Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Do you remember what it is that you loved about movies? Why you crave them, and savoir them and remember them for most of your life? This is one of those films that answers those questions. It takes us to another time, it plops us down in another place, and it tells a story that we didn't know but feels so real that it could be a memory rather than a film. Kenneth Branagh has brought us that movie, and those of you who have forgotten over the years, what he is capable of should get ready to embrace the past and recognize his talent again. This is a film that will remind you that Branagh is a writer/director of enormous ability. That he has not cast himself in the film is not a reflection on the difficulty of wearing three hats on the set, but rather an acknowledgement that the talent you need should fit the story you are telling, and he knows that.
Some critics use the phrase crowd pleaser" as a pejorative, as if the audience is irrelevant to the art. There is a school of thought that embraces this kind of view and makes ambiguous, dense and unpleasant films the sort of film that deserves praise. There are times when we want to be challenged like that, but we also go to the movies to be entertained, enlightened, and have our emotions manipulated in a way that we feel grateful for. "Belfast" is that kind of picture, one that embraces the people who see it rather than sneering at them. This is a film that you walk out of feeling thankful for having seen, rather than angry about what you have seen.
Set in 1969, as the troubles in Northern Ireland are bubbling up, Belfast tells the story of a family struggling to live life in the way most of us would like life to be lived. We want neighbors who know us and help out in tough times, we want our families to be safe from bullies of all sorts, we want to enjoy the pleasures of family life that have been built by our parents, and we don't resent the others in the neighborhood who worship differently than us or come from backgrounds dissimilar to our own. The family in this story defiantly lives the life they want in the face of political upheaval and violence. The young boy at the center of the story loves his parents and is discovering that the world does not necessarily work the way it should. There are many dramatic moments in the film that will challenge the protagonists, but in the end, it is family that trumps all and that is a good moral for a story, (as long as we are talking about a family like this).
The film is filled with great emotional moments, that are often reflected in the movies and TV shows that the two boys in the family share. The father is almost like Will Kane from "High Noon" or Jimmy Stewart from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Buddy is motivated to be better by the prodding of his mother, the crush he has on the Catholic girl in his class, and the science fiction shows he watches on TV. If this is indeed a semi-autobiographic film, Branagh gives us some good hints as to the sorts of influences he was subjected to as a child, and they turn out to be pretty good.
If you hear any discouraging words about this film, I hope you will ignore them. It may not be perfect from the perspective a a cinema snob, but it is exactly what a mature audience with a desire to be entertained should be looking for. Don't let any of those looking down on a middle brow film, stop you from taking in a great picture that will do wonders for both your heart and your love of movies.
Sunday, November 7, 2021
So this is the third film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so far, they are batting .333. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was terrific, Black Widow was so-so, and this is warmed over leftovers from a meal that I don't remember ordering. It's not that it's a bad film, it just feels like the DC Universe has rubbed off on the MCU, and that the goal of creating interconnected stories has become more important than telling a compelling story. There are ten new characters that are being put on the plate in front of us and we are supposed to care immediately? I don't think so. This is a distinct group of superheroes, true, but unlike the X-Men, where we got a similar character dump, there is not as much popular history to ease us in, and the characters start fighting amongst themselves before we have much of an idea of how they fit into the whole picture of MCU films.
The Eternals seem to fit into the same category of human development as the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Their appearance seems to arrive to prompt civilization in ways that will make the planet and its inhabitants more useful to the universe. Early on however, there is an indicator of a hidden agenda, and after an hour or so of trying to get us familiar with these characters, we are let in on their true purpose and one can legitimately wonder where this idea came from. Part of the plot focuses on the creation of Celestials, who are certainly different creatures as illustrated by "Ego" from "Guardians of the Galaxy V.2" . The brief history we are given here is designed to hide some of the surprises that are instore for the film, but they end up becoming confusing and seem inconsistent with prior knowledge and even things brought up for the first time in this story.
The Ten new characters are supposed to fight Deviants, who are depicted as mindless animals early on but for some reason develop an ethos later in the film that legitimately, provokes some philosophical conversation. That conundrum though is quickly overtaken by a sudden change of heart by the leader of the Earthbound Eternals, Salma Hayek's Ajak. I say it is a sudden turn despite the fact it takes place over a 7000 year period, because in the context of what we learn about the Eternals origins, that is a blink of an eye. For a group of heroes, who supposedly think of themselves as a family, I would say they are a dysfunctional family. There are resentments, jealousy, and apparent psychological trauma in this group. The only time they seem to cooperate is when a Deviant is in the immediate vicinity. The big threat of the story therefore ends up coming primarily from the group itself, rather than an outside force. We seem to have jumped right into "Civil War" without the preceding dozen films that it took for The Avengers to get to. Richard Madden and Gemma Chan as Ikaris and Sersi, are a couple who end up on opposite sides of the dilemma, and it seems completely real that they have broken up as a couple, although there is no hint that this was the reason.
Clearly the intent of the film makers was to create a team of heroes that is as inclusive as possible. There is a great degree of diversity among the Eternals, but some of it is a little confusing given what we ultimately learn about their origins. There are some interesting ideas in the story that will not get the attention they deserve because there are so many characters. The character of Sprite is eternally pre pubescent, but 7,000 years of life have given her feelings that are not resolvable given her physical development. The emotional choice that she makes seems to be natural, but like everyone else in the story it doesn't last long. Kumail Nanjiani is a hoot as Kingo, but when the climax comes, he is no where to be found. I enjoyed Ma Dong-seok as Gilgamesh, the keeper of the nearly mad Thena played by Angelina Jolie. Their relationship is more touching and believable than any of the others in the film, and that is another problem, Jolie is under utilized and the character of Gilgamesh is not on screen for most of the second half of the film. Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos is supposed to have the sarcastic wit in the film, but it feels way more labored than his work in Godzilla v. Kong, and that is saying something. The Ikea joke falls flat and that was supposed to be the big punchline that they used in the trailer.
There is a mid-credit scene and a scene after the credits, so the MCU fans will have plenty to speculate on, but they have nothing to do with what we saw and they raise some questions about the relationships we have seen in earlier MCU films. Maybe this will be an extension of themes covered in the comic books, but it is an example of overload in the film. I'm writing this a couple of days after seeing the movie and my memory of the events is already fading. This is a movie intended to launch the new characters in the MCU but it does not do it in a way that is very inspiring. I love the series of films and I want them to grow, but somewhere along the way, the spectacle overwhelmed the characters and stories and that is a problem. Maybe it's just me, my favorite MCU films have been Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger and Ant-Man, which were all stand alone stories, so the team up concept takes some time getting used to. James Gunn managed to pull it off with Guardians but director Chloé Zhao, seems like she may have bitten off too big a chunk to have the same result.
As I said, I did not dislike the movie, I just didn't like it very much. Like all things, maybe it will grow on me, but for now that's where I stand.
Monday, November 1, 2021
Last Night in Soho
A nostalgia soaked horror film from director Edgar Wright is just what we need for this Halloween Weekend, but does it satisfy? My companion for this film was invested in the first two thirds of the movie so much that it rivaled other films of Wright's for praise, but,there is a turn and a series of actions that happen in the film that stopped her embrace of the film in mid-hug and resulted in a display of invective that I marveled at for a hour. While I did not have the same negative reaction, I did feel the film fall from greatness to mediocrity in the third act. Regardless of it's ultimate faults, there is still much to recommend for this interesting addition to Wright's filmography.
I avoid as much as possible, simply recapping the story in these posts, but sometimes you need a little context and this is one of those times. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a slightly off center girl from a countryside community, who longs to become a fashion designer. Ellie is the kind of kid who is willing to go out in public in clothes she has designed, but she has yet to develop the thick skin needed to deflect the catty comments of schoolmates, who in a two faced manner praise her bravery, but secretly despise her and are jealous of the attention she will generate. Her mother also was interested in the industry but took her life ten years earlier, and Ellie has visions of her Mom on a regular basis. Eloise soaks herself in 60s nostalgia, because that's the style her Mother and Grandmother knew so well. Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark ring in her head as she moves to London to attend a college of fashion design. When her wold collides with the hipster bitch she is roommates with, she decides to take a flat in a nearby neighborhood and suddenly the distance between the world she lives in and the era of her dreams begins to diminish. New visions of a girl not unlike herself, striving to make it into the pop world as a singer in 1965, fill Eloise's nights and she gets caught up in another life in a different era, with outcomes much more grim than she is prepared to face.
The 1960s settings are nicely staged with appropriate production details. I especially liked the giant "Thunderball" Poster on the cinema, as well as the stylish women's fashions of the time. The two nightclubs that Eloise sees in her visions are also startlingly beautiful in a retro way. The most beautiful thing she encounters however is Sandie, the girl aspiring to be a singer who is a near doppelganger for Eloise and who is played by Ana Taylor-Joy. Wright uses some marvelous camera tricks and clever choreography to meld the two girls from fifty years apart into one character that we see at a time, although both are present. This is a horror story in the long run, and the events in the 1960s should be enough to make us pull back in terror at what can become of a girl trying to make it in a world filled with sharks dressed as men. The first part of Sandie's story is plenty horrifying without having to elaborate too much with blood and viscera. Like all horror stories these days, there has to be a twist and this is where things start to go off the rails a bit.
Eloise's obsession is turning dangerous and she has difficulty separating her visions from her real life. There is a character set up to tie the two eras together in the real world, and naturally, this is one of the places where Wright has to cheat a bit to get in the surprise that he has in store for us. If you are turned off by characters in horror stories doing illogical things and making unsubstantiated assumptions, then you will start to feel the resentment that I referred to in the opening of this piece. Somewhere out there, a young adult woman would ask some questions that all of us could see might be relevant, not Ellie. She pursues an investigation but she ignores a key term in her search that is sitting right in front of her. The explanation that her nightmarish visions begin to follow her is the best cover that can explain why she acts the way she does, but that seems inadequate and it ignores a lot of options that she had available to her. After successfully creating a real world heroine in Eloise, who can perceive a threat from an otherwise chipper cab driver, you want to scream at her for not looking more closely at the red herring in front of her and the obvious connection to the past that she occupies every night.
Edgar Wright has a number of films to his credit that I have loved. His sense of humor is terrific and he has an editors eye as a director, he is capable of creating a scene in our mind that works because he knows how long the shot should last and where to cut it and what kinds of transitions to make. As a storyteller, he has taken some sharp left turns over the years that work, but maybe that is because of the genre he was working in. The tone shift and plot twist in "Last Night in Soho" don't hold together as well as the work he has done before. I would still recommend the movie, but if you get whiplash from third act character actions, don't say I did not warn you.