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The Elephant Man (1980, dir. David Lynch)

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Simply put, The Elephant Man is one the greatest films ever made. This is the last of David Lynch’s feature film work had to watch, something I’d put off for years because I didn’t want to run out of his work that could be new to me. But, with the impending return of Twin Peaks, I decided now was the time to complete his filmography. I can’t imagine picking a better film that both contrasts with so much of work, yet compliments it.

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The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook)

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In the 1920s, Korea was under the control of Japan as part of its expanding empire. In this state of affairs lives Tamako, a pickpocket raised by a Fagin-esque house mother. Tamako is chosen by the art forger “Count Fujiwara” to be his accomplice in collecting the fortune of a young Japanese noble lady. This involves Tamako posing as her new handmaiden and traveling to live with the woman on her uncle’s rural estate. Tamako feels an almost immediate bond with her new mistress, Lady Hideko when they first meet. However, she begins to learn the relationship between Lady Hideko and Uncle Kouzuki is much more complicated and darker than she first expected. When Fujiwara arrives at the estate, Tamako finds herself forced to carry out a plan she is no longer comfortable with. But there is more going on here than our protagonist realizes.

I haven’t devoured the work of Park Chan-wook, but what I have seen I’ve loved. Oldboy is the title most film fans would recognize, but I enjoyed his vampire film Thirst more. His first English-language film Stoker was an engaging moody art house flick. But The Handmaiden feels like a pinnacle film. Much like, Moonlight which I just watched and reviewed, The Handmaiden is made by a filmmaker who is very confident in his work. Every technical, structural, and character element is finely crafted and presented. The story elements are woven with a subtext that speaks to colonialism, identity, and sexuality. What you end up with is a film that misses no marks and is near perfection.

The film is presented in three chapters, the first is focused on Tamako, the second on Lady Hideko, and the third acts as the denouement of the story. From the opening frames, Tamako is presented as a very captivating character. She is an incredibly confident young woman who quickly switches between her own personality and the submissive handmaiden, Sook-lee. Without giving away the second act reveal, our presentation of Tamako is colored in a very biased way and in the second chapter we see her in a very different light, the same is said for Lady Hideko.

Lady Hideko, the co-protagonist of the film, is an incredibly complicated character. She was raised by her Uncle and late Aunt, and the dark history she has in the estate is truly disturbing. Her Uncle treasures his vast book collection many than any human, his late wife included, and this obsession has ties to what led her to be found hanging from the cherry blossom tree in the yard. Hideko is a character who provokes emotions and reactions from everyone around her, a trait that is important as men come from Japan to hear her do dramatic readings from her Uncle’s collection. What she does to Tamako can at times seem cruel, but there is a dark secret behind her motives.

The Handmaiden is a very difficult film to talk about without giving away secrets. The film borrows heavily from the tone of classic Gothic literature (Rebecca, Jane Eyre) but also feels indebted to Noir like Double Indemnity. The estate itself is a fusion of Japanese and English architecture (the film is based on a British novel). Beyond the story is a commentary on the complicated history between Japan and Korea. Hideko’s Uncle is a Korean who desperately wishes to be Japanese. So much so he married a Japanese noblewoman and took her family name over his. He comments at one point that everything about Korea is filth and he wants to wash it away. Moments like that elevate a film that could be a simple thriller to a piece of filmmaking that has something to say about it’s creator’s cultural history. This is a film that once you see it, you’ll have frames frozen in your mind for a long time after.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

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The likely cause of almost every argument or conflict you have had or will have in your life is an inability to express your point of view through language. Add to this a common desire of getting your point across rather than hearing another’s and you spiral into conflicts that can increase in intensity. Why do we become so focused on what we have to say rather than listen to another? Why is empathy such a hard mindset for us to achieve? Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival wants to explore ideas of communication and perspective and, like all the best science fiction uses a fantastical scenario to present us with very real ideas.

The film opens with a montage showing the birth, life, and death of a little girl. She’s the daughter of Louise Banks (Amy Adams). It’s a pretty rough opening, even more so I would dare than Up. After this montage, we cut to Louise arriving at the college campus where she works as a linguist. The campus is in an uproar, and she eventually learns that twelve strange objects have appeared across the Earth and are believed to be alien craft. Louise is brought into the mission to make successful communication by the U.S. government who are in turn coordinating with the developed nations of the world. Where Arrival goes will definitely surprise you and how the arrival of these beings connects to the story of Louise’s daughter will be the greatest revelation of all.

With this film I can say that Villeneuve has cemented himself as one of my favorite directors of all time and I believe is on his way to becoming one of the best in the art form. I don’t think we have seen his “great film” yet, but we are incredibly close and I’m excited. There is no bombast in his style. While Kubrick was a very much a visual minimalist he could become explosive in his work, not that it was a bad thing and he most certainly earned it. Christopher Nolan is much more in line with Kubrick sensibilities, frigid emotionally but very complex in ideas and concepts. Villeneuve is also working on complex ideas but has a more delicate touch and can bring the human emotional experience into his work without feeling maudlin. He is able to achieve a sort of ambient emotional tone. You feel the emotion of the character without verbalization. Performances are brought out of his actors that convey raw reaction yet filtered through honest human behavior.

Every element of Arrival’s production is at the highest levels. Screenwriter Eric Heisser kept the key pieces of Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” and added the right level of personal intimacy and changes that a film version of that piece needed. Jóhann Jóhannsson, a collaborator with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario, delivers a score that evokes all the profound sense of otherworldliness the visitors should have. The moment Louise arrives at the ship, and first ventures inside is one of the most flawlessly executed sequences I’ve seen in a film all year. Johanssen’s music, the textured production design of Patrice Vermette, and the cinematography of Bradford Young coalesce into a profoundly visceral and eerie experience.

I was a couple years late to Children of Men, missing it’s 2006 release and catching up with it in 2008. What I saw was a film that captured the tone and mindset created by what is probably the most world-changing event in my lifetime, 9/11. Children of Men accurately reflected the sense of tension, paranoia, and xenophobia that was growing at the time. Using science fiction, it was able to tell that story in a way that something set in “our world” would have felt dishonest. Yet through all the despair and decay that director Alfonso Cuarón put onto the screen, he brought us to the conclusion with a sense of hope. I believe Arrival is a film that serendipitously happened at the right time and when it was needed. There is a profound ideological shift going on in our world, and it is incredibly scary right now. In these moments cinema can guide us and help move from these places of despair and remind us there is hope. Arrival is speaking about the growing divisions between nations, communities, and virtually everyone. The need to expand perspectives and work hard to see the world outside of how we’ve always seen it is essential to our survival. The myopic military figures in the film are not villains, they just are too scared to see beyond how they’ve always seen. We have to grasp the idea that life is not about convincing others to see our way but to learn and have empathy for the viewpoint of others. In the same way that Children of Men affected and changed me, Arrival has/is/will do the same and is going to be a film that remains with me for the rest of my life I suspect.

 

***SPOILERS ABOUT THE ENDING***

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bfg

On a dark night, at the witching hour, an orphan named Sophie glimpses a strange shadow on the streets, quickly realizing it’s a giant. She rushes to hide under the blankets of her bed, but a massive hand reaches in through the window and carries her off to Giant Country where her adventure begins. There she learns that her abductor is big friendly giant and that his kin are the ones she needs to watch out for.

I have been a lover of Roald Dahl since I was very little and had Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me chapter by chapter at night. From there I remember books like The Twits, Matilda, and of course The BFG. Of Dahl’s children’s books The BFG is one I don’t think about often. I remembered the illustrations by Quentin Blake with the giant’s comically oversized ears, but as for the story I didn’t remember much of it. Steven Spielberg is another figure I remember vividly from my childhood. I can’t say what the first Spielberg movie I saw was, I have memories of a some scenes from E.T. early on, but I would guess the first one I watched in its entirety was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is known for the sentimentality he tries to weave into his work, which would seem to be in opposition to the sometimes caustic wit Dahl brings to his writing.

The acting in The BFG is pretty much perfect. Mark Rylance as the titular giant has captured every aspect of the character from his soft garbled understanding of language to his jumps from hunched shuffler around his cave to nimble leaper through the city streets. Ruby Barnhill as Sophie delivers a very confident performance, never coming across as an act-y kid, but feeling like an actual Dahl protagonist. The supporting cast doesn’t have much screen time, but they do their jobs adequately, the evil giants being the big standouts. The film lives or dies on the performances of Rylance and Barnhill and they are very strong.

The plot of The BFG is quite different than I think we’ve become accustomed to lately. This is an older style of Spielberg storytelling, where there is no epic battle between the forces of good and evil. The conflict is solved fairly quickly with a short exciting moment. The emphasis is on our two central characters and their relationship. An element of the Tim Burton directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that irked me was the addition of backstory to Wonka. It felt like the most unnecessary and pointless addition to a story that didn’t need it. In the same way we got the backstory of the Grinch or prequels attempt to fill in the gaps, these choices miss the point. We don’t need to know the origin of Santa Claus to love Santa. We don’t need to know how the Easter Bunny got his eggs to love Easter.

Dahl understood the details children are truly concerned about and he knew that they would accept larger than life characters without questions about where they came from. This is where the film shines because it flows like a Dahl narrative more than any other adaptation of his work I’ve seen. The plot is a lovely mess and not much really happens. But the time we spend with these two characters as they learn about each other is action enough. I loved how long some conversation scenes were, just these two bantering and hearing The BFG transformation of the English language.

I enjoy the latest superhero beat ‘em up very much. But it is very heartening to see a film like this still being made. It’s a picture about kindness and understanding. The BFG loves to help other but is very insecure about his speech and what other might do to him if they discover his existence. Problems are not solved through violence, but through peaceful means. Yes, the mean bad giants get what’s coming to them but it’s not being blown away and destroyed. Even they have a place in the world. And in this current climate, learning to understand that even your enemies deserve life and place in the world is a refreshing idea.

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If you’ve seen the original animated Jungle Book then you pretty much know the story: Mowgli, the man cub adopted by the wolves and watched over by the panther Bagheera, pals around with Baloo the bear, has some misadventures, and ends up in a life and death battle with the brutal Shere Khan. This live-action with CG animals adaptation by Jon Favreau is the latest in Disney’s new trend of remaking past animated films with real people. They have had mixed success: Maleficent did add a lot of unseen story to Sleeping Beauty while Cinderella felt like a banal retread of familiar territory. The Jungle Book is somewhere in the middle. While not the first live action attempt at the story (see 1994’s version with Jason Scott Lee as adult Mowgli) it is very entertaining and the effects are done well enough that you don’t have to travel the uncanny valley for an hour and a half.

Neeli Sethi as Mowgli is our singular human presence (save for one flashback) of the entire film so he immediately has a ton of weight to carry. He does a champion’s job though there is the occasional “act-y kid” moment which can be forgiven when you realize he was playing to some simple hand puppets and green screen. The voice work is great and each actor matches their role. Bill Murray is a perfect Baloo and Ben Kingsley sounds just like Bagheera should. I was not a great fan of Christopher Walken as King Louie though. His casting in anything just feels like a stunt at this point. Lupita Nyong’o voice Raksha, the wolf mother of Mowgli and brings a lot of emotion to the role. My favorite of them all was Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Both his vocal performance and the work of the animators created such a terrifying and insidious villain.

The songs are minimized from the 1967 animated picture to this one. The closest we get is Bear Necessities and just a hint of King Louie’s “I Want to Talk Like You” number. Scarlett Johansson voices Kaa the Serpent and just touches on “Trust In Me”. The personalities are all as you remember them and the plot beats pretty much hit the same as the animated original. The one big divergence and my one major hang up is the way this film chooses to conclude. In the original Rudyard Kipling “Mowgli” stories he ends his time in the jungle upon discovering his birth mother and in the animated original he leaves after seeing a girl about his age come to get water for the village. This version decides to forgo Mowgli ever having a real struggle between the jungle and the village. There’s some brief tension but it ends with him playing around with his pals in the jungle.

For me, Disney’s bittersweet endings like The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and The Hound, and others were important. These are metaphors for transitioning from the innocence of childhood to learning about the difficulties of life as an adult. Now, maybe they didn’t need to have Mowgli go back to the village but I never felt like the character struggled with it as much the script would have liked me to believe. The village ends up serving as a convenient plot device for the third act but then is forgotten about. Maybe they have plans for sequel to revisit this more, but I went from really loving this film to feeling a little off at its conclusion.

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I was 7 years old when I first glimpsed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As I was flipping through the channels one summer morning I came across the opening credits of the series. I remember having trouble remembering the four nouns of the title, referring to them as simply the Ninja Turtles. Eventually, being an imaginative DIY-er, I made a mask out of a piece of purple cloth and re-purposed a green backpack and taped together cardboard paper towel tubes, and I spent hours in the backyard acting out the stories I saw. In 1990, my sister won advance screening passes via the local Fox Kids Club to the TMNT film. I loved the Turtles. But it hasn’t been something that has stuck with me, they’ve never had the complexity that makes me want to revisit them often.

The most recent film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, is the follow up to the successful 2014 reboot. The new film finds the Turtles continuing their life underground in the daytime while protecting the citizens of New York City during the night. After Shredder escapes from police custody, our heroes find themselves pushed out into the spotlight and their group goes through the inevitable existential questioning found so often in superhero sequels. Added to the mix this go round are Stephen Amell as the hockey stick wielding Casey Jones and the mutants Bebop and Rocksteady (played to perfection by Gary Anthony Williams and WWE’s Sheamus). Plus, Krang the Brain and the Technodrome make the slightest of appearances for the third act.

Out of the Shadows is not a great movie, but it is a big improvement on the 2014 film. One of the biggest complaint, and one I shared, about the first was that it was too April O’Neil focused with the Turtles in the background. For the second film we get a lot of time with the heroes with April being featured alongside them in a sort of sidekick partnership with Casey Jones. As previously mentioned, Bebop and Rocksteady are perfect recreations of their cartoon counterparts. They are buffoonish henchmen who bumble through their job with Shredder always on the edge of ending their lives, but strangely keeping them around.

My biggest issues with the film come from the overflow of content in the script and how a lot of these plot points aren’t able to be developed. Krang is the biggest example of someone who shows up in the first act to get the plot rolling, vanishes until the third act, and ends up just being a CGI punching bag so the film can have the big finale battle in the skies over New York City. Another problem I had was that right from the start of the film, April O’Neil uses her sexuality to get access to important information to the plot. It doesn’t come up again, but it is a rough start for her character. April has never been a character who flashed her midriff or seduced men. She’s an experienced reporter and it’s a shame that her opening moment in the film were so reductive.

The Out of the Shadows will feed that nostalgic itch of people who grew up with the cartoon series. It is also a big, loud dumb summer blockbuster but maybe a little less than other films under the Michael Bay banner. It’s considerably shorter than Transformers and their ilk, so that gives the Turtles a greater sense of energy and movement towards the finale. I don’t have expectations that we’ll ever have a deep, meaningful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, it was a concept developed as a parody of ninja comics in the mid 80s. But what has been made is a very fun, light movie.

warcraft

Few video game properties come to the table with a such a dense lore and mythos as Warcraft. I never really played the original real-time strategy Warcraft games, but I did put about two years worth of time into World of Warcraft, even grinding two characters to the level cap of 90 at the time. During those two years of play, what I enjoyed most was the exploration aspect. Every time my character entered a new zone it was exciting to see what monsters lay in wait, what treasures there were to find, and it was always great to spend time seeing all the beautiful design put into the world. The film Warcraft was announced ten years ago but has languished in development until the last couple years. After a decade of development, what did we end up with?

Warcraft, directed by Duncan Jones, tells the stories of the war between the human and the orcs of Azeroth. As a result of a demonic plague, the orcs construct a portal that brings them to the world of Azeroth. Souls are needed to open the portal again and bring the orcs who stayed behind. The humans immediately want to drive the orcs back and thus the war begins. The cast is filled with many confusingly similar bearded men and some beautiful animated motion capture orcs. Also, Paula Patton is a half-orc with some very distracting tusk prosthetic.

Warcraft is an utter mess of a film. This rests entirely on the screenplay which failed in something that should have been easy. The IP has thousands of years of established lore and they picked a very meaty chunk of that history. The only work the screenplay had to do was character development and it completely fails. Instead, the film is constantly jumping from location to location never allowing us to really get to know or care about the characters. The dialogue is also painfully cliched. As a knight is leaving a curious mage behind in a mystical library he turns around to utter, “And while I’m gone…try not to touch anything” followed by the mage causing a minor accident. None of the dialogue differentiates the characters or gives you a sense of who they are.

The look of Warcraft also always been exaggerated and cartoonish. This does not translate well into live action. The entire look of the Alliance armor and much of the architecture is cringeworthy. The orcs look wonderful, though. The cgi used for the other side of the film’s war is exceptional and the facial expression that comes through is quite an achievement. The orcs are also far and away the most interesting part of the film and we do not spend enough time with them. It’s essentially a 60/40 split in my opinion between humans and orcs.

For viewers unfamiliar with the world of these games, I can only imagine what a confusing, mind boggling film this must be. I have a passing familiarity with many of the characters and bits of history so I was able to feel my way through events in the film, but even I had moments of confusion about who was who. There’s an emphasis put on the importance of Durotan’s newborn orc son which will play strangely to newcomers. Easter eggs abound for the fans, which is no surprise, but when the core of your narrative is near impenetrable to people who have never played the game you have problems. Sadly, if the acting had been more over the top, a la the Dungeons & Dragons film, Warcraft might be a fun “bad” movie, but everyone is so dull and uninteresting. And worst, it’s almost as hard to tell the litany of bearded white men apart as it is the orcs.

Duncan Jones is not a bad director. His debut feature, Moon, is one of the best independent films of the last decade. His mainstream follow up was Source Code, not a terrible film but fairly forgettable. He is thankfully returning to his roots with Mute, which he calls a follow up to Moon. What he presents us with in Warcraft is very confounding. The only conclusion a viewer could come to is that Jones struggled to bring his own stamp to the film, and it was inevitably overtaken by studio notes and the marketing department. What we’re left with is a film that so desperately wants to be the start of a new franchise but doesn’t have a hook to bring in the audience you need to do that. The film is doing amazingly well in China so there may actually be more. Let’s hope they put character first and use those individual, interesting personalities to help us care about the lore, not the other way round.