out his welcome real quick. And the Storm King? What a dull villain, acting more as an unrealized, lukewarm, satirical blueprint for a comic villain than a full-fledged villain.

I'll give credit, however, to one man: composer Daniel Ingram. This guy has such a distinct style of composition and songwriting, which leads to some of the strongest music in the show. This time, he outdoes himself, crafting the bounciest, catching, and enticing songs in the franchise. Most of these songs rank among the best Friendship is Magic songs ever and the visuals assigned to them are amiably animated and inviting. I have to get my hands on the soundtrack, but I'll have to skip that Sia song. Funny, seeing how the most middling and unimpressive song of the whole film is the one that's the lead single. Your call, Hasbro.

Throughout the film, I kept asking myself, what was the point of this movie? What was it trying to contribute to the series? What did it add? What was its purpose? I struggled to give an answer to that last one, because the humor's ratio of funny jokes to feckless ones is adequate and passable. I chuckled and even laughed out loud quite a bit and yet I was still feeling unsatisfied. That's when I put my finger on it. This film was not made to entertain or engage. It was made merely to amuse. It's all surface, locale, music, gags; everything to keep a child distracted, but not stimulated. That's not how the show operates. It tells such captivating stories and delivers such intricate, identifiable morals in twenty-two minutes than an entire 90-minute movie.

That doesn't make it a bad film, necessarily, but a dispensable one. Its problem wasn't cynical pandering or lackadaisical sensibilities, but under-ambitiousness. It strives to play it so safely and so subserviently to the easiest market that it forgets all of the other cylinders to fire, in order to make it enduring. Instead of Friendship is Magic, this film should've been subtitled, Friendship is a Mantra.

RATING: Two-and-a-half stars out of four

Friday, August 18, 2017

Detroit (2017)

In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal masterfully expressed a helpless sense of tension and hazard with The Hurt Locker, resulting in a monumental Oscar win against Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron, and the trivial plaudit of it being my favorite war film to date. In 2012, a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, they tapped into the daunting, innate, post-9/11 fears of America, as well as its bold patriotism, with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that skillfully display that same tension-laced spirit, but with an added feeling of strength and strategy. In 2017, she retains these elements and introduces one more: fury. As shown in this recent cinematic endeavor, fury, at its apex, is not accumulated slowly. Fury, at its height, is an intrinsic emotion; human, valuable, and vital for change, or at least for issues to be brought to the forefront.

In 2017, she takes us back. To 50 years ago. To Detroit.

The film takes us to the beginning of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, where an unlicensed club gets raided. Looting, thievery and chaos between the locals and the authorities ensue, which results in a cancelled Dramatics performance, leading to its passionate lead singer Larry Reed and his friend, Fred, staying at the Algiers Motel. After a guest shoots blanks to authorities guarding the motel from the outside, the police round up all black guests and two white prostitutes and are ruthlessly tormented, debased, ridiculed, and tortured by corrupt officer Phillip Krauss. The film centers on the terse "before", tumultuous "during," and the precarious "after" of the riot.

I just elaborated on the narrative for this movie, which is odd because, in execution, it's not particularly a very narrative movie. While there is a thread, a linear blueprint isn't the salient focus. Rather, it feels more like a seamless, stream-of-conscious, documentary-like progression of the events of the riot. I know that that is the nature of film; for events to happen with surprise, as life does. However, this truly feels like a massive plain, specifically laid out for the life of a incendiary incident to germinate each and every day. It is merely heightened for dramatic purposes.

While this film has been receiving relatively solid acclaim (an 83% of Rotten Tomatoes), this film has earned a fair amount of detractors. Aside from Armond White (I'm trying to forget him as much as you all are, so moving on), this film has been criticized for not only omitting crucial details of the riot, but it also has been accused of having an overall hyper-sensitive approach, sentimentally and simplistically depicting events and over-victimizing black people and thus degrading and strangely contorting their struggle. And...I see some, repeat some, of those traits.

Bigelow tends to delineate heroes, whether warped, irrepressibly flawed, antihero-ish heroes, such as Hurt Locker's William James, or outspoken, belligerently irresistible presences, such as Zero Dark Thirty's Maya. This film is not fraught with heroes, but it does present some, such as specific military officials, in a way that is oddly angelic. Additionally, certain lines of dialogue, particularly a pleading line by Julie Ann, one of the prostitutes, do strike a note of excessive, ennobled pity and sweeping, simple sanctimony. HOWEVER, as far as it having that tone as a whole, fuck no!

Seriously, *spoilers*, the case involved graphic, appalling torture and mistreatment to an innocent group of people and was swiftly covered up, in the face of the holy spirit of social class and repugnant stances that are nepotistic toward the more privileged majority. Uh...sound familiar? Contrary to A.O. Scott's perspective, I feel that this is not a tale of "black helplessness or passivity," but a diorama to black reality. Even the final note of the film involving Larry singing a church song feels less like inspirational catharsis and more a bleak exhortation to sustain hope in the face of the ugly bludgeoning from the motley injustices they have and will face. Honestly, the summation of this can be seen in a scene at the Algiers Motel prior to the intervention of the police. Carl, the primer responsible for the incident, goes on a spiel to Julie Ann about being black in America, which happens to be the most impassioned, hardline, ferocious, and even most humorous scene of the film.

The characters range a gargantuan gamut of sensibilities and they are delivered with gritty, gut-wrenching performances. Algee Smith is a scintillating revelation as Larry, possessing a beautiful singing voice and lending a pensive, desperate vibe. The way he shows the unfolding of his arc, transforming from having an alacrity for stardom to a self-imposed need to retain and focus on his painful realities, is elegiacally enrapturing. I will, too, be damned if John Boyega has his time in the spotlight cruelly truncated because his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard that tries to assuage the situation, is astonishing. He has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington. After all, he has that same rugged machismo and edgy warmth that commands your attention.

It also helps that the filmmakers bestowed unto him a stealthily serviceable character. In many ways, he is similar to Forest Whitaker's Butler: a genial man, who is a quasi-inspirational semi-bystander, with two different factors involved: weight and action. He is a security guard that ends up working alongside the police and National Guard, but he is the one force that wants to maintain safety and sanity during this racially incited bedlam, getting involved when it's situationally acceptable and convenient to do so, but also staying silent a lot, as not to exacerbate anybody. However, as the actual case proceeds, his rage, guilt, and helplessness beset him. He's one of the primary protagonists and yet  he's never allowed to be fully heroic, which makes for an agonizing portrayal from Boyega.

However, the thief of the whole movie, of all the performances, is Will Poulter as Officer Phillip Krauss. I will most likely agitate the #OscarsSoWhite crowd by saying this about a movie with an overwhelmingly African-American cast, but I'm putting my Oscar ballot in for him. He fills to the brim with villainy, brutal hatred, and demonic self-interest. His cinematic transmogrification from innocuous teen roles to this despicable character is one of the most piquant and potent revelations since Mo'Nique's Oscar-winning turn in Precious. As well, his lack of physical maturity adds a deeper dimension to the character. His puerile appearance and actions serve as a perfect representation for immature adults that serve in the police or the Army as a subconscious method of sublimating a primal eagerness for power, for control, for, arguably, an insatiable thirst for blood. Additionally, the intro to his character initially exhibits him as the cop that is the closest to being on the side of the rioters. The juxtaposition of that with his subsequent actions leaves it to wonder if it was an off-kilter, deranged way to normalize and empower himself. It's a marvelous acting job.

Throughout the film, I was struggling whether which film was better: this or The Hurt Locker. I say that, because of an askew moment here and there and the fact that the first five minutes or so left me feeling rather cold, The Hurt Locker beats it by a overwhelmingly scant margin. Either way, the political contexts for both are staggering. Hurt Locker gained mainstream attention after the end of the Bush administration, which could give life to the argument that it's practically a morbidly droll allegory for the frivolousness of the Iraq War, with its lead almost reveling in his own slipshod, potentially destructive predilections. However, this film took me to a sundry of places. This is the most brutal, harrowing, pertinacious, frustrating, impetuous, apoplectic, loudest, tragic, angriest, and most uncomfortable film of 2017. It is also the best film of 2017 so far, a film utterly germane with current times. Every sound can be replicated by the disillusioned, aching voices of today. Without implementing or infusing any feminist iconography or dialogue into her films, she has become the most feminist director around right now, with more balls than many of her male compadres.

Given our current President's distasteful, egregious rhetoric, maybe we still are in 1967. But hey, we got to make sure we take both sides into account, right? Them damn alt-lefters!

RATING: Four out of four stars!