Ryan Coogler filmography (Fruitvale Station / Creed / Black Panther)

I’ve been meaning to dive into the filmography of Ryan Coogler for a while now; from his interviews to his subject matter, he’s seemed like a filmmaker I need to watch, and one that I want to get into the ground floor on. So with the release and success of Black Panther, what better time than now to go through Coogler’s three films in order?

e2ba8ab17ed11729d3364ce93a1d0b6dCoogler started his career with Fruitvale Station, an account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler has said that his goal here was to depoliticize Grant’s death, essentially attempting to do for this incident what Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did for that event – depict it honestly, calmly, and without sentiment, and without getting into the aftermath and the way the event was dealt with in the aftermath. On the whole, Coogler succeeds in this, I’d say  (here’s a good article about how accurate the film is and isn’t, but the short version is, it’s largely faithful to the reality). Even if occasionally he hits the dramatic ironies a little hard, and even if the scene where Oscar comforts a dying stray dog feels like a bit much, Coogler does his best to depict Oscar not as a saint, not as a sinner, but as someone more complicated – a troubled young man with anger problems and a lot of boiling rage, one who might be turning his life around, or might not. It’s not the hagiography you might assume, but Michael B. Jordan’s charisma and the knowledge of where this is all going (Coogler opens the film with cell phone footage of the actual event) can’t help but make you empathetic for this human life that’s about to be pointlessly lost.

But it’s in the depiction of the event that Coogler’s talent is undeniably most seen. From the escalation to the horrifying moment of the shooting to the panic and chaos afterward, Coogler captures every second of it with an eye that never lets you forget what’s happening. But while what’s depicted is horrible, Coogler remains focused not on the event, not on the larger issues, but on Oscar – a young man who’s in his last minutes on Earth. That, more than anything else, is what makes Fruitvale Station so powerful and effective – the way it takes Oscar Grant III out of the narrative and reminds us that first and foremost, before he was a victim, before he was a moment, he was a human being – a father, a son, a boyfriend, a friend – and that loss in of itself is tragic and horrible, no matter what deeper societal issues it exposed in the process. (That being said, the outcome of this case is legitimately, incredibly infuriating on every imaginable level, so  enjoy that.) And any refusal to admit that is removed by the film’s closing moments, which earns its final shot of Grant’s real-life daughter who’s growing up without a father. Sometimes, things deserve to be hit hard and shoved back into our faces, and the consequences of real-world news events forced back into our consciousness. Rating: **** ½

P.S. If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final lines.

rocky-spinoff-creed-poster-600x889I’ve only ever seen the first Rocky film (which I really liked), so I can’t talk that much about how Creed stacks up against the rest of the sequels. What I can talk about is how much Coogler makes the film his own, taking what the original Rocky did – using a boxing story to explore a character, and delivering a character study with all the trappings of a boxing movie – and using it to follow his own interests. In this case, that’s the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young black man without a father, struggling to make his own identity. Once again uniting with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler follows the story of Adonis Creed, who’s attempting to grow up and make himself his own person, outside of the shadow of his late father. That leads him to seek out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course), and ask him for training.

In taking on Creed, Coogler manages to somehow marry a mid-budget Hollywood tentpole film – an entry in a storied franchise – with all of his own passions and style, creating something far better than you would expect in the process. The relationship between Jordan and Stallone is beautifully handled, with nuance and depth, but also a rich humor that brings both men to life. Stallone, too, has rarely been better; it’s so easy to forget how great of an actor he can be, but even so, the way he plays Rocky here – lonely, older, feeling his age – is remarkable, bringing out the vulnerability in the character, but also his passion and pride. But his relationship with Jordan becomes more than the sum of their parts, with Coogler using it to play with the themes of father/son relationships and what they can mean – and what family can do for us. It gives the film a richness, thematically, investing us in each of these men and their arc. That the film does its best by Adonis’s love interest, a musician played by Tessa Thompson, is no small feat, nor what it does his mother, played by Phylicia Rashad; each woman is given a strength and motivation all her own, and even if they’re supporting characters, they’re handled far better than most films would even try to do.

But for the purpose of this review, I can’t help but discuss how much more assured and confident Coogler’s filmmaking is here, only one film later. The mid-film boxing sequence is incredible – a long, flowing single shot that weaves in and out of the action, gives us close-up shots, follows the action of the match, and gives it a tension and power all its own. It contrasts all the more with the final match, made up of reaction shots to the audience, as well as with each fighter, helping us understand that this match is less about the physical battle, and more about the emotional and mental stakes. That level of confidence goes throughout the film, as Coogler takes on montages, long shots, Steadicam shots, and more, truly stepping into his natural role as a filmmaker in a way that Fruitvale all but guaranteed.

I truly loved Creed, which I honestly didn’t expect; from its depiction of a weary Rocky Balboa to Jordan’s uncertain, questing fighter; from dazzling fight choreography to impactful, genuine emotional stakes; from strongly created relationships to thematic depth that explores real world stakes and issues; all of that and more turns Creed into a worthy successor to the original Rocky – a story of young men finding a way to prove themselves, and figure out who they are. I absolutely loved it, and was floored by Coogler’s growth and style as a director. Rating: *****

dws6uagu0ae4e77And now comes Black Panther, in which Marvel Studios finally cuts loose and generally lets a director make a Marvel product as personal as possible. I’ve long complained about the Marvel formula and the way it’s robbed movies of their individual flavor, and I won’t say that none of that applies to Black Panther. The big action climax of the film is overdone and bland – pretty much, it ends up feeling like it could come from half a dozen other comic book movies – and that goes doubly for the final showdown between our hero and the main villain, which becomes little more than a dull CGI whirl of action – a far cry from the intense, psychological battles of Creed, which married physical conflict with mental games. (That being said, there is a mid-film battle in a casino that unfolds in a dazzling long take that I enjoyed; it reminded me of what Coogler did in that mid-film bout in Creed, and to pretty great effect. It’s the one action set piece that really stands out in the film, and not coincidentally, the most engaging.)

But thankfully, moments like that are the exception in Black Panther, not the rule. Freed of almost any need to tie in to other Marvel movies (the mandatory end-credits scene aside, which can easily be ignored), Black Panther feels like no other Marvel movie to date, thanks in no small part to how deeply, truly African it is. Eschewing the usual generic cityscape of every other Marvel movie, Coogler fills the frame with colorful costumes, tribal fashions, and a rich tapestry of visuals that give the film a truly revolutionary feel. (I’m a straight white dude, so there’s no way I can speak to what this must feel like for so many other people, but to me, Black Panther felt truly like a film that got to celebrate black heritage and ancestry in a way that almost never happens.)

But as rich as the visual palette is, what really makes Black Panther work is the way that Coogler brings his wide, sprawling cast to life, filling his film with the sort of realistic, natural conversations that rang so true in his other movies. The result is that the film feels lived in in a way that Marvel rarely has for me; from the tribal priest, played by Forest Whitaker, to T’Challa’s sister Shuri (a scene-stealing, joyful performance by Letitia Wright), from Danai Gurira’s steely bodyguard to Winston Duke’s intimidating, surprisingly funny chieftain, Coogler takes the time to bring every character to life, letting them not just exist as plot points, but as characters and people.

But where that’s most evident, and most revolutionary, is in the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. (A side note: Andy Serkis’s portrayal of the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue, is a blast – he’s chewing the scenery gloriously and having so much fun that it’s infectious.) Set aside the fact that Killmonger is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, whose effortless and massive charisma (and, let’s be honest, physical attractiveness) instantly makes his Killmonger watchable and fascinating. black-panther What’s truly remarkable about Killmonger is how trenchant and valid his concerns are, and how obviously Coogler uses him as a way to smuggle in truly revolutionary and incendiary ideas.

After all, here is a character who is driven by the loss of a father who himself was infuriated by the treatment of black communities; who is angered by the way Wakanda has let black people around the world suffer while they’ve prospered; who wants justice and payback for centuries of racism and injustice. It’s hard to hear Jordan’s angry, violent rhetoric and not feel like he’s the voice of reason here…and what’s more remarkable is the way the film takes his concerns seriously, with characters acknowledging the truth of his ideas, even as they fear and deplore his methods. That debate gives Black Panther far more depth than you’d expect, and the way the movie ends up becoming a discussion about the responsibility of the well-off to care for the less fortunate, as well as a vicious commentary on how a history of racism has corrupted and angered a generation, is all the more incredible for what Coogler has managed to do within the framework of a Marvel movie, the most formulaic of genres. (Jordan’s final line of dialogue in the film is a nuclear bomb of defiance that sent shivers down my spine, and I can’t imagine what it felt like as an African-American.)

I’ve come all this way, and there’s more I could talk about – I haven’t even touched on Chadwick Boseman’s soulful performance, which finds him moving between royalty and grief, between a loving brother and a threatened head of state, nor the film’s glorious afrofuturism, which mixes so effortlessly and seamlessly with the rest. The short version is, yes, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, but it’s the first one that has pushed back against the limits of the genre to any sort of success. And if it eventually falls back into some of the weakest elements, that only underlines all the more what Coogler got away with here – how many ways he got away with an uncompromised, unique vision and trenchant social points. It’s the sort of movie that, to me, actually represents what I loved about comic books growing up – not the battles, but the ideas, the intelligent voices, the rich characters, and just the incredible worlds of imagination. But best of all is the fact that Coogler does all of this while somehow still creating something that’s recognizably his. No small feat, that – and it bodes well for a long career that will give us interesting, thoughtful films both in and out of the studio system. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Fruitvale Station | Creed | Black Panther

Mary and the Witch’s Flower / ****

36694One of the looming specters over the world of traditional animation is the eventual retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki, the undisputed legend of animation, and the mind responsible for films like My Neighbor TotoroSpirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and more. Miyazaki’s plans to retirement has led to a lot of questions about the future of the iconic animation studio Studio Ghibli, and even with his determination to make another movie, it’s been a source of worry for many fans of animation.

So in many ways, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is incredibly reassuring that the spirit of Ghibli will stay alive. The first film from Studio Ponoc, a studio founded by Ghibli alumni, Mary and the Witch’s Flower feels very much in keeping with the Ghibli model: lush, fluid animation; a wondrous sense of adventure and fun; interesting female protagonists; an imaginative, dazzling mixture of reality and magic; the constant presence of nature as a background; and so much more. The story of a young girl who finds out that she’s a witch, only to find herself in the mix of some supernatural intrigue, Mary is a blast to watch, both visually and as a story. From the opening sequence, which follows another witch as she makes a dramatic escape, Mary is lushly animated and beautiful to watch unfold, especially for those of us who love traditional animation.

Mind you, the easy knock that’s been made about Mary is how derivative it is of Ghibli films, and that’s not an untrue point. From adorable cats and girls on brooms (a la Kiki’s Delivery Service) to creatures that feel like the entities from Spirited Away and Mononoke, down to general structure of the story, Mary definitely feels like a studio trying to show that it can fill the shoes of its predecessor. (In that way, it sometimes feels like Ponoc’s version of The Force Awakens, mixing and matching elements of its forebears while still making a propulsive, wonderful piece of entertainment.) And, yes, the story feels a bit thin at times, with some pacing that feels a little rushed and abbreviated at random points.

And yet, none of that took away from how much I enjoyed Mary beginning to end. It’s exciting, it’s beautiful to watch, and more than anything else, it’s absolutely joyous in a way that so few children’s movies manage. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower pale a little comparison to the novelty of Ghibli movies? Sure, a bit. But did any of that matter while I watched it? Not in the least.


I, Tonya / ***

i_tonyaLet me open this by saying that I have pretty profoundly mixed feelings on I, Tonya, a film that I sort of loved and hated in equal measure. A sort of meta-biopic of Tonya Harding that features duelling (and contradictory) narratives from various players, fourth-wall breaking, and a desire to look back at this story that was one of the foundations of the 24-hour news cycle we’re stuck with today, I, Tonya is undeniably ambitious, surprisingly funny, and never boring. And yet, at the same time, there’s often a sense that it’s a film on the verge of spinning out of control, with wildly clashing tones, constant (and grating) musical choices, and characters that are so over the top as to be cartoonish. And yet again, there’s an argument to be made (that I first heard articulated by Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show) that, in many ways, all of that is the perfect form for a movie about Tonya Harding: loud, brash, contradictory, a little grating, but technically ambitious and overachieving, and unafraid to be itself, no matter what.

That contradictory batch of feelings echoes for me all the way through the film, down to the performances. On the one hand, you have Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan as Harding and Gillooly, both playing older versions of themselves reflecting back through their own lives, and altering their performances to match the version of the story they’re in. When the film focuses on the two of them, it’s fantastic; the two of them bring out nuance and complexity in characters that have been so often reduced to caricature by the media, and the added dimension of having them reflect back lets us see how the incident and its aftermath impacted their lives. (And enough good can’t be said about both Robbie and Stan, who are phenomenal; the film demands a lot of them, and they rise to the occasion, playing their roles like chameleons that match whatever scene they’re in.) But then, on the flip side, you have Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s mother and Gillooly’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, respectively. Both are superb in their roles, but the film turns both into absurd cartoons, robbing them of anything except over the top dialogue and one-note writing that hammers away at the impression they’re supposed to make. Janney is awful and cruel and vicious; Hauser is idiotic and clueless and delusional. And both do a fantastic job in their roles, giving their all and making their scenes great, but there’s a sense that both roles are so absurd and one-dimensional that they grate, especially in contrast to how well the film handles Harding and Gillooly.

But couldn’t you argue, you could say, that the film is so clearly subjective – so clearly focused on the perspectives of Gillooly and Harding – that those roles should be cartoonish? In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t a caricature of these people; it’s how Harding and Gillooly saw them, since we don’t get their side of it? There’s an argument to be made there, I think (although it doesn’t take into account the way that Janney seems to occasionally enter into the film as a narrator herself); similarly, you could use some of that to deal with some of the film’s other excesses. Most notably, I’d say, is the film’s constant, incessant soundtrack of classic rock standards; it often comes across as a film without any confidence in its audience to get the emotional vibes it’s trying to convey. On the other hand, could you argue that they reflect the soundtrack that Tonya wants to put onto her own life, and the soundtrack of her memories? Maybe so.

But the more I think on I, Tonya, the more I think the film’s execution simply doesn’t work, no matter how much I feel like I love what it was trying to do. I love that the film digs into Harding’s working-class roots and makes it clear that the narrative of her being a white-trash thug comes from a media snobbery; at the same time, the film’s portrait of her roots is often every bit as condescending and sneering as that of the people it’s criticizing. I admire the way the film takes on Harding’s abusive life, often showing it brutally and unflinchingly; at the same time, it often jars horribly with the film’s glib tone, and sometimes feels as though it’s being played for laughs when it shouldn’t be (most notably with Janney’s horrific Mommy Dearest). And more than anything, the film feels smug and can’t let anything be left to subtlety. (A scene that reflects this in miniature: there’s a late film shot that finds Gillooly remembering the day the media moved on. In the background, you can just make out that his TV is showing the Nicole Simpson crime scene – a nice, subtle touch. Which the film then hammers home by shifting camera angles to make sure that you can’t miss it, all but foregrounding it.)

I can see why I, Tonya is so popular and well-received. It’s undeniably funny and entertaining, and its goals are fascinating. I love the meta-take on the biopic, and I love the way the film strives to match its content to the stories being told and the people telling them. But it’s a film that also gets exhausting, whose smugness is irritating, whose condescension gets wearying, and whose mashup of tones often doesn’t work and leads to uncomfortable clashes. And most of all, it’s a film that sometimes isn’t sure what it wants to be: a revisionist take on Tonya Harding, or a broad comedy? A fourth-wall-breaking piece of metafiction, or a cartoonishly absurd recapping of a famous incident? It’s a film that I can see why people like, and won’t begrudge them for their appreciation, but just ultimately didn’t work for me that well.


Phantom Thread / *****

phantom-thread-alternate-poster-6-620x916There are essentially two ways I could review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread. I could be incredibly brief, saying that I needed time to think this one through, and that much like Anderson’s The Master, it’s a film that doesn’t lend itself well to instant analysis; it’s designed to let you sit with it, unpacking it over time and turning it over in your mind. The second approach to reviewing it, though, is to do what I’m going to do: to think out loud, to process Anderson’s fascinating, complex, nuanced, layered film in waves, and do my best to unpack everything that makes this film so incredible. (Behind the scenes note: as I’ve written this review, my star rating has gone up, as I’ve talked myself more and more into how much of a masterpiece this film is.)

Echoing really no other Anderson film as much as The MasterPhantom Thread isn’t what your expectations are telling you it is. It’s not even the film you’re going to think it is 20 minutes in. On the surface, this is a period drama set in the 1950’s, following a demanding, difficult, idiosyncratic fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he strikes up a relationship with a quiet, sweet waitress named Alma (relative unknown Vicky Krieps, who holds her own against Day-Lewis – not a small feat). Added into the mix is Woodcock’s close relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows her brother’s moods, needs, and requirements intimately, and enables/tolerates/assists him as needed. And from that – and the film’s lush, rich textures and costumes – you might feel like you’re getting a period romance drama, something sweet and heartfelt.

But that’s not Phantom Thread, which buries its jagged psychological edges in manners and moods, focusing on the power dynamics between these people in subtle ways, and refusing to spell out any of its subtext until the closing minutes, and even then, only barely. It’s a film about a fraught, difficult relationship between a difficult man and a loving woman who wants to make him happy; and yet, simultaneously, it’s a critique of the arrogance of genius, which thinks that it deserves the freedom to be obnoxious and cruel. It’s a comedy of manners, but one with a far more unusual (and kinkier, to some degree) view on the thing. It’s a love story, but a deeply unconventional one, focused on the way these two people love each other and yet demand control over their relationship and over the other party. And ultimately, though it gives us answers in a wildly unconventional way (one of my favorite film memories of the year is feeling the crowd react nearly physically as they realized exactly what the nature of their relationship was becoming near the end of the film), it does so in a way that feels both right for the characters and ultimately on a human level, getting at something more universal than you’d expect for a movie about such unusual needs and desires.

And yet none of that conveys how frequently, constantly funny this film is, giving you laugh out loud line deliveries, comedy from loudly buttered bread, and so many superb lines of dialogue conveying irritation that I have days worth of new things to say to my students. It doesn’t convey the richness of every performance (yes, of course Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible as Woodcock, bringing out the humanity of this man as well as his genius, making his black moods both understandable and repellent, and evoking both strength and weakness as necessary. But how great is Vicky Krieps, slowly letting us realize that Alma is far from the submissive, meek woman we think she is, and holding her own in this struggle for control against Lewis, all while doing so little physically? And then there’s Manville, who gets so many of the film’s great lines, playing the cold observer trying to navigate between the two) and how deeply human and complex the characters become thanks to those performances. And more than anything, it doesn’t prepare you for Anderson’s direction and cinematography. From the way he brings every driving sequence to life as an excuse for Woodcock to cut loose to the haunting depiction of a fevered hallucination; from the deep discomfort of a horrible wedding to a silent battle across a New Year’s Eve gala; from the silent moods of a breakfast table to an angry confrontation over a dinner gone wrong – somehow, Anderson films them all in incredible ways, drawing out the tension, the psychological moods, the uncertainty, and the beauty of every moment, delivering a richness that can’t be conveyed in words.

Because Phantom Thread truly is a relationship movie. Not in the sense we so often use it – where we watch two people fall in love over time – but in terms of being a movie about how people relate to each other, and how those connections shift and evolve over time. We understand both why Alma loves Reynolds and why he’s so difficult; we see the appeal of Alma but also know why Reynolds gets so frustrated; we empathize with the difficult line Cyril has to walk. And maybe better than any other director alive right now, Anderson knows how to direct in a way that lets his actors draw out those connections without spelling them out, using great acting to explore bonds and deep issues in a natural way. That he also backs it with sumptuous visuals and bravura sequences is, I think, icing on the cake. It’s a film that’s funnier than you expect and darker; it’s both more entertaining than you’d assume and more complex; it’s both easy to watch and thought-provoking enough to leave you pondering it for a great long time afterward. It is truly a remarkable film on every level, a dazzling masterpiece that keeps revealing more layers to me as I think on it, and a film that reminds you why we should count ourselves lucky to have Paul Thomas Anderson working as a filmmaker today.


Snow Week: Family Viewings

As mentioned in my last post, we had an unexpected week break from school and work around here, and when you’re trapped in a house with children, you don’t always get the chance to watch the movies and shows you might really be wanting to see. Luckily, we got to watch some good movies and shows anyhow, even given the family restrictions. Once again, in the interest of time, I kept the reviews shorter than usual.

lego_ninjago_movie_ver2_xlgThe Lego Ninjago Movie is undeniably the weakest of the Lego films so far, but, then again, when your basis for comparison is the amazing The Lego Movie and the surprisingly great The Lego Batman Movie, is falling short of that bar that surprising? What’s more disappointing, though, is that it lacks the rich emotional hooks of its predecessors. Yes, there’s an interesting story about a father who abandoned his child, but The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t really invest in that story the way The Lego Movie was about growing up, or how The Lego Batman Movie found resonance in isolation. Moreover, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t use its great cast all that well, essentially wasting a number of great voices (including Kumail Nanjiani, a favorite of mine, as well as Jackie Chan and numerous others). And yet, for all of that, I had a blast watching it, simply because, whatever it lacks in depth and emotion, it makes up for in silliness and absurdity. There’s a reveal early on in the film about an “ultimate weapon” that had me in tears not only the first time, but every time it was brought back. And then there’s Justin Theroux as the film’s ostensible villain and deadbeat dad, swaggering through everything with a cocky voice, impeccable comic timing, and all the best lines. Is The Lego Ninjago Movie anywhere near as good as the movies that came before it? Not even close. But did I laugh really hard throughout it? Oh, god, yes. Rating: *** ½

mv5bmtuxmjizodi0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk3oti2mdi-_v1_uy1200_cr10706301200_al_I’m a huge fan ofLemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, a gleefully dark and Gothic children’s series that dabbles in literary allusions, rich symbolism, postmodernism, and black comedy in equal measures, all while spinning a complex story about coming to terms with a lack of answers in the modern world. That may sound pretentious, but it’s hard to convey just how rich and fascinating the series is, all while still being laugh out loud funny, clever, and just a joy. All of which is to say, I wasn’t sure that it would be easy for an adaptation of the works to capture all of that tone and magic. And yet, somehow, Netflix’s take on A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a treat, through and through, capturing the tone of the books perfectly while also diving into the series complicated plotting and weird postmodern touches. There’s little way to talk about the series without talking about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as Count Olaf (and numerous variations of that character), and rightfully so – Harris makes Olaf menacing while also bringing out the absurdity and comedy of the show, turning an incredibly complicated role into a treat that works. (It’s a fine line to walk, making Olaf’s disguises convincing enough to work while also remaining obvious to us, and Harris straddles that line effortlessly.) For my money, though, Patrick Warburton is the show’s secret weapon, playing Lemony Snicket himself as a wandering Greek chorus and delivering Snicket’s gleefully dark narration in a dry monotone that makes it all the funnier. Add to that a trio of strong performances by the Baudelaires, and the involvement of Daniel Handler (the author behind the Snicket pen name) to adapt the story and his mythology into something manageable (as well as possibly correcting some repetitiveness that cropped up in the first few books in the series), and what you get is a blast. It’s wonderfully silly while keeping the dark themes and worries of the book, captures that sense of hopelessness while keeping everything tongue in cheek, and giving us a visual feast of Gothic touches that brings this bizarre universe to life. I couldn’t be happier with the adaptation (with the possible exception of some slow patches that are as much due to the books we’re covering and less with the adaptation itself) and am already excited as could be for season two (coming in March!). Rating: **** ½

100395A few years ago, I went to see Paddington after hearing that, yes, despite how dire it looked, how bad it seemed, it was truly a charming, wonderful little film – a verdict I wholeheartedly agreed with. Now comes Paddington 2, which may be even better than the first – it’s funny, it’s charming, but more than that, it’s a welcome tonic of positivity, hope, and humanity at a time when we all seem to be rejecting those things. Like the first, Paddington 2 is a gentle, earnest affair; there’s no snark, no winking double entendres going over the head of kids, no pop culture references to keep people on their toes. (The only movie reference in all of Paddington 2 is to a Charlie Chaplin film, and that’s the kind of thing I can get behind.) Instead, it’s the story of a young bear who thinks that we should be kind and appreciative toward people, and that if we look for the best in people, we will usually find it. Indeed, most of the plot of Paddington 2 revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy, who raised him from a cub. Mind you, that storyline ends up with Paddington in prison after taking the fall for a cunning thief (played by Hugh Grant in a wonderfully ridiculous performance), where he deals with the surliest of cooks (Brendan Gleeson, predictably great). Once again, director Paul King manages to make his film earnest and positive without ever being simplistic or overly sappy, letting his message come through without ever turning it into a “lesson” film. How? Much of it comes from his command of the tone, which is winningly silly throughout (with a lot of inspiration from silent comedy); what’s more, King once again brings more visual flair and imagination than you’d expect, drawing on Wes Anderson at times to turn a tour of London into a trip through a pop-up book, or a dazzling montage of days of cooking into one continuous shot. The result is pure joy throughout – it’s very funny, very sweet, and absolutely works, no matter your age; there’s something wonderful about a children’s film that wants to be about human experiences and kindness, and that goes doubly at a time when such qualities are in short supply. (That the film is set in post-Brexit Britain and features such a casually diverse cast and numerous comments about immigrants bettering themselves is, I’m sure, no accident.) In short, it’s a true treat, and a movie that genuinely made me feel a little better about a world that could produce it. Rating: *****

IMDb: The Lego Ninjago Movie | A Series of Unfortunate Events | Paddington 2

The Shape of Water / *****

shape_of_waterIt’s worth noting, I think, that there are few directors working today whose wavelength I am more attuned to than Guillermo del Toro.  A filmmaker who loves genre films – horror, fantasy, and the fantastic especially – but finds ways to offer meditations upon them, investing them with heart and metaphorical weight, del Toro has made a career out of films that are all but impossible to pigeonhole. Pan’s Labyrinth was part coming-of-age, part war tale, part political metaphor, and part dark fairy tale; The Devil’s Backbone tackled similar areas, but in the guise of a ghost story; Crimson Peak was a Gothic romance turned haunting tale; and the list goes on. But whatever he does, del Toro invests his films with magic, imagination, astonishing visual richness, and a love of cinema that comes out in every frame. And with my own love of genre, of fairy tales, of old motifs given new life, it’s no surprise that I’ve loved pretty much every one of his films.

Now comes The Shape of Water, a mixture of The Creature from the Black LagoonBeauty and the Beast, Cold War parable, and character study, all done in a mixture of fantasy, horror, thriller, and romance, and all done with incredible visual beauty, emotional richness, and earnestness that’s heartwarming. It’s not mere marketing that del Toro has described the film as “a fairy tale for troubled times”; this is a movie about giving the voiceless a voice, about letting those who are the minority voices in a dark majority have a chance to speak, and about finding beauty in a dark world.

All of which sounds heavy, and make no mistake, The Shape of Water can be dark. This is a Cold War tale set in a research lab, run by an abusive agent (played superbly – as if he’s capable of anything less – by Michael Shannon) whose job is to break down and understand the lab’s newest asset: an Amazon river god, captured and brought from his homeland, kept in a water tank and trained through torture and chains. But rather than telling the story through the monster’s eyes, or through the military’s, the film finds its eyes in the oppressed and the hidden: a closeted gay man. A black cleaning lady. An undercover agent who can’t even use his real name. A mute white woman. In any other film, these are the supporting characters, the wacky best friends; here, they are the voices of reason, the rebellious forces against a system driven by fear of the Russians, fear of the creature, fear of the unknown, and a desire to make a “perfect” America that has no basis in reality.

What follows is simple enough from a plot perspective, as our mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins, in a brilliant performance) strikes up first a sort of friendship, and then a more intense bond, with this creature, who himself is unable to speak. From there, the plot is best discovered on your own (although the trailers have done a more than fine job of giving most of the details away already), but really, the story is almost beside the point. This is, to quote Ebert’s great rule, a movie more about how it goes about its story, and the mood, execution, beauty, and sheer magic of the film comes through at all times. It’s a love story; it’s a Cold War thriller; it’s the story of a woman finding a voice when she has none; it’s the story of American exceptionalism run amok; it’s the story of man’s efforts to tame nature and establish dominance at any cost.

But more than any of that, The Shape of Water is about relationships, from platonic friends to repressed desires, from forbidden loves to long-lasting marriages, from alliances of convenience to unions of belief in something more. And del Toro, despite all of his genre roots – and you will be reminded that this is a horror film at times, let me assure you, as things get dark and violent when you least expect them – films it all as a romance film, even if it’s a wildly unexpected one, and an unconventional one, to put it mildly.

Part of me has issues with The Shape of Water; part of me feels like the first act is rushed, that the film is so ready to get to its central relationship that it doesn’t quite lay enough groundwork. But most of me gives up on that in the face of how much I truly loved this movie. I loved its fierce dedication to beauty in the face of ugliness, to the fact that love matters even in the face of cruelty and evil and hatred. I loved the way it embraces its big emotions without irony or shame, going big and operatic and swinging for the fences. I loved the dignity it gives to every character, even its villains. I loved its lush visuals, its beautiful music, the way it uses shadows and cameras and characters to illustrate everything from social and political class to emotional bonds. It’s a film about love, and one made out of a love of cinema, yes, but also out of sincerity and hope in the face of darkness. And all I can tell you is that, yeah, that worked for me and then some. And if you add into that the genre elements, and the creature effects, and the incredible performances, and the unexpected joys, and the use of fairy tales to get at human truths…

…yeah, you could say I loved this movie, even if it’s only because it couldn’t have been more made for me if del Toro tried. And I’ll make no apologies for that.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi / *****

the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogI should say, at the outset of this review, that while I’ve always enjoyed Star Wars films, I’ve never considered myself a “huge” fan. Maybe that’s because I’ve always measured myself against obsessive fans of the series who’ve consumed the side novels, who’ve argued canon, and so forth, but for me, Star Wars was something I enjoyed, but never truly loved. Going back and watching them with my son over the past few years has been a treat, one that’s reminded me of how good the originals can be (at least, the first two; I have far more mixed feeling about Return of the Jedi) as films, but still, it was something fun for me, little more. And The Force Awakens last year was much the same – I had a blast watching it, and I deeply loved getting to see a new Star Wars movie with my son…but in the end, it was disposable pulp fun – something I am always up for, but never really stuck with me.

All of which is to say, I never felt that any of the Star Wars films were “great” as films. Yes, they were fun, and imaginative, and could be a blast, and were undeniably iconic, but there was never any meat to them, nothing to hold on to. Which, again, is fine – you don’t need every movie to be “about something” – but nonetheless, always left me enjoying them and little more.

Until now. Because now, we have The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s bold, striking, visually astonishing entry in the series which manages to be the best of both worlds: it’s exciting and thoughtful, pulpy and philosophical, brisk and smart, all while being a fantastic time at the movies.

It doesn’t hurt that this may be the first time the series has been handed to a truly great director who’s been given the freedom to actually do his job. Lucas is…well, he’s Lucas, with all the good and bad that comes with that; Kershner did his job, but brought little else to the table; and even Abrams didn’t do all that much original. But Johnson, for the first time, brings cinematic craft to the series in astonishing ways, from inventive filming (there’s an homage to an iconic shot from the silent film Wings that made me laugh with joy) to breathtaking use of color (the two standouts: Snoke’s blood-red chamber and the salt-covered, red-sanded planet of the climax). It’s the first time that it feels like someone set out to be ambitious and make a movie that felt like a movie, and wasn’t content to just live in the shadows of its predecessors.

More than that, The Last Jedi wants to be about something. It’s a film about how we grapple with our pasts – how we can define ourselves against them, how we struggle to free ourselves from their shadows, and whether or not we should. “Let the past die,” one of the film’s villains says. “Kill it, if you have to.”

That’s no small thing for a film to say, especially when that film is a long awaited sequel to one of the most iconic films of all time – and one that will be (and already is being) judged by how it holds up against that film. How do we define ourselves against the shadows of the past, especially when those shadows are so large? And how will this film find a place for itself against the looming, dominant shadow of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back?

The Last Jedi struggles with that, as well as questions of self-determination, hope in the face of despair, destiny, and so much more. And in the process, yes, it stands out in the Star Wars canon as the first film that defiantly, firmly refuses to play it safe, going in unexpected directions at every turn, giving us answers that defy expectations, and forging its own path instead of sticking with anything that the series has done before. In doing so, it’s alienated a lot of hardcore fans, who, despite complaining that The Force Awakens was little more than A New Hope redux, are horrified that they have a film that diversifies its cast, gives power to women, rejects the patterns and formulas established by the first films, and defiantly forges a way forward that leaves us completely unsure as to what happens next.

For some, that has led to anger and rejection of the film. But for me, it’s led to the first time I’ve truly loved a Star Wars film. The Last Jedi is pure blockbuster, make no mistake; the action sequences are breathtaking and spectacular, the plotting complex, the characters wonderful, and the humor expertly, wonderfully deployed. (You can count me on Team Porgs Rule, for what it’s worth.) But it’s also a film that grapples with its own purpose, a film that’s about hope and rebellion and what it means to let go. It’s nuanced and thoughtful, exciting and unpredictable, funny and well-performed (I haven’t even gotten to get into how Mark Hamill’s performance is the most fascinating, compelling version of Luke that we’ve ever gotten, nor how Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren evolves here from the moody Darth Vader clone of TFA into a truly rich, tragic villain), and just plain exhilarating. It’s a reminder that just because something is a big-budget action blockbuster, that doesn’t mean it has to be thoughtless. It’s a lesson I hope that more studios can learn, because if all big Hollywood studio hits were this good, we’d be in a great golden age.