The Case Against “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark as if I had never seen it before. After all, it had been a good 20 years, if not longer. As I approached the idea, I was trepidatious. Raiders was a favorite growing up and I didn’t want to tarnish the memory somehow. The idea, however, would not go away. For days I poured over dozens of reviews and, apart from a rare exception, Raiders enjoyed the kind of all-encompassing adoration that few other classics have managed to attain. It seemed to me like an exaggeration, like the reviews, many of which were written within the last 10-15 years, looked at Raiders with nostalgia for a simpler time in Hollywood. After all, it was the beginning of the 1980s, a period in which mainstream cinema took a turn, giving way to the summer blockbuster and to all-encompassing silliness. Perhaps, I thought, Raiders of the Lost Ark had ceased to become “just” a film, in order to transform into a cultural touchstone for people who came of age around the early 1980s.

Continue reading The Case Against “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

Continued from the previous post.

Below my thoughts on the films I watched in April.

I, TONYA (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

After two hours of film, I could not assert whether I, Tonya is an empathetic reevaluation of Tonya Harding, or an exploitative character study. On the surface it seems to try to sympathize with the former Olympian, but every tragic and horrible moment of her early years is accompanied by a snarky attitude or a redneck generalization. So, for every bit of information that expands and dispels the tabloid image of Harding, there is a feeling that the film is having too much fun with the material at the expense of its subjects.

Continue reading Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

In a year that has so far given us so many things to talk, argue and worry about, there was one thing everyone in Chicago seemed to agree on: Winter needed to end. So, here we are, after a reluctantly cold and snowy April, finally enjoying the first gush of summer breeze moments before the Groundhog was forced to quit its less than admirable job.

When it comes to the movies, both March and April were fruitful, having caught up with 20 new films in total, 10 on each month. Out of those 20 only 4 received a 4 out of 5 rating or higher, of which Isle of Dogs, Call Me by Your Name and Florida Project will be considered as candidates to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Essential Films.

Continue reading Months in Review: films of March & April (part 1)

Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 2)

This is a continuation of my previous post. Below my short impressions on the films I watched in February.

MUNE: GUARDIAN OF THE MOON (2014) [ 3/5 ]

There is a lot to love about this charming animated film. It is, after all, capable of building a world that is beautiful, interesting and new. There is, however, a problem in its execution, rushing through its story without giving the characters their due.

Continue reading Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 2)

Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 1)

After some minor health issues that have marked the beginning of my 2018, I am pleased to be able to come back to this blog if not with perfect health, at least with the knowledge that my afflictions are fixable and temporary.

I return with optimism because great changes at a personal level may come in 2018 should everything go well and I stay focused.

Continue reading Months in review: films, Academy Awards, #Metoo and a rough start to 2018 (part 1)

Start of awards season! Monthly recap: films of November & December (part 2)

Continued from the previous recap…below a series of short reviews on the second chunk of films watched between November and December of 2017.

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A spy thriller that attempts to be little else. Set at the end of the Cold War as Berliners felt emboldened to retake their city and unite their country, Atomic Blonde rises above mediocrity due to its compelling setting and a very committed performance by Charlize Theron. Otherwise, there is nothing new or particularly surprising about this tale of deceit and survival.

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) [ 4/5 ]

It comes as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the career of Guillermo del Toro that he has made a romantic film where a woman meets a man-monster that is clearly reminiscent of the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The beautiful things about Del Toro’s rather simple linear story are all of the supporting elements that enrich it and make the world it’s set in believable. Outside of Sally Hawkins’ beautiful lead performance, there are at least 4 other characters that compete for attention, each with just enough depth and complexity that even the villain (a very good Michael Shannon) comes off as more of a angry and tragic figure than someone we can easily rally against.

Being a Del Toro film, this is also a piece that makes us acutely aware of its context, operating as a believable time capsule to 1950s America.

Ironically, the richness that I just praised is also the reason why The Shape of Water doesn’t find enough time to make the romance at its center come alive completely. There are hints of it blossoming, but it never felt effervescent enough to merit so many characters coming to its defense.

The film also has one of the best creature designs in recent memory, opting for a more tactile, CGI-light presentation.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) [ 4/5 ]

This film should not have worked. Its synopsis would have you believe that it is a rather modest story contained to an uncomfortable dinner party between two very different people whose views clash immediately upon meeting.

What the description doesn’t tell you is that while the film does spend most of its energy around a dinner party, Beatriz (a great Salma Hayek) carries with her a deeply rooted nostalgia that makes all of the recent unfortunate events and dinner party exchanges she has to live through especially poignant. Surprisingly, there are moments in which the movie disengages with reality, taking a sort of metaphysical aura that represents Beatriz’s impressionistic memories of a lost childhood.

Beatriz at Dinner is also a film that is gutsy in its argumentation, taking a clear and unambiguous moral stance that does not feel manufactured, but instead feels like the natural extension of Salma Hayek’s title character.

A surprisingly poetic film that made me reconsider my values.

THE BOSS BABY (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

Within a silly premise and a rather traditional 3-act family-friendly film structure, the sweetness and originality of Baby Boss surprised me.

I’d recommend it to the parents of young siblings, who may feel abandoned or neglected by the arrival of a baby brother or sister.

HEATHERS (1988) [ 1.5/5 ]

I will never understand why horrible films like Heathers gain a cult following and survive the passage of time.

Unlike more recent teen comedies that are clearly influenced by this 1988 film, Heathers does not seem to be “in” on the joke.

Heathers is so bad that, even if the intention is to poke holes on the self-important walls teenagers tend to build around themselves, it does so without any hint of comedy or artistry.

Both Wynona Rider and Christian Slater deliver amateur performances here.

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The film reasserts one long-held belief in the horror genre that many movies choose to ignore at their peril: fear resides in the unknown and the unseen.

It Comes at Night thrives in close quarters, making use of darkness and poorly-lit rooms to great effect. Joel Edgerton delivers a powerful and uncompromising performance as the head of a family willing to sacrifice every shred of their humanity to save each other from the inevitable.

An elegant and minimalistic horror film that keeps the suspense high and never lets go.

MAN ON THE MOON (1999) [ 3.5/5 ]

As an outsider with very little knowledge about the man behind Andy Kaufman’s unpredictable public persona, this 1999 Milos Forman biopic seems like an adequate, if not entirely enlightening approximation of his unique comedic mind.

While the film didn’t particularly surprise or move me in any way, the thing I could not shake was Jim Carrey’s overwhelmingly committed performance. Now that I have had time to think about the film and watch the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (reviewed below), I find Carrey’s career always pointed him towards Kaufman.

We never lose sight of Carrey as an actor, but it’s as if we are introduced to an alter-ego that had always been lurking just out of our collective view.

Carrey has been in better films (The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but he has not given a better performance than interpreting Andy Kaufman.

JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

It’s hard to understand what happens to the mind of certain artists after they achieve as much success and fame as Jim Carrey.

In Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond we meet a man whose disheveled hair, unkept beard and monotonous tone scream of depression or, perhaps, total contentment and comfort. As much wisdom or introspection as Carrey wants to share about his experience in the business, especially while shooting Man on the Moon, most of his commentary comes out garbled and messy, without a central theme and without a clear purpose. It is as if we are all invited into the mind of a man whose tales about the process of acting all come attached with a bit of disinterest and detachment. My question is, if our narrator does not care much, then why should we?

The film also doesn’t help itself. The most interesting bits focus on the extreme method acting of Carrey during the filming of Man on the Moon, but it often gets sidetracked, giving us a mixture of nostalgia and false wisdom that never sticks.

At the end and away from the camera Carrey seems to have a moment of clarity that sums up my thoughts about the documentary: “things got a little crazy”. Yes, they did, my friend. Yes, they did. They got crazy in all the wrong ways.

COCO (2017) [ 4/5 ]

The beautiful thing about Coco is that, like Moana, it opens the door to a bright future in animation that finds inspiration and richness in other cultures. No longer do we see bits and pieces of cultural appropriation. Instead, Coco is a distinctly Mexican film that tells us a story about a Mexican family with Mexican traditions following uniquely Mexican dreams, all of which is done tactfully and movingly.

In good Pixar fashion, the film is also beautiful to look at. There is, as you would expect, great attention to world building, rooting the characters in a world filled with magic, and love of family and music.

Coco is a film that oozes with charm.

LOGAN LUCKY (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

The exacting and mind-twisting nature of Steven Soderbergh has not receded in the least over the years and Logan Lucky is proof of that.

While the similarities with the Ocean’s Eleven films are clear and impossible to miss, Logan Lucky nails its brand of silly, and even downright stupid humor in ways that the Ocean movies only occasionally did.

Playing second fiddle to Channing Tatum’s limping construction worker are Adam Driver, as his bartender brother with a prosthetic arm, and a very blonde Daniel Craig, as a convicted felon and expert vault breaker. They’re both downright hilarious, playing silly fools that can keep a straight face through every situation.

Apart from the sometimes hilarious shenanigans of the heist, Logan Lucky’s attempt at giving the film some emotional backbone falls flat. At the end, however, the pure thrill of seeing them succeed was enough to keep me engaged.

BRIGHT (2017) [ 2/5 ]

Bright is the kind of mess that comes when you put together an immature script with a filmmaker that refuses to make the film that is written on paper.

Bright is an erratic mess that is seemingly interested in making larger social statements, whilst lacking the nuance to do it tastefully.

At the same time, Bright is awfully concerned with world-building, throwing new elements to the story at every stage but without much backstory or attention to detail to make sense of it all.

It is a film that gets lost in its many goals. It is an unfunny buddy-cop movie; a socially conscious movie that manages to be offensive at times; a fantasy film that is a mesh of many ideas thrown together almost at random; and a violent thriller that doesn’t thrill or even amuse. An unfortunate misfire by director David Ayer whose previous credits include the very good End of Watch.

CAROL (2015) [ 4/5 ]

It is rare to see a movie be courageous enough to build a relationship from the ground up, starting with a simple look, or a touch or a gesture, and spending a significant amount of time developing these characters with the kind of human complexity that can only be found in great scripts.

If that were not enough, the film is beautiful to look at, creating a tangible atmosphere where we see two great actresses at their best; on the one hand the youthful beauty of Rooney Mara and, in the other, the timeless elegance of Cate Blanchett.

One of the best films of 2015.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

There is plenty to love and plenty to dislike about the latest entry in Hollywood’s most successful big screen saga.

The good: Rian Johnson’s visual artistry, the strong performances by the younger new faces, and the spectacular action sequences that are beautifully choreographed and epically constructed.

The bad: Mark Hamill’s moody performance, some of the questionable script decisions and in the plot avenues that did not quite succeed (such as finding a code breaker in a rich casino-like world)

Still, it managed to keep me engaged and excited for what is yet to come in the franchise.

WIND RIVER (2017) [ 3/5 ]

Though I appreciate the film’s intentions and cinematic craftsmanship, Wind River fails mostly in the details, with a script that doesn’t trust audiences enough to make our own conclusions.

Anyone care to point out why we couldn’t just have a native American in the lead role? Hasn’t the box office proven studios wrong time and time again about white-washing acting ensembles?

Enjoy the Awards Season everyone…

Happy 2018! Monthly recap: November & December films (part 1)

In Chicago we welcomed the new year like most years: wishing we could hibernate to keep our core body heat at a reliable level. It has been absurdly cold for the better part of 3 weeks now, with frigid winds blowing from the northwest through Christmas and New Years Eve.

The marriage of free time, the holidays and freezing weather did allow for some productive film watching though. Thanks to a very productive December, I reached and surpassed a goal I had set for myself at the beginning of 2017: to watch at least 120 films, or the equivalent of 10 per month. At the end, I reached 124, which improves my 2016 tally by 18 films.

Without further ado, I give you my thoughts on all of the new films I have seen since November 1st. To keep it manageable, I will break my monthly recap in two parts in the order in which the films were seen. You’ll find part 2 posted in a couple of days.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

7 days and 7 sisters named after each day of the week, all identical twins, all played by Noomi Rapace sporting different clothes, hairdos and personalities. They all live secluded in an apartment on an alternate future where overpopulation has forced the hand of those in power to enforce a strict one-child rule that, should it be broken, will see any younger sibling sent to a less than auspicious cryogenic sleep bank.

I have several issues with the film, too many to number them all here. Chief among them is that it never becomes about anything other than escaping death for each of the siblings after being caught living under a seemingly perfect disguise. We don’t end up caring for any of them, since they’re even hard to differentiate, so the film just felt like a series of sequences where things blew up and people got hurt. A disappointment.

13TH (2016) [ 4/5 ]

As a liberal with some moderate socio-economic views, I found some of what 13th argues somewhat impeachable. Agree or not, 13th is a point of view, a justified and tragic one that deserves sociological and political study and attention.

Leaving politics aside, the cinematic journey Ava DeVurney’s takes us in is a powerfully constructed account of pervasive racism in the United States in the 20th and 21st century.

Beyond Ava’s impeccable construction, there is nothing particularly original about her presentation. To watch 13th, however, is to understand this is not an experimentation in filmmaking, but a crystalline distillation of a long list of African American tragedies and grievances.

COLOSSAL (2016) [ 3/5 ]

Nacho Vigalondo’s film is surprising in that it uses a completely bonkers and silly idea to dramatic effect. I enjoyed Colossal’s underlying message of female reassertion and empowerment, but I found myself questioning a few of the film’s choices along the way. I was also unimpressed at some of the details, like the weak creature design, or the inconsistent rules that governed the fantastical aspects of the film.

BECOMING ZLATAN [ 3.5/5 ]

The film is a series of interviews and recordings, of which there are many, focusing on the early years of one of world football’s best players: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This documentary takes us back to his humble and simple beginnings as a teenager playing in Sweden for his hometown team, and then moving on to a much bigger stage, as the main attacker in the talent-rich Ajax of Amsterdam. The film is effective in showing a very human side of Zlatan, with all of his swagger and confidence, but also with the kind of humility of purpose that is much less discussed and that is common to find in almost every great athlete.

At the end, what I took away were the struggles that come with being in the spotlight, especially if you are a young adult trying to rise to meet your true potential while the world watches.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) [ 3/5 ]

A lush and overabundant remake directed without reservations by Sir Kenneth Branagh. The film rehashes the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery with a remarkable cast that is, in many ways, the equivalent in popular appeal to the original cast from the 1970s film. Aside from an improved Hercule Poirot, Branagh’s direction is too neat and too polished, always opting for the grand and unnecessary gesture, making changes to the original film that feel void of value.

SEXO, PUDOR Y LAGRIMAS (1999) [ 3.5/5 ]

As I said in my “recap of 2017” post, this film relishes every opportunity to be irreverent, bold and sexy, all in the service of comedy. At the end, I felt amused, even if not entirely convinced about the artistic merits of the film.

3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) [ 4/5 ]

3 Billboards manages the great feat of being both hilarious and emotionally poignant, often jumping between the two with great ease. Tonally, it covers a lot of ground. It is about female empowerment, about Americans’ terse relationship with police and about small town people dealing with issues in a small town way.

Frances McDormand kicks ass. Lucas Hedges makes the most out of his small role. Woody Harrelson is as solid as ever. Peter Dinklage shares some of the best scenes and steals them all; and Sam Rockwell delivers one of the best performances of his chameleonic career.

THE RED TURTLE (2016) [ 4/5 ]

A beautifully poetic animated film from the great minds of Studio Ghibli. It is mostly a silent piece, that relies on music, on a simple yet evocative animation style and on a universal human story to leave a lasting impression.

It is a film about choosing love and family over the mundane. It is also about learning to be one with nature and basking in its glory. A unique work of art.

CARS 2 (2011) [ 3/5 ]

In the back of the humility and simplicity of The Red Turtle, Pixar’s second iteration of Cars felt like the capitalistic and overabundant response for the new millennium. It is, more than any other Pixar film I have seen, the busiest, loudest and least original of all of the studio’s creations. It borrows a great deal from action movies, and while some of it offers great popcorn entertainment, I found it hard to follow the story and root for anyone in particular.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) [4/5]

Perhaps the best blindspot I managed to watch in 2017. Terms of Endearment is a film about family and love that centers on the peculiar dynamic between a mother and her daughter, and the men in their lives. Though it starts as a dark comedy that seems to try too hard to be hip and funny, the film slowly finds its footing, eventually arriving at a moving last act that makes everything that came before worthwhile.