Game Night

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Game Night was a surprisingly fun film to watch on a 16-hour long redeye flight.

Max and Annie are a well-to-do and competitive upper middle class couple living in a nice big house, who invite their similarly upper-middle class friends every weeks for routine rounds of game night session.  When Max’s seemingly much more successful big brother comes into town and suggests a far more elaborate game night, Max’s status envy is triggered. But then, things start to get a little weird and dangerous.

Game Night is surprisingly tightly-plotted for a Hollywood comedy, featuring no small number of plot hijinks and twists, which I won’t go into here. There are also standout characters, like Jesse Plemons’ creepy, thousand-yard stare policeman Gary, who ends up being somewhat of a standout character for the show. But I think what actually sets this apart from other hijinks-based Hollywood action comedies is its creditable character-building. Max and Annie (played by Jason Bateman and Rachel MacAdams) have real on-screen chemistry, and work well together as a team – something strangely rare in films featuring couples.

And while the ancillary characters are mostly sketched in broad shades, they don’t become caricatures of their own roles; even the douchey Brooks and the oddball Gary have their own, somewhat sympathetic sides.

It’s not a film that brooks much discourse, being a pure vehicle of stress-releasing entertainment in the Hollywood vein. But it is one of the better-made examples of its ilk.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Faberge Eggs

 

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The Shape of Water

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A contrarian view: this Oscar-winning work of Cold War-era romantic fantasy didn’t quite measure up, in my view, to the lofty praise heaped upon it.

The Shape of Water is the story of an interspecies romance between a mute cleaner at a clandestine government facility, Elisa Esposito, and a mysterious amphibian humanoid known only as the “asset”. She first meets the creature and is struck by her ability to communicate with it in a way that transcends the boundaries of language, feeding him eggs and gaining his slow trust. But when she finds out the asset is to be vivisected to obtain knowledge to gain an upper hand in the Cold War, she concocts a plan to help the Asset escape. And in the process, their bond blossoms into something more.

It surely must be one of the most progressive conceits in cinematic history – the wordless love story of two outcasts, one mute; the other alien; their quest helped by a gay artist, a black woman, and a Soviet spy, standing against the icons of white-bread American might in the form of the gross Colonel Strickland with his strangely childlike love of candy and his slowly-blackening, gangrenous fingers.

Unfortunately, it’s somewhat hamstrung by its ambition. There are a lot of things going on in the film – Soviet spy-stuff, Strickland’s weird home-office life, Elisa’s and the amphibian’s burgeoning romance, and the mini-plots of the various other characters – and they come together to construct a narrative that is disjointed, unevenly paced, and a little too long.

Many of its constituent parts are not that convincing – the way Elisa and the amphibians’ relationship is depicted is about as valiant as any such relationship has any right to be on screen, but it’s not enough to convince me of its fundamental sustainability and relies on a regressive, Hollywood-like idea of romantic affection as transcending the boundaries of communication. Strickland’s depiction is a cartoonishly evil, and the significance inherent in his gangrenous hand and picture-perfect American family are far too in-your-face – he also likes to over-explain his worldview to would-be victims, which is so totally cliche villain.

And also, the film contrives the plot a little to make things happen – like the fact that the room in which the amphibian is housed not being CCTV covered at all, allowing Elisa to even discover him in the first place.

In the end, it’s a bombastic story set in a world that doesn’t quite have too much internal consistency, whose central romantic conceit doesn’t quite convince, that lacks subtlety in its messaging about the true monsters about our midst, and could use a bit of tightening. A fantasy film that, while resplendent with the kind of mysterious fairy-tale like quality of a del Toro film and the sinuous, alien grace of a Doug Jones performance, doesn’t quite earn a number of its vaunted Oscars.

I give this: 3 out of 5 eggs

 

 

 

Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is a deftly written, scintillatingly funny, and richly textured portrait of a girl in the last throes of teenagerdom and her fraught but close relationship with her mother.

The film follows Christine MacPherson (played with intense charisma by Saoirse Ronan), who goes by Lady Bird, as she juggles the many facets of her life in her senior year in a Catholic high school in boring city of Sacramento, California. A precocious and iconoclastic teen, she dreams of college life in a big east-coast city while navigating the preoccupations of adolescence – adventures with her best friend Julianne, trying to fit into social groups, navigating the contours of teenage romance, rehearsing for the school play. But her outsize ambitions are kept in abeyance by her family’s relative poverty and the strictures of her loving, slightly controlling, eternally chiding mother (played with perpetual worry lines by Laurie Metcalf).

While it sounds like any old high school story, Lady Bird is really much more – it’s utterly unique in its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of characters and relationships. Lady Bird herself is a beautifully complex character, fallible, capable of great superficiality but also depth, both wise and naive, faux-cynical and earnest, and wickedly acerbic in her wit when it suits her. She embodies the turmoil of teenagerdom. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion, is in many ways the emotional bookend of the film, full of the thunderous rancour and sentimental pleasures that constitute the love between parent and child. In a whiplash moment, Lady Bird and her mother can go from crying together over a moving audiobook to screaming at each other. Lady Bird shows itself uniquely capable of painting a scene like that, to make it so full of tenderness, pathos, and bleak humor.

It is that humor, so subtle yet effective, that is another one of the film’s pillars. From the quietly tortured soul that is the teacher in charge of the school’s theatre program, to the cloying pretentiousness of Lady Bird’s second boyfriend Kyle, Lady Bird balances its emotional stakes with a humour resplendent in the ways in which it weaves into and provides contrast to the film’s more tumultuous emotional moments.

Above all, Lady Bird feels utterly real. Near the end of the film, when Lady Bird makes up with her best friend Julianne after having abandoned her in favour of a bunch of delinquents and discovers she’s been accepted into a college in New York City, but gets into a big fight with her mother over college financing that leaves them not saying a word to each other, you can’t help but feel that there is that truth to Lady Bird’s lived experience, that the totality of the film has been a distillate of the rawest and most essential parts of that period of a life, with its complexities, hopes, ambitions and disappointments. Like Christine waking up in a hospital bed after blacking out from too much drink, you feel the weight of sacrifice behind your ambitions and feel the call of home.

I give this film: 4.5/5 issues of Playgirl magazine

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo is a fun and entertaining film that tells a story that didn’t need to be told.

Solo is the logical epitome of the film industry of today – a movie designed to garner views and attention though sheer audience pandering. Studio executives must have thought: who doesn’t want a film about the greatest silver screen space smuggler of all time? Unfortunately for them, it seems like, a surprising number of people.

To be fair, Star Wars has never been high art, but it told a story that was good, a Campellian arc for the post-Vietnam War world. The prequels too, for all their faults, had a place in the Star Wars mythos, deepening and revealing the context of the original films that had only been hinted at and speculated on in accessory books and games. Even Rogue One had an important story to tell of the heroism of the everyman and their role in securing the Death Star plans.

Solo, on the other hand, doesn’t have a story that it needs to tell, as opposed to a set of checkboxes to tick – the landmarks of the life and times of Han Solo. The film doesn’t really tell us what we don’t already know about the man – that he grew up on Corellia, was a great pilot, rescued Chewbacca from the Imperials, became a smuggler. It is an exercise in visualising all the offhand references made throughout the Star Wars saga – how he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando and did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

To be clear – this isn’t a problem – films can be enjoyed for the spectacle and fan-service they provide. But generally, it would be nice if films comprised more than just those superficial parts – if they had a cohesive and compelling narrative tree upon which to drape these accoutrements.

But Solo isn’t quite like that. It doesn’t add value to our idea of Han. It’s just an echo, an acting out, of who he was in the original films, except younger. It doesn’t help that Alden Ehrenreich,  who is doubtless doing the best he can, just doesn’t have that Harrison Ford swagger. And while there is that whole thing about his love interest Qi’Ra and how never to trust anyone, that isn’t really who Han is by the time of the OT. So that’s really a kind of dead end in narrative terms.

There are also a bunch of continuity annoyances that diverge from my headcanon of Han Solo and the Star Wars universe in general. First, Corellia was talked about as some kind of cesspool planet, when it was a major Core world  and important shipyard. Han’s rescue of Chewbacca was also less compelling than it could have been – in the EU, he was expelled from the Imperial Academy for freeing him, which speaks of a greater nobility than what was in the film. Finally, his Solo moniker had grander origins in the EU than what it was made out to be in the film – essentially a bastard name conferred by a punny Imperial officer.

I still enjoyed Solo for what it was – an action film of spectacle and some light pathos, expanding upon the Disney Star Wars universe. But beyond that, it doesn’t really have much to go for it. And I was constantly struck with the impression that it was rather ghoulish for Disney to have killed off the character in a sequel film for narrative effect and come back to do a prequel that was in many respects narratively inconsequential.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 dice

 

Isle of Dogs

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Isle of Dogs is an impressive technical achievement and a freshly original work of genre fiction. It’s a shame, though, that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its imaginative premise.

The premise is something that could come out of a weirdly fixated fever-dream. The dog-hating mayor of a futuristic (yet Edo-era more-wise) Japanese city exiles the city’s canine population to an island of trash due to a spreading animal epidemic. But the mayor’s ward intrepidly mounts an expedition to the island on a sputtering plane to save his beloved pet, the first to be consigned. On the island, he meets a pack of dogs led by their surly and resentful leader, a stray named Chief, who reluctantly agrees to help him look for his lost dog.

The classic boy-meets-dog plot-line is at the centre of this film – but there are also a medley of other narrative strands vying for our attention – from the parallel story of the exchange student who leads a revolution against the corrupt establishment, to the adventures of the various dogs around the island as they get separated. The film weaves these strands together in well-coordinated fashion but the pace feels frenetic (especially given the lightning fast quips and dry humor that are Wes Anderson signatures) and important plot elements are easy to miss because they flash by so fast.

To some degree, the frantic pace also comes at the expense of the film having a truly believable emotional core. The aloof Chief warms to Atari much too fast; while he is a dog, he is far too emotionally rich a character in his own right for his rapid transformation into loyal hound to be seen as anything but contrived. Then there are other plot reversals later on that just happen without much buildup and therefore feel out of place, like mayor Kobayashi’s sudden moral about-face near the end. Was he, perhaps, simply dutifully obliging his family’s anti-dog hatred? I don’t know – it all happened much too fast to appreciate.

There’s also the much-discussed question about whether or not Isle of Dogs insensitively propagates negative stereotypes of Japan. To some extent, I think it does – there’s the surface level stuff, like how everyone’s so regimental and subservient, how the denizens are pretty much a mob that sways according to the prevailing political sentiment, the sumo wrestling and the rampant corruption (and weirdly undemocratic means of electing mayors). There’s also how it takes a classic tenkousei – a white, American exchange student – as the vanguard of a revolution – activating obvious White Savior tropes. The bottom line is that in this movie, ostensibly set in Japan, much more could be done not to give the appearance that the denizens of Japan have no agency in their own fate.

But I suspect this is all whingeing about a problem that honestly isn’t particularly major – especially to Japanese people themselves. The film allegedly hired cultural consultants to ensure that the script had a culturally authentic flair. And I suspect also that in general, Japanese have a much more cavalier attitude about cultural appropriation in film – they do it all the time, after all.

I give this: 3.5/5 bags of food trash

Avengers: Infinity War

avengers-infinity-war***Obviously, spoilers***

Infinity War is legit one of the best movies Marvel’s made in years, on account of the many things it dares to do differently from its predecessors.

I imagine a movie like this must be a daunting and frankly terrifying undertaking for everyone involved in its production. Not only is it probably one of the most expensive films ever made on account of its immense star power, it is also the culmination of a decade’s worth of Marvel films, a tentpole that needs to live up to the crushing weight of expectations of legions of moviegoers.

Luckily, Marvel had the sense to deploy their A-team on this endeavor. The Russo brothers have directed some of the best Marvel films in the MCU – Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War are two of the better ones in the pantheon – and their cinematic craft is on full display in Infinity War. While it has the usual committee-approved quip-based humor and pandering fanservice in spades, Infinity War stands above the pack by virtue of two things: first, it has a great villain, and second, it’s not afraid to end on a low note.

First, the villain. Of all the MCU baddies introduced so far, I think Thanos probably is the best we’ve got so far – and yes, that includes the ridiculously-named Killmonger. Thanos, while twisted and genocidal, at least has a motive that isn’t self-serving, even as it dwarfs everything in its hubris and enormity – and Thanos feels like it is his duty to do the things that no one else is willing to do. It’s an interesting conceit to give to a villain and I haven’t seen any other movie featuring a villain with a misplaced messiah complex handled in the way Thanos is.

In another context, his efforts and the sacrifices he is willing to make to achieve his goals could well have been the actions of a very complex anti-hero. And unlike the megalomaniacal cackling villains of popular imagination, Thanos is portrayed here as a character first and foremost and an antagonist second – with a full range of emotions, rabidly powerful yet vulnerable, with the ability to feel the weight of what he has wrought.

Second, the film dares to end things on a low note. Infinity War ends with half the universe vanished from existence, including a good half of the Avengers, leaving the audience in something that isn’t quite a cliffhanger as it is a kind of despair over what happens now, that Thanos’ victory is so complete. The scenes where some of our heroes react with horror as they see themselves fade into dust are tragic and impactful in their existential dreadfulness. Imagine – a superhero film that doesn’t treat death as cavalierly as it is wont to do. It’s a bit different from a cliffhanger because from Thanos’ point of view – as a main character in his own right – the battle is won, and he sits at his hut and watches the sun rise on a beautiful pastoral planet. That moment really speaks to what a different film this is – one in which the bad guy wins – and retires in peace in the belief that he has achieved his life’s work. I didn’t think that splitting the Infinity War story in two would necessarily work – but I think choosing to end the film off on that kind of note is an inspired creative choice.

Of course, one could argue that it’s cheapened a little by the fact that we know that the sequels of the films of characters who ended up disappearing are going to be released in the next few years – so you know they’ll come back in some shape or form. But I think Infinity War should be judged on the way that it is constructed to make you think that there is no hope and that this is it, at least for a number of our characters.

There are the usual plotholes and things-unexplained; the variable power of the Infinity Stones, the fact that the stupidity of one hot-headed Peter Quill was directly responsible for Thanos winning, Gamora acting dumb by leading Thanos to the soulstone and not realising what he intends until its too late – they’re there, but no Marvel film really escapes these things. Better to watch the films prepared to avoid nitpicking too much into the details.

But all in all – a stellar superhero film; one that humanises its Big Bad, dares to try to come off with high stakes, and that manages to weave in so many different storylines – on Earth, in space, on Titan – in only slightly frenetic fashion – to make a film that, I think, does live up to the weight of expectation placed upon it by the legions of its fans. Now we will wait and see if the next Avengers film can accomplish an even more immense task – to wrap everything up satisfactorily without cheapening this film.

Oh, and the stellar forge scenes – and the hilariously gigantic dwarf played by Peter Dinklage – are awe inspiring.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Infinity Stones

 

 

Persona

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Persona, a work by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is sometimes regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. This kind of sentiment makes me wonder about the ways people judge the aesthetic merits of film.

Released in 1966, Persona is a psycho-drama that, in the director’s own words, feature two women who meet and “get mingled up in one another”. A young nurse, Alma, is asked to spend a summer at a seaside house caring for a famous stage actress, Elisabet, who has for some reason suddenly stopped speaking. The two women grow close, but as the relationship progresses, Alma starts to break down as she reveals more and more of her inner self to Elisabet in a series of monologues; eventually, through, they get under each others’ skin and their identities and personas begin to merge in strange ways.

It’s famously called the Mount Everest of film analysis because almost every film critic that’s tried their hand at dissecting the film invariably comes up with a different interpretation of its events. The film is a mishmash of imagery, with enough abstract elements and unexplained attributes that filling up the blanks and connecting the dots must be quite the fun exercise for the critic who is trying to flex their critical muscles.

I tend to take a more visceral view of the films which I watch, which is that films need to pass a certain threshold of narrative relatability before I can feel like there is a point in divining any deeper symbolism inherent in the director’s vision. With Persona, I felt that the overall plot lacked that relatability. It was essentially a film about two women whose personalities start blending into each other without much in the way of narrative tension, buildup or closure. I couldn’t really tell what the film had to say about the human condition or anything else that relates to everyday lived experience, or at least the kinds of narratives we grow up with.

It is a film without a complete sense of self, a vehicle for exploring a depiction of a certain Jungian persona theory in which the persona is detachable from the real self. At least to me, it lacked a compelling narrative hook otherwise. It is, essentially, like a feature length film student production, a kind of experimental cinema. Indeed, the scenes leading up to the meat of the film seemed to lack the polish of the scenes at the beachside house – those featuring the pearl-wearing doctor in particular giving off the impression of being hurried exposition dumps. The entire premise of the film – the backstory leading up to a situation in which two women can spend inordinate amounts of time in a beach house – is also given short shrift. Why Elisabet goes mute is also not adequately explained, is seems to just serve as an excuse for her to get doted on by Alma so that – perhaps – Alma can serve, as her persona, overlaid across her still, uninflected self-image.

I think that films like Persona are not supposed to make sense immediately on an intellectual level – bereft of context of what exactly is happening, you’re supposed to respond to it viscerally, through the transmission of raw images, sounds, and feelings from the film (like its interminable prologue sequence of random images). Unfortunately for me, Persona didn’t really connect on any level, and therefore did not inspire me to think overly hard about what it means.

Critics may think differently, of course, but I suppose the point that I do want to make at the end of the day is that perhaps it is reaching to regard a film like this, whose abstraction limits its appeal, be considered part of a canon of great films that tell stories that do have more to say about the human condition than an experimental vehicle such as Persona.

I give this: 3 out of 5 glass shards