The Dream Not Taken: A Review of the wonderful Hermia & Helena

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Anyone who has so much as tried to move to a different country knows it’s not an easy thing to do. From needless amounts of paperwork to ridiculously restrictive laws, reality will put a quick check on anyone’s fantasy of packing things up and starting anew. And that’s not even taking into account the desperation of those who not only want, but need to emigrate. Just living in another country is a weird thing. The more you stay there, the more your life back home feels like a dream. You might as well have moved to a different planet. And yet, life does not stop, and the people back home keep on living and informing who you are and what you do. This push and pull between two places that are equally real but feel similarly fake is explored playfully and honestly in Matias Piñeiro’s wonderful new movie, Hermia & Helena, which opened in (very) limited release this Friday.

Piñeiro is an Argentinian director who’s specialized in making talky indie comedies inspired (but not really based on) the works of William Shakespeare. His name might ring a bell to art-house audiences, who’ve come to know him as a recurring presence at the New York Film Festival (where Hermia & Helena premiered last fall). After making quite a few movies back home in Buenos Aires, Piñeiro moved to New York sponsored by a an artistic fellowship program. That’s pretty much the same situation the protagonist of Hermia & Helena is in. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) is a theatre director who’s made the trip to New York to work on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Those familiar with Shakespearean comedy will know that the young lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream flow in and out of love with each other quickly and often thanks to the hijinks of a particularly fickle group of fairies. Piñeiro has a lot of fun with this concept. Even though the parallels to Shakespeare aren’t always evident, Piñeiro has made a genuinely playful film, which is often as tricky as the fairies of the play. Like many a Shakespearean protagonist, Camila expresses deep devotion for one lover, only to casually exchange him for another. Then, Piñeiro flashes back to the let us know there was more tot he story than we initially thought. More lovers, more secrets, more hijinks. He repeats this format a couple of times, each more revealing than the last.

This is not only a fun structure, but an effective conduit for the movie’s themes. The thing is, Camila is the type of privileged traveller who already has a pretty comfortable and fulfilling life back home in Buenos Aires. When we first meet her -hours before she has to drive to the airport- she isn’t even sure if she actually wants to travel to New York. She does, of course, but once there she says she’ll finish her translation really quickly and go back home as soon as possible. Only this isn’t truly how she feels. At least not quite. She hasn’t come to New York just to write, there are quite a few other personal plans (people) in her agenda, not to mention the unforeseen plans (people) that present themselves along the way.

Camila exhibits the traits of the young aimless traveller who has nothing to lose; who has their whole life ahead of them, and would rather get into a big mess of a situation than let an opportunity go to waste. Of course, every opportunity that she does or fails to take has repercussions, and involves other people. Camila herself is the product of a couple of such travelers. Her dad (an American) met her mom (an Argentinian) when they were both abroad in Australia. They never saw each other again, but their decision not to let a good opportunity go to waste resulted in a daughter who is (perhaps unwittingly) following in their footsteps.

One of the many great things about this movie is that it understands that this type of people tend to somehow attract each other. It also understands that Camila isn’t the only one making or breaking plans (and relationships) in order to try something new in a different place. There are always new promises to make, and new promises to break. The movie understands the seduction of the desire to reinvent oneself, and the regret that comes later, when you look back. Love can be as quick and petty as a fairy, but pixie dust doesn’t leave a hangover, real life does.

Some who have seen Piñeiro’s earlier work have described this movie as a bit of a step down for the director. This being the first movie of his I have seen, I find it revelatory. The birth of a deep interest in a new filmmaker and his work, that could very well grow into fascination. If his Viola (inspired by Twelfth Night) and his Princess of France (inspired by Love’s Labour Lost) do as great a job as Hermia & Helena of crystalizing their themes and finding new energy in Shakespeare’s evergreen but dangerously deified catalogue, then I can’t imagine them being anything less than extraordinary.

That being said, I would share a word of caution those who will seek out the movie based on this review (and I hope you do). At first glance, Hermia & Helena could be wrongly dismissed as too slight, pointless even. Though it’s really fun to watch, it’s the kind of film whose lack of serious conflict will make some feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Others, like me, will not only feel like it’s going somewhere, but everywhere. I suspect my own personal experience moving from South America to New York played a big role in my loving this movie. Take this review with a grain of salt if you must, but know that this movie spoke to me on a very personal level… and isn’t that what film’s supposed to do?

Space Oddity: A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Let’s get the unsurprising thing out of the way first. If you enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there’s a very big chance you’ll enjoy this one as well. If what you want is more of the same, then you’ll most certainly get it. Actually, a more accurate way to describe this sequel would be to say that it delivers “most” of the same. It’s not a coincidence that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 3 to feel like the work of a human director rather than a sophisticated computer algorithm. James Gunn has come back as writer-director and seized the success of the first Guardians to turn up the volume as loud as he can on every single aspect of his new movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was praised for being fresh, original, and weird. It wasn’t any of those things. However, Gunn’s unhinged choices make Volume 2 fresher, more original, and weirder than its predecessor. The good news is that the sequel improves on enough aspects of the first film to be considered a good movie. The bad news is that certain irritating things about the original remain part of the package.

Gunn’s strategy for the sequel is clear since the very beginning of the movie. After a brief flashback to the eighties, the movie truly begins with our team of intergalatic crusaders fighting off a big gooey monster. We then get an opening credit sequence that calls back to the last movie, only instead of Chris Pratt getting down to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, we get Baby Groot (who is the same tree creature of the last movie, albeit reincarnated as an infant) dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians fight the gooey monster in the background. It’s a gag that works better in concept than in execution. The joke of the thing becomes clear pretty quickly, and then we still have two minutes of credits to go through. Part of the problem is that Groot, by virtue of being a computer generated image and not a human being, isn’t a particularly engaging dancer to watch (though I must suspect I am in the minority on not being charmed by the cuteness of this so-called Baby Groot).

Even though the movie slowly won me over, one thing remained true of my disappointing first impression: the use of seventies songs as the movie’s main soundtrack isn’t as inspired as it was in the first movie. This is understandable. The first movie’s soundtrack was so good that even I downloaded it to my phone. I, who didn’t even like the movie. It’s hard for lightning to strike twice, especially when you’ve used up some of the best seventies tunes in your first go-round. The selections in this second movie aren’t exactly bad, but their use is far less memorable. That being said, there’s one significant exception. The movie recognizes the awesomeness of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and uses it to great effect. I give it credit for that.

And so the movie marches along for most of its running time, going back and forth from inspired touches of truly delightful popcorn cinema to the same old schtick of second-tier summer blockbusters. The thing that irritated me the most, as it did in the first one, was the movie’s sense of humor. Not, mind you, the fact that it had humor in the first place. I love to laugh. But the way in which it insists on wearing its humor as a crutch, constantly sabotaging its own jokes and its own efficiency as a movie. There is a particular type of joke (or way to treat a joke, to be more precise) that drives me crazy, and I want to get deeper into it because Guardians of the Galaxy is far from the only movie to be guilty of this. Here’s an example of what happens after Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) vindictively calls Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a “raccoon”:

Rocket: Don’t call me a raccoon.
Peter: Sorry, I took it too far. What I meant to say is “you trash panda”
Rocket: Is that better?
Drax: I don’t know.
Peter: It’s worse. (starts to laugh) It’s so much worse!

The “trash panda” line is funny. I laughed. But then, there are three more lines of dialogue that serve absolutely no purpose other than to keep pointing out the joke. Rocket and Drax’s responses aren’t too bad, even though they aren’t as funny as the panda line, but by the time Peter is explaining that being called a trash panda is worse than being called a raccoon, I had become embarrassed that I laughed at the panda line in the first place. Like Shakespeare said: “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Leave a good joke live on its own instead of murdering it by calling attention to it. I don’t find this kind of thing funny, and there’s a lot of it in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

But my beef with the movie’s sense of humor isn’t just that I don’t find its jokes funny, but that the movie insists in using humor to undercut its own drama. This is particularly annoying this time around because the dramatic elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are surprisingly effective. The main dramatic arc of the movie involves Peter Quill’s relationship to his absent father, who turns out to be a sentient planet played by Kurt Russell. It’s familiar territory, but effective enough that it made me think Pratt is a better actor when there’s a little sadness to him and not just quippy bantering. There’s an arc involving the sister rivalry between heroine Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and villain Nebula (Karen Gillan) that turns two of the most boring characters of the first movie into people I’m interested about, and even Rocket Raccoon -by far my least favorite part of the last movie- redeems himself with a pretty solid introspection of his assholery.

All of these arcs come together rather elegantly in the last act of the movie. Sure, there is a character who nobly sacrifices himself for the good of the team just like in the first movie, and sure, the movie’s main arc of “a team of ragtags becomes a family” is hardly original, but at least there is no giant spaceship hovering over the Manhattan skyline. What’s more, the character groundwork up to that point is handled with enough artistry that I got quite emotional toward the end, something that no Marvel movie has ever managed to do. I couldn’t care less when Captain America and Iron Man were punching each other in the face last summer, yet I came very close to tearing up at the end of this adventure. Maybe if the movie hadn’t repeatedly pointed out the silliness of its own existence I might have actually teared up, but let’s not ignore the fact that this sort of emotional reaction is kind of a big deal for such a film.

Before I close this review, let me be clear in the fact that I do not begrudge the fact that this movie wants to be funny. James Gunn can be very funny. Some of his jokes get in the way of my enjoyment of his movie, yes, but some others can be truly inspired. Gunn has a particularly good eye for zany visuals, and this is where his “most of the same” approach truly pays off. Not being afraid of cartoony visuals, Gunn goes all in on the most intense colors and grotesque sights he can afford. There is, for example, a visual gag involving heads bending out of shape that is funny in an endearingly immature type of way. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it earns a laugh. And as far as action is concerned, Gunn is willing to give in to Looney Tunes levels (and styles) of violence. The best action sequence in the movie involves Michael Rooker’s Yondu and a murderous, flying pen. It is as much of a comedic set-piece as it is a sight of gnarly beauty; a red light dashing through the darkness, just strong enough to illuminate the bodies it is leaving in its path.

Big studio blockbusters are in a pretty dire artistic situation these days, especially those created by the Marvel machine. It’s becoming harder and harder to find artistry when most of them resemble a mass-produced object more closely than they do a piece of art. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is far from perfect, but it has enough character to think of it as an honest-to-God movie. That is not a small feat, considering its origins.