Sunday, July 30, 2017

Three Summer Films Worth Seeing

And now another note:

August, in most movie calendars, is a pretty quiet month, usually starting out with a bang and fizzling out quickly, but 2017 is shaping up to be a banner year, and the momentum of Blockbuster season simply refuses to abate as film after film assails us. Accordingly, we here at the General's Post have found ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to sprint just to keep up. And as such, we present:

Three Summer Films Worth Seeing

The Big Sick

Alternate Title:  Everybody Loves Kumail

One sentence synopsis:    A Pakistani-American stand-up comedian tries to deal with his white girlfriend's serious illness, while juggling the pressures of his family's traditionalist views.

The Verdict: I don't watch a lot of television. Movies are more my thing. In consequence, I had no idea who Kumail Nanjiani was nor why I should give a damn about him and his life. The Silicon Valley/Portlandia/Franklin & Bash alum was, to me, simply the latest in a long line of comedians who have decided to grace my theater screens with their autobiographical stories. And while I may know very little of Nanjiani's work, I do know a fair amount about what projects like this one typically result in, having subjected myself to both Sleepwalk With Me and Don't Think Twice. Those two movies were, to put things simply, bad, and I had every expectation that this one would be yet another entry in the "I'm a comedian, look how interesting my life is!" hall of shame. I had consequently resolved to avoid this movie at all costs, and had to be dragged into it by main force. The fact that the alternatives began with Despicable Me 3 didn't help my case to avoid it.

Fortunately, though, the resulting film turned out to be slightly different than the aforementioned disasters. How so? Well unlike those other movie, The Big Sick is funny.

Actually it's really funny, riotous even, thanks to an extremely strong script and superb comic actors to perform it. Not only is Nanjiani miles better at portraying his own autobiography (that's gotta be awkward, doesn't it?) than either Mike Birbiglia or the collection of humorless dunces that made up Don't Think Twice, but he has wisely buttressed his own performance with veteran comic talent such as an unrecognizable Ray Romano, and the increasingly ubiquitous (and irreplaceable) Holly Hunter. I was never a big fan of Ray Romano's sitcom work back in the day (I did mention that TV isn't my thing), but I have always liked his ultra-dry standup work, and that's the dynamic he brings to this one. The humor is black, he's playing the father of a young woman dealing with a mysterious, possibly fatal illness, after all, but there's such an effortless verisimilitude to his ramblings about how Kumail's life is a mess, and so is his own, that it's impossible not to laugh along. Holly Hunter meanwhile, who was the only good thing in Batman v. Superman (and that's not a small matter) plays Romano's wife, Kumail's eventual mother in law, as an irascible North Carolinian filled with piss, vinegar, and drunken stories. I don't think I appreciated just how wonderful Holly Hunter was until recently, but she's absolutely wonderful in this film, particularly in a scene where a bro-douche starts shouting racial epithets at Kumail moments before she jumps him with a liquor bottle. Hunter and Romano have an effortless, beautiful chemistry to them, and they alone make the movie worthwhile.

But they're not alone. Like I said, I don't know Kumail Nanjiani from anyone else, but while his standup routine in this film isn't anything to write home about, his interactions with the other comedians in his little group, which (in keeping with all inter-comedian dialogue in every film I've ever seen), is brutal and savage and entirely without restraint. We also get to meet Kumail's family, including Silver Linings Playbook's Anupam Kher as his father, and Zenobia Shroff as his forever-meddling mother, whose brittle attempts at pretending that the succession of Pakistani women she brings over to meet him have "just dropped by" are so stale that even the rest of his conservative family roundly mocks them. The tensions between Kumail's family and his desire to live a modern, secular life with his white girlfriend is a major element of the plot, and fortunately, it is handled deftly and with tremendous skill, neither showcasing Kumail as some perfect, passionate crusader against the demands of his rigid family (we've only seen that story done a hundred and thirty times), nor muddled with personal anecdotes of no interest to anyone except the author himself (as happened to Sleepwalk With Me).

And that's... pretty much all there is to it. The Big Sick is a romantic comedy crossed with a family drama (actually multiple family dramas all rolled together), but it all just works, in fact it works astoundingly well, given how badly most of these sorts of films tend to fail. The whole exercise has a warmth to it, a wondrous chemistry that one sees only on the rare occasions when a cast and a script come together in just the right way. All of the minor characters, from Kumail's fellow comedians (mostly SNL alums like Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham), to his more conservative brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar), to the patient herself, played by Zoe Kazan, who has the unenviable role of portraying the writer of the movie. Everyone just works so well together in this one that the whole movie gels around them. As a result, despite every expectation I had, The Big Sick turned out to be one of the best films I've seen in this remarkable year.

Final Score:  8/10


Spider-man: Homecoming

Alternate Title:  Spider-man, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Meta-casting

One sentence synopsis:   Peter Parker struggles to balance life as a high schooler with his desire to become an Avenger, while confronting an underground arms trafficking ring and trying to prove himself to Tony Stark.

The Verdict:  I'm a Marvel kid. As such, the offerings of the MCU have been a neverending fount of riches to me. But that said, Spider-man was not really my thing. I don't have anything against the character, mind you, just no particular enthusiasm for him (my preference was for Iron Man and Cap). Ever since Spider-man first made it to screen back in 2002, he's shown up six times, in the original three films, which were very good (up until number 3, at least), in the two Sony reboots, which were godawful, and in Civil War, which... was. The news that, following the cataclysm that was Amazing Spider-man 2, that Spidey would be returning to the MCU where he belonged, was certainly overdue, and a source of some approval from me (more MCU is an absolute good at this point), but I wasn't blown away by the prospect of starting all over again with Spider-man, having done so twice already in this young century.

I should have been.

Spider-man: Homecoming is a superb movie, one of the better offerings of the post-Avengers' MCU, a small-scale film with big-scale skill behind it, one that manages to fit Spider-man, or more precisely this Spider-man into the wider universe as though he had always been there, finding a niche for him that isn't taken up by the other films in the MCU canon. It boasts yet another stellar super-cast, which begins with Billy Elliot's Tom Holland as a Peter Parker who finally both looks and acts like a High Schooler. While there are varying opinions on how good Toby McGuire was in the role, and Andrew Garfield would eventually go on to become a fine actor in his own right, I think it's unquestionable that Hooper is the best Peter Parker we've so far seen, naive and foolish and trying to be more responsible than his age normally allows for. Hooper plays a nerd (and an American one at that) perfectly, and is supplemented by a whole host of other high-school(ish) aged actors for his peers, from newcomer Jacob Batalon as Peter's best friend Ned, Disney channel star Zendaya Coleman as "MJ", re-envisioned in this film as a slightly weird, intellectual loner, and Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori as "Flash", the class dickhead, who is fortunately much better in this film than he was in that one. All of these kids act like kids, awkward as hell, smart-asses to a fault, completely without an idea what they are doing most of the time, and obsessed with looking cool, however they imagine that to be. The kids, Parker in particular, are at the center of the story, which is one of the main reasons this film works at all.

But of course there are other elements to the film as well, including Robert Downey Jr., reprising his role once again as Tony Stark, who this time is tasked with taking on a sort of mentorship role to a young would-be superhero. Tony Stark is, of course, roughly the last person in the MCU one would normally trust with molding young minds (next to Ultron, I suppose), but the movie plainly knows this, and more importantly, doesn't over-use Stark, having him step in where necessary for a series of stupifyingly-good scenes, among the best in the film overall. Part of this is the fact that, ten years on, Downey as Stark is still the greatest casting job in history, but it's also just a measure of how far the character has come that he can fit into a situation like this at all, lecturing Peter on irresponsibility before hesitating and remarking to himself that he sounds like his father.

The rest of the cast is stellar as well, from Jon Favreau reprising his role as Happy Hogan, tasked this time with keeping an eye on Peter, to Marisa Tomei (whose casting caused a stir for some reason) as Aunt May, a more down-to-earth version than the elderly saints we have thus far seen in the role. Smaller appearances by Donald Glover (much better than he was in The Martian), Bokeem Woodbine, and Jennifer Connelly of all people, voicing a Stark-designed onboard AI within Peter's high-tech spider-suit. But the biggest stunt cast is, of course, Michael Keaton, whom I do not need to make any jokes about because the fact that he has come full circle from Batman to Birdman to The Vulture has already been talked to death by everyone living. Keaton is magnificent, because of course he is, a working-class construction worker-made-good who is now trying to stay on top economically by any means necessary, even if that means stealing alien super-tech from the Government and Stark Industries and selling it to the highest bidder. Keaton is a charming bastard even when in a murderous frenzy, but the film never turns him into a mustache-twirling asshole the way a lot of Marvel villains have. Marvel is unique among superhero franchises in building its films not on its villains but on the main characters (this is not as common as it might sound), but Keaton's Vulture is a major step away from that, and while he's not quite the equal of Loki, he's still one of the best villains the series has given us.

Homecoming isn't perfect, of course. The plot, despite the excellent use of detail and setting, is fairly bog-standard, and the movie seems to be aiming for either an underclass anti-hero or Donald-Trump-as-a-supervillain theme with Vulture, neither of which ultimately come to fruition. The stakes and scale are kept deliberately low as well, so if you're obsessive about big sweeping changes being made to the universe as a whole, it will be possible to dismiss the film as nothing but filler (as some already have. But the film is ultimately just extremely well-made , with Onion News Network's Creative Director Jon Watts at the helm. By this point, Marvel hitting these things out of the park is so routine it barely merits comment (he said while commenting upon it...), but given what the rest of the world manages to foul up when it comes to superheroes, the fact that they're not only still going but still going at this level is worth stopping to recognize, even if we've done it so many times before.

And if the trailers for Thor 3 are anything to go by, we'll probably be doing so again before the year is out.

Final Score:  7.5/10


The Little Hours

Alternate Title:  Chanson de Geste

One sentence synopsis:    A servant fleeing from the vengeance of his master masquerades as a deaf-mute worker at a rural convent where the nuns are all crazy.

The Verdict:  People occasionally accuse me of not seeing enough indie movies, accusing me of having too much love for the MCU, for instance, or for the mainstream wing of Hollywood overall. And it's true, I have always rejected the temptation to engage in hipsterisms, whereby movies are only good if they have budgets of nine dollars and nobody else has ever heard of them. It does not hurt that some of the worst films I've ever seen on this project, films like Under the Skin or White God or Ballet 422, are all obscure indie films watched by a handful of critics, and one savage, raving lunatic (hi). But while I've never made a secret of my appreciation for popular filmmaking (at least when it's not undertaken by Michael Bay, I have standards), a quick glance through my back-catalogue of reviews will reveal many dozens of obsure indie films that I saw on a lark, some of which I hated and some of which I did not. And if anyone needs more proof, consider the film before us here, a narrow-released indie comedy based on the works of a 12th century poet.

Indie enough for you, motherfuckers?

The Little Hours comes to us courtesy of boyfriend/girlfriend team Jeff Baena and Aubrey Plaza, respectively director of and star of this film, one of several they've done together. Baena I know nothing about, as his previous work failed to cross my radar, but Plaza I do know, and don't like. It's not that she's a bad actress, far from it, it's that her preferred character is one designed, as if in a laboratory, to piss me the hell off, the entitled, hipster douche who gets to be a dickhead to everyone because this is her movie (I call this particular malady 'House Syndrome'). But while I'm no fan of Plaza's, I'm a huge fan of John C. Reilly, who has only risen in my estimation with (almost) every film I've seen him in, and who steals the show in this movie, playing a jovial, lecherous, drunken, charming, wonderful priest named Father Tommaso, head of a convent of nuns who are themselves abusive, violent, foul-mouthed lechers, and who fits right in perfectly. These nuns are played variously by such actresses as Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Plaza herself, who betrays a certain self-awareness of her archetypical role by casting herself explicitly as a horrible, grating person who is also a violent rapist and a human-sacrificing witch.

Yes, this is still a comedy.

In fact, it's not just any comedy. The Little Hours is in fact a re-telling of Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron, the classical collection of novellas written in the mid-14th century about a group of young, wealthy Italians who amuse themselves by making up and telling ribald tales. The framing story is absent here, but the plot itself is straight out of the Boccacio's tales, which are reasonably obscure now but were the Lord of the Rings of the late Middle Ages, read endlessly, compared to Dante's Divine Comedy, and used as the explicit model for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Where Plaza and Baena got the notion to turn a handful of these tales into a movie, I have no idea, but they have studiously done so, placing the film in its historical setting of Northern Italy, while updating the language to make everyone sound like foul-mouthed Brooklyners, as a way of "de-mystifying" the language of stories which were originally about everyday, average folk in all their drunken, debauched lechery. The result is a classical, medieval farce, featuring such people as Fred Armisen as a hysterical Bishop and Nick Offerman as a noble lord obsessed with the goings-on of the Guelfs (I can't decide if Offerman's inability to pronounce 'Guelf' is intentional or not). Dave Franco (brother of James), finally finds a worthwhile role after the tepid fart that was the Now You See Me series, playing a young man fleeing from Offerman's guards after cuckolding him (someone is always getting cuckolded in classical farces), and who winds up staying at a nunnery from hell, where he is abused and raped and nearly sacrificed by a coven of witches, before everyone involved is revealed to be equally lecherous and bawdy and merriment is permitted to break out at last. It's a classical farce, this is what you get.

But classical or not, is it any good? Well... actually yeah, surprisingly so. Some movies need a while to percolate in one's mind before one can make definitive claims on them, and The Little Hours was one that I was lukewarm on initially but have thought more and more highly of as the days have passed. It's certainly not going to be to everyone's taste, and the story structure (such as it is) is a complete mess by modern standards, but I find I admire the film for daring to be what it is, for adopting the anachronistic elements of the old 14th century story, warts and all (nuns raping men was the rage back in the early modern period) without a care in the world as to what people might think of it. I admire it for not attempting to force a modern three-act structure into a tale that was designed as a throwaway piece of light entertainment, and for wisely selecting Reilly as a soft, emotional core of the film, rather than bloviating endlessly on the iniquities of women's roles in the 14th century or some other academic polemic. Its ribaldry is properly ribald, not merely an occasional recitation of a four-letter word, and it neither luxuriates in how backwards the Middle Ages were, nor "modernizes" them the way a lot of over-artistic crap does. And to top all, it's actually funny. Not screamingly-so, but funny enough to be worth a see, if you are inclined to check out the weirder side of the indie world.

I don't pretend that The Little Hours is for everyone, but not every movie has to be. And loathe as I am to admit it, I am pretty much exactly the intended audience that it is for. Maybe that means I can't be impartial, but if I can't use this blog to champion quirky little films that are weird and horrible in all the right ways, what purpose in having it in the first place?

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time: Can Chris Nolan pull off a war movie?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Baby Driver

Alternate Title:  Reservoir Pups
One sentence synopsis:  A young man with a gift for getaway driving tries to extricate himself and his girlfriend from the criminal world.

Things Havoc liked:   Edgar Wright is a good filmmaker. This much is not really in question. He's made a number of original, interesting, stylish movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and was in line to direct Ant-Man before Disney forced him out over the dreaded "creative differences". Following his departure from that film, Wright decided to revive a passion project that he conceived of all the way back in 1993, a movie about a music-loving kid who drives cars really well, and about the various cast of criminal ne'erdowells that he practices this skill with.

Who is this kid? Well, that would be Baby, played by a young actor named Ansel Elgort, whose previous roles were all in movies I have desperately avoided seeing (things like the Carrie remake, Divergent, or The Fault in our Stars). Baby (where he got that name is never explained), is a supremely talented driver who relies on music, mostly indie rock classics from the 60s through today, to not only time the mind-shatteringly difficult stunts he pulls in the various commuter cars that he hijacks for his missions, but also to drown out the tinnitus that he is afflicted with, thanks to a car wreck as a child. Don't take any of this preposterous setup seriously though, as the movie doesn't much, simply throwing character traits that the filmmakers imagine sound cool at the wall and seeing what sticks. Elgort himself is actually quite good in the role, a sweet, down-home southern boy with an encyclopedic MP3 library and a penchant for recording the criminal discussions of his co-conspirators, not for blackmail material, but because he likes to remix them into mix tapes. And a sweet young thing like Baby must, of course, have a sweet young thing as a girlfriend, in this case Lily James, as Debora, a waitress with a heart of gold and an eye for fellow sweet young things. There are rules to this kind of setup, after all.

So who else is in Baby Driver? A lot of people actually. Kevin Spacey and John Hamm get to play criminals extraordinaire, the former basically channeling his House of Cards persona as a ringleader who calls the shots, the latter as a sexed-up playboy who, one senses, does these jobs because they are fun, and because his hot girlfriend (Eiza González) wants to do them. I jump at any chance to see John Hamm in anything, and Spacey is a fun presence even in bad movies, which Baby Driver is manifestly not. But neither Hamm nor Spacey can hold a candle to Jamie Foxx, playing a wound up impulsive killer named Bats, who seems to be drawn from a combination of Pulp Fiction and Training Day. Foxx is always at his best when he's playing characters that are a little bit deranged (Any Given Sunday proved that, if nothing else), and so naturally he's in his element here. If you just want to watch good, fun actors having a blast bouncing off one another, look no further.

And that's really the key to Baby Driver. It's not the sort of movie where plot synopses and dramatic acting chops are the order of the day. It's instead the sort of movie that was more common around twenty-five years ago, a film that's about a style more than it is a plot or a character set. It's the kind of movie where a character will slip headphones on and listen to an indie rock song that just happens to narrate everything he encounters while fetching coffee that day, where characters exhibit superhuman feats of timing, skill, and coolness so effortlessly that nobody even acts surprised when they handbrake their car into a u-turn on a freeway and begin weaving through oncoming traffic at a hundred miles an hour. It's the kind of movie where people pop up out of nowhere with guns whenever they are needed, where everyone speaks in the same metaphor-laden dialect without being prompted, where everyone has a name like "Doc" or "Buddy" or "Baby", and there's no real need to explain why, because this is just a world where cool things happen because they are cool, and everyone is kind of expected to already know this.

Things Havoc disliked: In short, it's a Tarantino movie. And that's a problem, because Edgar Wright is not Quentin Tarantino.

Now, granted, neither is Tarantino himself on occasion. I'll be the first to admit that Inglorious Basterds was a bit of a disaster, and Django Unchained was about two thirds of a good movie stapled to one third of an awful one. But even in his down-periods, Tarantino is a legitimately great filmmaker, a genius of style over substance who has produced some of the most astounding works this sort of genre has to offer. And while there's a case to be made that Edgar Wright is also a great filmmaker (both Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim are legitimately great films), this is not his genre or style, and it shows.

Remember how I mentioned that Wright dreamed this film up in the early 90s? Well that's what this whole exercise feels like, an early 90s indie film, aping quite directly the style of Tarantino masterworks like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. And that's fine, really, except that Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs were revolutionary movies, legitimate masterpieces that redefined how films could be made, while Baby Driver feels like a fun weekend for the cast and crew, driving around downtown Atlanta and reciting cliched dialogue ironically. It's not that it's done badly, in fact in several moments its done quite well, but quite well is not a good enough excuse when the plot is as conventional as "earnest criminal wants to give up his life of crime but has trouble getting out". Pulp Fiction, which this movie so desperately wants to be, with its long-takes and musical sensibilities and dialogue cribbed in turn from 70s B-movie classics, had a plot that was sprawling and multi-layered, told out of order and re-arranged into a cinematic ouroboros. Baby Driver, meanwhile, carries a plot so standard that I've seen three separate versions of it this year alone. Reservoir Dogs, which this movie also desperately wants to be, punctuated the collected and luxurious dialogue of the various characters with moments of stark brutality and wild tonal shifts that purposely disoriented the audience for effect. Baby Driver, meanwhile, seems to have gone through the trouble of obtaining an R-rating just so it could say 'fuck' a couple of times. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, in short, were created by a master of the genre. Baby Driver was created by someone who admires a master of the genre, who may himself be a master of other genres, but not of this one.

Final thoughts:   I don't want to give the impression that Baby Driver is a bad movie, because it isn't, not at all. Indeed it's a fun movie with fun driving and fun actors having a lot of fun. But the critical acclaim it has been garnering on its route through the festival circuit puzzles me, if I'm being honest, as the movie is really nothing more than a fun diversion with a couple of nods towards much better films of yesteryear. I have nothing against throwback films, nor against skilled directors trying their hand at another style than the one they got famous for, but not all such experiments are going to result in Oscar-caliber stuff, and Baby Driver, while a fun diversion, is really nothing special, all things considered.

That said, gearheads or driving enthusiasts who like anything with a car chase will find Baby Driver diverting, as will anyone who just wants to kill a couple of hours watching something reasonably fun. Just don't go into the movie expecting something life-changing, because the only revolutions to be found here belong to a couple of tires.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  A comedian's auto-biography on film?  Oh joy....

Monday, July 3, 2017

Summer Vacation Roundup

And now, a note

As some of you might already know, I spent a number of weeks on vacation last month in various remote parts of the world (Stalingrad!). As such, this threw my schedule into more chaos than it typically is in even at this time of year, and I was unable to give proper reviews and attention to a handful of movies I saw, and liked. Though the films below are now pretty much all out of theaters, I wanted to record, for the record, my thoughts on a trio of films that you may or may not have seen, such that if you did miss them, you have a chance to make up for it on Netflix or other such services.

I also wanted to take the chance to talk about a film that deserves no longer review, but we'll get there...

Three films you should see if you haven't already (and one you should not)


Alternate Title:  Straight Outta Frankenstein

One sentence synopsis:    A young man with a passion for street magic gets tangled up in the drug world while trying to find a way out for himself and his sister.

The Verdict: When the mainstream theaters fail you, and they eventually will, I find that the indie parts of the multiplex often provide relief. And so it was that I decided to see an intriguing little film by the name of Sleight, a biopic of sorts about Bo (Jacob Latimore) a young black man living in the bad parts of LA. With his parents both dead, Bo's life consists of trying to make enough money to get himself and his younger sister out of the ghetto. By day, he works as a street magician, using sleight of hand, misdirection, showmanship, and clever film editing (all magician movies give into this temptation eventually) to amaze crowds on Venice Beach. By night, he works as a drug dealer for regional drug baron Angelo (played by The West Wing's Dulé Hill), selling pot and ecstasy to partyers and club owners around Los Angeles. Bo treats his drug work as just another job (as, I assume, do most dealers), but inevitably things begin to get darker when a rival gang moves in and Angelo's demands begin to escalate from drug running to hardcore violence, and Bo must find a way to get out of a life he no longer wants any part of.

Oh, and there's also mad science.

Yeah, Sleight is kind of a weird one, folks, in that it's a perfectly conventional "nice kid tries to escape the hard life" story that periodically dips into semi-deranged territory, as early on we discover that Bo's magic isn't a hobby or even a vocation but an obsession, a means by which he can, as he puts it "do what nobody else can", using everything from old-fashioned tricks to backyard cybernetic surgery to give himself the capacity to amaze and astonish. If that means implanting an electromagnetic dynamo in his shoulder and swabbing the resulting infection with iodine every day, then in Bo's mind, it's a small price to pay for greatness. As such, while the whole pattern of the movie is something we've seen a dozen times before, the film has these moments where all of a sudden it replaces the scared, naive kid at the center of the swirling world of drugs and crime with Magneto and just kind of watches what happens. The result isn't quite as revolutionary as it could be, but it has its moments, such as one scene where Bo walks into Angelo's house and responds to a gangster's threats by ripping out his dental fillings.

All of the participants do a reasonably decent job with the material, particularly Latimore, and Seychelle Gabriel, playing Bo's girlfriend Holly (and whose previous appearance in a movie I saw shall not be spoken of). Neither one are transcendent, mind you, but this is a genre where the primary competition is Pras in Turn it Up, and both of them manage to clear that low bar with fair ease. Dulé Hill, meanwhile, tries his best to be a menacing gangster in the vein of Denzel Washington from American Gangster, talking a big game and smiling a lot before switching on the screaming tirades and machete mutilations, but is hampered by the fact that Dulé Hill has always appeared approximately as intimidating as a bowl of soup, regardless of the role. The story is entirely predictable, from the gradual descent into moral quandaries to the beyond the pale threats of the villainous gang leader, to the final rousing scene in which our hero finally stands up to the violent thugs who are oppressing him, but the details, tinged as they are with the unhinged, keeps things reasonably fresh, even if we know where the movie is ultimately going.

In the end, I have to admit that I liked Sleight a good deal more than I expected to. There are, after all, always new ways to tell a well-worn story, and while Sleight never quite lives up to the zaniness of its premise, it does enough to avoid being just another stale rehash of one of Hollywood's oldest tales. And given that I've seen movies with literally a thousand times its budget come up with literally a thousandth of its sincerity and charm, I'm certainly not going to gainsay an interesting movie for not being anything more.

Final Score:  7/10


Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2

Alternate Title:  Daddy Issues

One sentence synopsis:   The Guardians discover Starlord's semi-divine father while fleeing from a host of old foes hellbent on taking their revenge.

The Verdict:  And speaking of small, modest indie films that you've probably never heard of...

Guardians of the Galaxy was a spectacular movie in more senses than one, proof positive (if ever it were needed) that Marvel's infinite universe of magic and wonder could extend beyond basic superhero stories and into other genres like Space Opera. I loved Guardians, but was concerned about the possibility of a sequel, so delicate was the balancing act it performed, trying to be both totally irreverent and totally sentimental at the same time. And perhaps returning writer/director James Gunn knew that, for this time he has put together a movie that is much heavier on the sentiment while going a bit lighter on the irreverence. I suppose there probably wasn't much of a choice.

Now a semi-organized band of douchebag mercenaries/bounty hunters for hire, the Guardians have made themselves a host of enemies across the galaxy, partly because of the Marvel Cosmos being filled with officious dickheads, and partly because the Guardians themselves are the same kleptomaniacal, violent lunatics that we all fell in love with back in 2014. On the run from several different gangs of heavily armed assholes out for their heads, they encounter Kurt Russell (his character has a name, but it's basically Kurt Russell), who has been searching for them so that he can reveal to Starlord that he's his father, and that he's a God. Because of course he is. At the same time, half the galaxy is chasing down the rest of the guardians, be it Gamora's sister Nebula (Dr. Who's Karen Gillian), screaming mad and desperate for revenge, Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker), now exiled from his fellow space pirates for child trafficking and looking to find Starlord for purposes he himself likely doesn't know, or an entire host of gold-painted douchebags called the Sovereign, who want to lay waste to the Guardians because they are assholes (and because Rocket, in perfect raccoon style, stole everything of theirs that wasn't nailed down. A lot of these subplots exist simply to give some of the other Guardians something to do for most of the run-time, but I'm hardly going to complain about that, resulting as it does in things like an opening battle sequence filmed completely offscreen as a backdrop to the adventures of baby Groot's misadventures, David Hasselhoff cameos, two enormous battle sequences where one of our heroes disposes effortlessly of so many heavily-armed ravagers that the sequence becomes gut-bustingly funny, and best of all, Sylvester Stallone making an appearance as a Ravager admiral with ties to Yondu. Sly seems to be sending up his performance in Judge Dredd, which given the tone of this movie, is beyond hilarious, and if this leads to him appearing in future Marvel films, so much the better.

Honestly though, the focus this time isn't on the zaniness but the characters, which is not exactly what I expected from Guardians of all movies, but looking back is probably the correct move. Starlord's lingering abandonment issues from having lost his mother and having been kidnapped by space pirates as a kid continue to haunt him, while both Gamora and even Rocket, of all people, get some excellent moments circulating around their place in a misfit surrogate family like the Guardians, and the distance between what they claim their place is and what it actually is. The film never moves into telling instead of showing, but it's plain that Gunn is more comfortable with the characters this time, and more willing to explore the dynamics between them in greater depth than the previous movie, five-way-origin-story as it was mixed with a galaxy-devouring threat, had time to do. The core theme of the film though is fatherhood, surrogate or otherwise, as evidenced by Kurt Russell trying to make up for lost time with his demigod son, Yondu's remarkably complex relationship with Starlord, one explored throughout the course of the film with surprising depth and even pathos, Nebula and Gamora's shared experience being raised by an abusive monster in Thanos, and even Sly's own semi-father relationship with Yondu (okay, I'm stretching here, but I wanted to shoehorn the fact that Stallone is in this film into the review once more).

So does this mean that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is just as good as its predecessor? Well... no. It's not far off, to be fair, but with this much emphasis on secondary characters and on the sentimental possibilities of certain characters' stories, someone kind of has to get the shaft. Both Dave Bautista's Drax and Zoe Saldana's Gamora have very little to do in this film save for sitting around commenting on the actions of other characters, including those of Pom Klementieff's Mantis, a fairly forgettable throwaway who doesn't bring enough to the film to justify her existence there. The writing isn't quite as sharp as it was last time, the film needing to spell more of its emotional core out rather than let it flow organically. The difference is one of degrees, but it's there, palpable in that the sequel to a movie that created a surrogate family without once using the word 'family' now has to actually hammer the point home with considerably less finesse. There's also the question of the missing humor. Not that Guardians 2 isn't funny mind you, it's just not as funny as the last film, in part because the movie is concentrating on other matters, but also because the simple fact that the characters embody their archetypes is no longer good enough. Rocket being homicidal despite being a furry little procoynid, or Drax speaking in utterly literal statements all the time is no longer good enough to carry the film. In fairness to Gunn, it's clear he and the cast knows this, but nevertheless, some of the edge that carried Guardians through the original minefield of sentiment and saccharinity has clearly been lost, and will need to be freshly honed in the sequel.

All that being said, Guardians of the Galaxy's second chapter is a really good film, the best superhero movie of the year so-far, and a worthy addition to the illustrious Marvel canon. It may be a little less fresh than its predecessor and it may feel unavoidably like filler at points, but when the filler is this good, it's hard to get upset.

Final Score:  7.5/10


Your Name

Alternate Title:  Freaky Friday the 13th

One sentence synopsis:    A young man in Tokyo and a girl in the Japanese countryside begin spontaneously switching bodies, and struggle to discover who each other are.

The Verdict:  I will not pretend to be the biggest anime fan around. Oh don't get me wrong, I've nothing against Japanese animation, and I've seen the classics, like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Naussica, Akira, Ghost in the Shell (not that one), Howl's Moving Castle, to name a few. But beyond the Miyazaki canon and a handful of other films or series that have crossed my path, Anime and I have a fairly cool, if cordial, relationship. It's not that I dislike it, it's just that the cultural conventions of the art form, from the stammering male protagonists to the unsubtle upskirt shots of the female ones, just really aren't my thing overall. Still, that sort of objection has never prevented me from catching a good movie when one presents itself, and so on the back of several absolutely glowing reports from friends of mine who do appreciate Anime, I decided to go and check out our latest import from our friends in the Far East.

Your Name comes to us from the CoMix Wave Films studio, a studio whose pedigree is second only to the legendary Studio Ghibli itself, and not by much at that. Though nowhere near as well known in the States, CoMix Wave is responsible for several classic masterpieces of the Anime film world, including 5 Centimeters per Second, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and The Garden of Words. The majority of CoMix Wave's films, including the aforementioned three classics and Your Name itself, come from director Makoto Shinkai, CoMix' Miyazaki (though he disputes this characterization). Shinkai's specialty has always been labyrinthine films with complex, philosophical plots, rather than the more artful fantastical fare that Ghibli focuses in, and Your Name is no exception. At its core, the film is about two young people, Taki, a university student in Tokyo, who works nights as a waiter to make ends meet, and Mitsuha, a high school student from a small town in rural Japan, who serves as a shrine priestess in the local Shinto temple, and who is otherwise bored stiff by her small town's limited horizons. For reasons neither of them can understand, the two begin body swapping one day, waking up in one another's lives for a day at a time. Communicating with one another by leaving text messages on their smartphones, the two try and puzzle out what's happening without actually having physically met, at least until...

... well never mind the until, really. Let's just say the plot gets real complex real fast, as Taki and Mitsuha try and discover what seems to be happening here, and why. All of this, however, takes place before the backdrop of gorgeous animation, classical in style for anime, though not if one is only used to the Ghibli films. The focus here is on quotidian animation, fireflies at night, the glint of torchlight on painted faces, a weed-filled vacant lot near the outskirts of a town, cramped Tokyo apartments, that sort of thing. It's a far cry from the hyper-extended fantasias of films like Paprika or Spirited Away, but no less beautiful for the lack. The characters, as well, are more subdued than the customary anime stock types, less explosive screaming and sweat drops than the typically-madcap pace of Anime allows for (I don't want to paint with too broad a brush here, but Anime does have its tendencies). The characters are well written, and sharp enough to follow along with the twists of the plot, and the film overall has a charming, romantic quality to it that translates well out of context, cultural and otherwise.

Unfortunately, the need to translate out of context is pretty vital, because Your Name, for all its charming simplicity at points, is a tremendously complicated film, involving not only body swapping but time travel, astrophysics, spiritualism, hallucinogenic drugs, memory loss, and a pair of narrators, both of them unreliable. Readers of this blog know that I've got nothing against a complex plot, I sang the praises of Cloud Atlas for years after all, but Your Name stuffs so much intricacy into its runtime that it is legitimately difficult to follow. This is not an uncommon problem with more adult-oriented anime (not that kind of adult-oriented... well maybe that kind too). Ghost in the Shell's films and TV shows both involved complex philosophical-political discussions about everything from cognitive theory to tax policies in parliamentary governments, smashed into the middle of a modern techno-thriller. Your Name, though, is supposedly a lightweight romantic drama, which periodically gets so dense that the audience is expected to simultaneously keep track of intricate animation, complex subtitles, and explanatory super-titles used to illustrate untranslatable subtleties of grammar and wordplay within the sub-titled dialogue. Watching a film while reading two books at the same time is a tall order for anyone, and it's for that reason that, contrary to all of my snobbish tendencies, my recommendation for those who do go looking for Your Name is to find a dubbed copy, and reduce the parallel tracks you have to simultaneously juggle to two or so.

Honestly, Your Name is quite a good film, though its indulgence of far too much complex gamesmanship keeps its from being a great one. It bears very little in common with most of the popular anime which we of the non-Otaku world encounter, but it's no less of a film for it, a highly-complex telling of a very simple story, done without the melodrama and artifice that such stories would normally be lathered with, either in Japan or here. And given the number of people I know who absolutely adore this film, I'd bet that if you're willing to put work into decoding it, Your Name may just wind up surprising you.

Final Score:  7/10


Megan Leavey

Alternate Title:  The Arf Locker

One sentence synopsis:   A marine with a troubled past bonds with her bomb-sniffing dog while deployed to Iraq.

The Verdict:  As longtime readers of this project already know, some weeks do not offer a lot of choice when it comes to what to see, weeks that offer either a slate of movies I've already seen, or things like Alien: Covenant (Prometheus did not warrant a sequel) or The Mummy (now with 90% less fun!). As such, I went to see Megan Leavey despite my ambivalence towards both subject and cast, in the hopes that, as has happened many a time, the movie would prove better than my expectations allowed for.

It did not.

Admittedly, it didn't prove much worse either. Megan Leavey stars Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara, and an actress I have never, despite all the stuff I keep seeing her in, decided if I like or not. Marta plays the titular character of Megan Leavey, a washed up kid from some dead-end town on the Atlantic seaboard who joins the Marines due to a lack of options beyond overdosing on drugs, and through a series of misadventures, winds up assigned to the K-9 corps, working with an "incorrigible" German Shepherd named Rex. They don't like one another at first, they bond, they go to Iraq, they get into combat and perform heroically, they have trouble adjusting to civilian life back home, you've seen this song and dance before, both better and worse, in a hundred other movies. So what makes this one different?

Well... not much, to be honest. This one has a dog, certainly, and that's not nothing, as the dog actor playing Rex is the best actor in the movie (animal actors often are, I find, mostly because they have better lines). True, the film has the usual problem wherein they get the dog to bark a few times and then expect the audience to pretend that it's a 'wild, uncontrollable beast', but I suppose there's limited options for getting a nice dog to appear fearsome. There are, admittedly, a couple of nice lines relating to the business of dogs in Iraq, such as the one where a soldier tries to scare Megan with tales of how the insurgents will kidnap K-9 dogs and strap bombs to them before sending them back to their handlers, only for Megan to respond that, given that Rex can tear a man's arm off with his jaws at her command, she's not overly concerned about that possibility (there's a really awesome action movie to be made here somewhere).

There's also the cast, which is somewhat more exalted than one might normally find in movies like this, though the film does not exactly take full advantage of that fact. Common, who I'm finding increasingly ubiquitous in my filmgoing experiences, plays Megan's tough-but-with-a-good-heart sergeant at the K-9 corps, but while on paper this should seem to be a perfect choice, the fact is that Common is not a particularly good actor when forced to play things straight, being wooden and inflexible in all the wrong ways. Granted, there are movies where he can work around this (John Wick 2 for instance), but here he goes into his Selma/Timothy Green style of direct unemotional declarations of his lines, and it just doesn't work. Tom Felton, of the Harry Potter series, has a small role as a veteran dog handler, which seems to have been added to the movie purely to make the young girls coo (which several of them literally did upon seeing him in my screening), while veteran stars Edie Falco and Will Patton get to play Megan's mother and step-father, the former as a bubble-headed shrew, the latter practically without lines. Neither has much chance to do more than play stereotypes. At least they get a better shot than Bradley Whitford though, who is horrifically mis-cast as Megan's blue-collar working stiff father. I love Whitford, I have for years, but he's about as authentically blue collar as Donald Trump, and has about the same ability to pretend as much, and his attempts to portray a salt-of-the-earth character are just embarrassing, given his polished accent and upper-crust mannerisms. Whitford works great in films like Get Out or The Cabin in the Woods, not in this.

Ultimately, Megan Leavey isn't a bad film. The dog is always entertaining, and Mara is actually pretty decent given the material, underselling everything heavily, which is the right call in a story that can easily slide into melodrama. But the movie overall is really nothing special, a re-hash of American Sniper with dogs, and of about the same level of quality. Unless you're one of those who absolutely has to see every movie involving the military out of some misplaced sense of patriotism (or if you're punishing yourself with a weekly film schedule), there's just no reason to run out for this one. If you've seen the trailers, you've already seen the entire production.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time: We kick off the heart of the summer blockbuster season with style.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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