Months in Review: Films of May & June (part 2)

Continued from the previous post…below my thoughts on the films watched in June (with a bit of a delay)

MA MA (2015) [ 2.5/5 ]

It is difficult to criticize a film that displays so much good will but Ma Ma, a Spanish film directed by Julio Medem, opts for cheapish melodrama to try to squeeze tears out of us.

There’s nothing particularly moving about the story because of the way it is told; failing to show the tact and attention to detail that would allow us to immerse ourselves in it.

Penelope Cruz does her best to sell us many uncomfortable hospital scenes but not even an actress of her caliber can really fix all of the problems of a truly questionable script.

Sidenote: Cruz is fantastic in Spanish-speaking roles, not quite as good in English.

TODO SOBRE MI MADRE (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER) (1999) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Favorite Films

I have a great deal of respect for Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish writer/director has always been swimming against the mainstream current choosing to craft projects that are close to his heart and sensibility.

As a gay man he has often been an activist in getting LGTBQ stories filmed before it was fashionable or safe to do so. In equal measure, Almodovar has released many films with strong female leads, writing for women from the perspective of women, and giving great actresses the opportunity to flex their artistic muscles with juicy and complex roles.

Of all of those feministic films (or the ones Ive been able to watch) Todo Sobre Mi Madre feels like the most inspired and personal project. It’s certainly about women but, more importantly, it is about mothers and the incomparable love of a mother towards her only son. As with most of Almodovar’s work, the film is also exquisitely crafted, beautifully edited and with splashes of colors and vistas that are now an intrinsic part of his cinematic vocabulary. Todo Sobre Mi Madre also has my two favorite acting performances in his oeuvre. The first one given by Cecilia Roth, as Manuela, the heartbroken mother in the lead; and the scene-stealing performance given by Antonia San Juan, as Manuela’s feisty transgendered best friend.

Despite the fact that Todo Sobre Mi Madre starts rather somberly, there is an infectious optimism that makes the story moving and trascendental. A beautiful and inspired piece of cinema.

Sidenote: Agrado’s monologue just over the halfway mark has immediately become one of my all-time favorite scenes. If you know your Spanish well enough and you understand the linguistic peculiarities of the language that scene is even a greater treat.

RED SPARROW (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Jokingly, I sometimes tell my friends that I am a double minority. I am a gay man and I am also of hispanic descent (even though I’m also half European by blood). You would think that from my peculiar perspective I would immediately recognize moments in media that may be demeaning or, at least, controversial towards other oppressed people.

I begin with these words because, as a cinephile, I very much enjoyed Red Sparrow. However, on subsequent readings of critics I was surprised to find a great deal of people who accused it of sexual exploitation and of glorifying rape. It took me by surprise.

Giving it some thought I can surely understand the criticism. It is, after all, a film that chooses to show not one, but two rape scenes. If that weren’t enough, it also focuses on the story of a group of Russian operatives-in-training whose greatest weapon, they are told, are their powers of seduction.

While these choices are controversial (to say the least), I did not think the film was oblivious to them. At the end, it was a story about overcoming horrible circumstances and beating a bunch of men to the punch. It is also about a certain Jennifer Lawrence trying out for a role that actresses like Charlize Theron (in the recent Atomic Blonde) and Angelina Jolie (in the terrific Salt) have managed to excel at in a world unfairly ruled by men. Unlike those films, Red Sparrow navigates a darker world, filled with injustice and horrible crime, and it mostly succeeds at it, despite taking a few risky choices.

Sidenote: I commend Jennifer Lawrence for embracing yet another difficult role that would open her to criticism from the PC police.

LOVING VINCENT (2017) [ 4/5 ]

Beyond the artifice of turning a film into a kinetic extension of Van Gogh’s artistic vocabulary, Loving Vincent is a beautiful well-told story.

As much as it is about the genius of a man whose life was cut too short, it is also about how his life, however brief, impacted those around him, not just through his incredible paintings, which were unappreciated by most of his contemporaries (perhaps because he was mentally ill) but through his child-like curiosity and naïveté.

As I watched Loving Vincent I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both films share that boundless curiosity for a world that lives and breathes, giving value and beauty to every petal in every flower and to each and every wave in an endless ocean.

As soon as I finished watching Loving Vincent I was overcome with a desire to feel, to create and to appreciate the beauty around me.

Sidenote: genius is always restless and sometimes dangerous. Perhaps Van Gogh’s life was always headed towards a tragic end.

BPM (Beats per Minute) (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

It is truly impossible to understand the helplessness that gay people must have felt when there were no safe havens for them to turn to; when the very authorities that should protect them instead recoiled in fear or violence. The early gay rights advocates are heroes that should be celebrated in much the same vein as the leaders of the civic rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. They are heroes because they fought and expressed their opinions against all odds and, in the case of most characters in BPM, while they also fought internal battles to stay alive and survive AIDS.

As an educational document, BPM has an immense value and it should be a film that is shown in schools around the world. It demystifies the gay experience much more than other films by focusing on the bravery and the drive of many LGTBQ rights advocates.

As a film BPM is at its most interesting when it shows us the complexities and tribulations of organizing an advocacy group. The meetings felt real and the urgency of their pleas palpable. Though I understand that the film had other more straightforward interests in terms of story, I wish it had stayed focused on the comings and goings of this group of people trying to change the world.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013) [ 2.5/5 ]

If you casually watch the films that make up the so-called Marvel cinematic universe, you are probably one of the many people who may have lost a reference or two to a previous film during Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, what Marvel is trying to do goes well beyond what sequels have tried to do in the modern history of cinema. The majority of their films exist in one single Universe, and each story from each superhero is sequential and also tied to the whole. Though it can be argued that the Marvel films manage to stand up for themselves, writers and directors are forced, due to scale, to rely on the audience to give emotional weight to the decisions and the well-being of these various superheroes.

My mild interest to fill in the voids became more pertinent when I realized what I had somehow forgotten: Taika Waititi was the unexpected director of Thor: Ragnarok, the third film of the franchise.

Having already seen the first Thor when it was first released, I tried my luck with the second installment of the franchise prior to Ragnarok.

Though competent and entertaining, The Dark World is the least vivacious of the Thor trilogy. The film covers a lot of ground, traveling back and forth between Asgard and Earth, thus reuniting Thor with Jane Foster, a generally disinterested Natalie Portman. The villain, which is an important piece to any superhero movie, is not the most exciting of characters on this instance, treated only superficially. As so often happens, the villain’s cause and that of his followers is the unimaginative attempt to usher the end of the Universe as we know it without a powerful enough emotional motivation to do so.

The lack of inventiveness is also the driving force behind the film’s all-encompassing seriousness. There are fight sequences without spark, forgettable performances and characters, like that of Anthony Hopkins’ Odin (who wouldn’t be able to be in command of any kingdom, let alone “the greatest of the 9 realms”).

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) [ 4/5 ]

After the disappointment of Thor: The Dark World, I was ready to move forward and I was hoping that Taika Waititi would be able to take the Thor franchise in a new and exciting direction.

Within the first five minutes I knew I was in good hands. In that opening sequence Taika lets us know that the Thor of his imagination would be one filled with colorful humor and lighthearted fun. His contribution was to strip away the franchise of all of the heavy-handed seriousness of its predecessor, while resurrecting some of the comedy that made the original Thor a refreshing and exciting franchise within the Marvel Universe.

Taika’s film had more in common with films like The Sixth Element than with the more recent Marvel blockbusters. Almost nothing, not even the destruction of an entire world, felt as tragic as it could have been. The characters were filled with infectious optimism, even as they faced certain defeat. Chris Hemsworth demonstrated, more than ever before, that he is an actor with great comedic timing, using his growly deep voice as a fold to his goofy personality.

The result of this tremendous mood shift is that Thor: Ragnarok feels more like the comic in the old Marvel strips than most other superhero films. While gritty and dark may work for a superhero like Batman in a setting like Gotham, perhaps Thor with his long red cape, giant hammer and crazy family is better suited to exist in the midst of hilarious insanity.

SET IT UP (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Every so often there comes a movie that despite its many faults is able to hit the sweet cultural spot, garnering critical and mass appeal because of the kind of film that it is.

Set It Up is a romantic comedy that is unapologetically so. It comes out at a time when the genre has ceded the spotlight at the box office. In doing so, it comes out to fill a void and engage audiences that have been waiting for the kind of cute romance that was so prevalent in recent decades.

Set It Up recreates the formula of the romantic comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s rather successfully. It has two young attractive leads, funny sidekicks, and one or two major obstacles that prevent their romance. As was the case with most other romantic comedies with large studio backings (the movie is produced by Netflix), Set It Up attempts to appeal to the largest audience possible by taking as few risks as possible. The story is largely predictable, even when the dialogue does have a fast-paced wit to it that I appreciated. The leads are both quirky and likable, which are two qualities that are common in the genre.

Set It Up ticks all of the familiar boxes, but there are no stakes and very little in the way of true romance. Most of it feels childish, as if this is the first time these characters will step into adulthood.

EL BAR (2017) [ 3/5 ]

El Bar (The Bar in English) is an effective thriller with a tinge of sci-fi and a tinge of horror that is propelled forward by an unpredictable script that dares to go completely off the rails in the last act. Regardless of believability, each character serves a purpose to the grand scheme, each a pawn to a larger story that remains engaging despite its flaws.

As fun as it may be to watch at times, The Bar is inconsistent about its own rules. The characters behave as if they have split-personality disorder, swinging from rational to irrational in the space of minutes. In much the same way, the script seems to suffer from mood swings and it builds tension by increasing the stakes as the story moves forward, making the circle of safety around these characters ever smaller.

The Bar also feels like a satire that is aimed at the horror films and conspiracy theories that speak about all-seeing covert government agencies and global pandemics.

I enjoyed the film’s bold and ridiculous choices even if some of it seemed like it came from writers desperate to make a feature-length piece out of a confining and limiting initial conceit.

INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) [ 4/5 ]

If the original Pixar film had not been released 14 years prior, this sequel would be yet another masterpiece in the long line of successes in Pixar’s history. The only problem here is that Incredibles 2 feels a bit too much like its predecessor, even if Pixar made some minor yet very effective tweaks and updates that bring the franchise to today’s cinema.

Interestingly, the film picks up right where it left off. While 14 years passed between the two installments, this family of superheroes was suspended in a sort of homeostasis, waiting for an idea to spark it back to life.

I presume the concept for this second installment started by establishing that the expected roles would now be reversed. Elastigirl would be the breadwinner, while Mr. Incredible would take the stay-at-home parenting duties. This idea, as simple and refreshing as it may be, doesn’t do enough for me to justify a second film that shares generally the same structure as the first.

Having said that, Incredibles 2 makes good use of each member of the family, now freer to use their powers and build upon our knowledge of their personalities. Dart and Violet are still in their early puberty, squabbling but united as a team when it comes to helping their parents. Jack-Jack continues to be a delight, driving Mr. Incredible to the brink of madness, and delighting us with his many powers in a rapturously funny early sequence in which he battles a feisty raccoon. It is, however, Elastigirl’s time to shine, and the voice performance of Holly Hunter still captures all of her desire to be super, with her motherly instincts, even if they’ve been relegated mostly to the background.

The many action sequences that make up the bulk of Incredibles 2 are not only a showcase of the state of animation, but of the expressive and creative aspect of the genre.

Sidenote: I was a bit less thrilled by the villain this time around. There was a less compelling backstory and such, there was much less tension and animosity between evil and good.

2 thoughts on “Months in Review: Films of May & June (part 2)

  1. I appreciate everyone is portrayed in the same light, men, women, transgender in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre”, although I’m less convinced by Almodóvar as a great storyteller. While his films are well-acted and have a nice color palette, his style (in my opinion) tends to be messy and soon forgotten. I rated that one 3.5/5. My favorite Almodóvar is “The Skin I Live In” which is closer to a horror/thriller. I’ll go rewatch Agrado’s monologue which you praise.

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