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3 Stars Movies

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Terry Gilliam’s 8½

If I hadn’t seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with my own eyes, I’d have trouble believing it exists. So Terry Gilliam has finally made his Quixote; but it might be more accurate to say that he finally made his .

In a way, Gilliam has been making this movie over and over for years. Longtime fans will recognize his longtime themes of guilt, unhealthy fantasy, escape, and delusion. His infamous, years-long struggle is cleverly written into the story. Adam Driver plays a film director reflexively hailed as a genius, but for a work so obscure that it is remarkable for it to surface in a bootleg copy — but yet somehow also so well-known that he is asked to superficially replicate it for a television commercial. I wonder if it was ever contemplated to incorporate the small amount of footage shot in 1998 with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, but I suspect the last thing anybody involved with this cursed project wanted was more legal issues.

I appreciate that while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is extremely Gilliamesque in its themes, it is rarely egregiously so in its art direction. In the 1996 documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam observed that by that point in his career, craftspeople were so aware of and influenced by his work that he found they could deliver Gilliamesque costumes, props, and sets without his input. Things escalated to the point of self-parody in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus‘ woozy digital phantasmagoria, but thankfully things here are once again mostly practical.

Trivial perhaps, but if I may add a heartfelt complaint: a pox on Screen Media Films for authoring a blu-ray specifically designed to not remember where you stopped, and to disable the FFWD, NEXT, or MENU buttons during the trailers. I will never understand this kind of consumer hostility. Why punish the movie lovers who have paid to own or rent your film?

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3 Stars default Movies

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) has less color than the original, but more of everything else

I appreciate that Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not attempting to copy Dario Argento’s horror classic, per se, but the association immediately pitches a number of disappointments to get over.

First, its avoidance of the original’s vivid, lurid color is so aggressive as to be a punk rock statement. The creative choice sets up a dramatic late-film widening of the color spectrum, but perhaps the early desaturation goes too far. Even in a scene where two characters are talking during the daytime, it’s so dark you can barely see their faces. Before you say “you should have seen it on the big screen”, I would counter that this and the also infamously dim Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” were produced for small screens by Amazon and HBO respectively.

Mia Goth in Suspiria
“Ah, Lacan”… mirror stage. Mia Goth in Suspiria (2018)

Second, it’s curious that the plot of movie made in 2018, about female artists and witches, would revolve around a male character. But again, this is a deliberate creative choice, and without spoilers, I would invite you to pay close attention to first-time actor Lutz Ebersdorf’s performance as the psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Still, I felt the movie was trying to have it both ways: putting a feminist spin on witchcraft tropes, while still portraying them as either frequently nude beautiful young women or as shrieking cackling harpies.

It may have less color than the original, but it has more of almost everything else: it’s more political, more gory, more fragmented, and more like a copy of Cahiers du cinema come to life. If it’s not enough for a character to sigh “Ahhhh… Lacan”, the film is positively scattered with Lacanian mirrors, so much so that I continuously marveled at how the camera was hidden or erased.

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3 Stars Movies

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles since the original film in 2004, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Brad Bird as Edna Mode in Incredibles 2
Brad Bird as Edna Mode, contemplating upcoming The Incredibles sequels.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

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2 Stars Movies

Noomi Rapace shoots ’em up in the Netflix exclusive Close

Noomi Rapace was seemingly set for big things after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, but was shortly thereafter cruelly written out of her starring role in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels. I can only imagine how it must hurt for an actor to “appear” in a sequel only as a corpse, as she did in Alien: Covenant. Add to that the additional betrayal of the franchise’s thematic dependence on female protagonists, replacing the iconic Ripley and Shaw with Michael Fasbender’s mopey and boring male-presenting robots.

She’s since been racking up quite the filmography with Netflix exclusive movies. She was especially great in seven different roles in What Happened to Monday, but she was also unfortunately in the inexplicably awful Bright (which was pretty racist for a movie that was supposed to be about racism). Considering her action prowess, I wonder if she was considered for the Tomb Raider reboot that went to Alicia Vikander? Anyway, rooting for you, Noomi.

But Vicky Jewson’s Close doesn’t seem to be the way forward. For starters, how do you pronounce it? Since I watched this in the Netflix app, I actually forgot what it was called, and more than once mistook the word “Close” for a call-to-action to “close” the Netflix app.

Since the action thriller genre depends more on tight plotting than anything else, Close is oddly structured and non-dramatic. A good chunk of the story is spent escaping a dangerous place, only for the characters to later decide to return, which is so easy that they literally just drive up to it. A key plot twist is fleetingly communicated through shouted dialogue during a shootout, denying what should have been the most significant realization (spoiler: Indira Varma’s villain was not really the villain, and instead just some generic evil corporation that barely mentioned prior). Two sequences are set in a luxe fortress-like safehouse in exotic Morocco, but the space is not taken advantage of in the way that, say, David Fincher mapped out the claustrophobic space of Panic Room.

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3 Stars Movies

Liam Neeson has a rough ride in The Commuter

Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter is the best comedy of 2018. I’m still laughing about the running joke of the Metro North running up the 4/5/6 line in Manhattan. If you find yourself on the Metro North Hudson Line, Make a quick stop in Beacon for a burger at Meyer’s Old Dutch Food & Such; honestly one of the best I’ve ever had.

Speaking of New York City verisimilitude, most Columbia students dress like J. Crew or Banana Republic catalogs. Gwen (Florence Pugh) clearly goes to NYU, and Mike (Liam Neeson) should have been instantly suspicious.

Between this and Source Code, has Vera Farmiga been typecast as Manipulative Conspiracy Lady on a Train?

I play a little guitar, and it might take me a moment to realize I’m looking at a left-handed guitar (it would be like looking in a mirror). Wouldn’t it have made more narrative sense for Mike to realize its purported owner is left-handed, but has a “normal” guitar? Nah, because plenty of lefties play right-handed, not the least being Jimi Hendrix. Never mind, it’s not worth worrying about this plot point, because it’s all worth it for setting up a pretty great fight scene.

The Commuter is kinda dumb, but directed, shot, and edited with real visual flair. Exactly what I needed on a Friday night. The fragmented, time-hopping opening sequence deserves extra credit for overachieving within the genre.

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3 Stars Movies

Nicolas Cage descends into hell in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy

Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is what you would get if you crossed Straw Dogs with Hellraiser, co-directed by Tarkovsky & Jodorowsky. Do you think Clive Barker saw this and said “hey, that’s my thing”?

It’s also the rare movie where Nicolas Cage’s customarily crazed mania is juuuuuust right for the material. Whereas his… performative performance (shall we say) was hilariously incongruous for Neil LaBute’s 2006 Wicker Man remake, here he is uniquely suited for the part of a haunted recluse who loses his hard-won love and descends deeper and deeper into a phantasmagoric hell to enact his vengeance.

Thought experiment: at which point in the plot was calling 911 no longer a viable option? Don’t do drugs, kids.

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4 Stars Movies

Mr. Rogers consoles the country in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It’s a sad state of affairs when a documentary about one of the most simply good people to have ever lived must dedicate screentime to Trump, Brexit, and Fox News, but such is the world that conservatives have made. Even if no mention had been made of current affairs, Won’t You Be My Neighbor would have been a political statement. Much is said of Fred Rogers’ values as a Christian and lifelong Republican, but how many of today’s Christians and Republicans would recognize him?

Rogers’ famous message in times of crisis was to “look for the helpers”, but as noted by Jason Kottke and Ian Boost, this was intended to console children. After 9/11, he also had a call to action for adults: our duty is to be tikkun olam, “repairers of creation”.

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2 Stars Movies

Winnie-the-Pooh is a labor reformer in Disney’s Christopher Robin

Given its sluggish pace, depressive tone, and dramatization of the origin of Paid Time Off for postwar UK laborers, whom exactly was the intended audience for Christopher Robin? Kids with premature midlife crises and uncommonly long attention spans? Adults with low vocabularies and an acceptance of brain-bending metaphysics? Think about it too hard, and it’s the stuff of nightmares as Robin’s (Ewan McGregor) acid-flashbacks to his childhood fantasias come to life, not just for him but for the entire world.

There are no better models for the all-ages family film than Paddington and Paddington 2, full stop. It is possible to illuminate kids about immigration and judicial reform and yet still indulge in tasty pastries and runaway trains.

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4 Stars Movies

The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg champions intelligence and equality in the documentary ‘RBG’

One of the greatest living Americans. If anyone deserves to be lionized in a feature-length hagiography, it’s The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In these dark times, it’s heartening to see this unapologetic celebration of one woman’s lifelong championship of American values like fairness, justice, and equality. Glimpses of her personal life prove she also lived by these values, especially in how she plowed a pioneering course through formerly male-only spaces like Harvard law school, and how she and husband Marty modeled a successful marriage of equals.

But an obvious but unspoken dark subcurrent runs through Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary: Ginsberg is not getting any younger, and it’s unbearably terrifying to contemplate American life without her. She was instrumental in many of the anti-discrimination rulings that protect Americans today, against the powerful so-called “conservative” forces that expressly believe that Americans are not equal, that women should be paid less than men and excluded from male spaces, and that non-white people should not vote. The film makes the point that she was not long ago considered a moderate, but the rise of far-right forces have recast her relatively straightforward moderation as leftism.

After West and Cohen’s film rests its case, the dissenting opinion is delivered by Professor Helen Alvaré of the Scalia Law School. Try not to puke as you sit through the staggering hypocrisy of someone associated with one of the most notorious right-wing ideologues in recent American history, voice the surface-level, rational-sounding criticism that a Supreme Court Justice should not voice personal political opinions.

In ordinary times, with ordinary politicians, I might agree that justices ought to tread lightly in the public forum. But these are not ordinary times, and Trump is not an ordinary politician. Alvaré’s argument boils down to: liberals should not enjoy the same freedom of speech as the rich and powerful. Today, with predatory nationalists and criminals sullying the White House and dominating Congress, I counterargue: anyone who does not have open antipathy for the Trump Administration is either ignorant or somehow profiting.

In a national climate that elevates uninformed opinion over knowledge and expertise, we need this celebration of raw, burning intelligence. The serious, reserved Ginsberg is now endearingly pleased to find herself a pop-culture icon and inspiration to young people, but especially to young women. More like her, please.

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2 Stars Movies

Teenagers shall inherit the world in Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure

While definitely not in the target audience, and without expressly setting out to do so, I’ve still somehow managed to see all three Maze Runner movies. Their easy availability on streaming services is just too tempting for my chronic addiction to escapist sci-fi.

It’s interesting to see how young adult fiction contrives such scenarios where adults are absent, subservient, or villains. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, the Maze Runner movies are constructed upon the trope of there being one single girl or boy, born with the inherent destiny of rescuing a world that the older generation has squandered. I’m sure kids are not blind to how the genre panders to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cathartic for them to imagine themselves bearing cataclysmic responsibilities in life-or-death, world-ending situations.

While none of the Maze Runner films are very good, I did appreciate the first’s relatively straightforward Lord of the Flies pastiche (with the caveat that the premise allowed for only one female character — inexcusable in this day and age). As the original title helpfully elucidated, the hero’s journey was to simply escape a maze, which of course came equipped with a minotaur. But the original quest is accomplished, the title becomes essentially meaningless in later installments. To be fair, their subtitles Scorch Trials and Death Cure are also silly, so I guess cool-sounding nonsense is part of the whole package.

This year’s Maze Runner field trip will be chaperoned by Aiden Gillen and Patricia Clarkson.

Wes Ball’s The Death Cure is a bloodless PG-13 zombie war movie for kids, and almost preposterously long at almost 2 1/2 hours. But it does boast some exciting action sequences, however wildly illogical and coincidence-dependent. The opening rescue of captives from a caravan is an effective emulation of Mad Max for kiddos, and the aerial ensnare of an entire bus near the end is impressive.

The young cast is… fine, if a little bland except for an impassioned Thomas Brodie-Sangster (doomed to be known as him from Love Actually). Like Kate Winslet in Divergence, Ashley Judd in The Hunger Games, and every grownup in Harry Potter, a handful of respected respected veteran indie actors take up the slack: Patricia Clarkson and Aiden Gillen as baddies-with-actually-rather-complex-motivations, and the Giancarlo Esposito Drinking Game (take a swig every time he says “hermano”, and you’ll be on the floor long before the end).

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