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.

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