To the Wonder: A Review of Wonder Woman

Womanwonder woman

Very early into Wonder Woman, it dawned on me that regardless of whether the movie I was about to see ended up being any good, it was already the most significant superhero movie of the last twenty years. One of the disappointing aspects of our current wave of cinematic superheroes is how banal the movies are. The heroes in these movies save the world over and over again, but do the movies themselves accomplish anything other than amuse the ticket-buying public for a couple hours? It was during the moment when young Diana, Princess of the Amazons, sneaks out to watch the older Amazons train for battle that it dawned on me. Countless real-life Dianas around the world will come to the movies seeking in Wonder Woman the strength to fight in a world that is consistently unkind to them. The parallel is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Judging a film by whether it enacts change in the world doesn’t make for great criticism, but credit where credit is due: Wonder Woman is the first superhero movie that I’ve found to be truly inspirational.

But what about the movie itself. Is it any good? The answer is yes… for the most part. The movie makes a truly terrible choice toward the end, building its final confrontation around an uninspired plot twist. There are also a couple of eyebrow-raising decisions made along the way regarding the depiction of the movie’s World War I setting. But for the big majority of its running time, the movie is a mighty fine piece of blockbuster entertainment. It’s undoubtedly the best “popcorn” movie of the sumer (which sounds like faint praise when you consider how disappointing the summer movie season has been so far, but that’s not the movie’s fault).

Because it’s a mostly good movie, let’s focus on the good things about it. First among them is Gal Gadot, who looks absolutely magnificent and badass as the adult Diana, and plays her as a fearless warrior with the moral compass of a righteous child who has just learned the concepts of right and wrong. It’s this heroic attitude that sends Diana on her quest, away from the island of Themyscira -paradisiac home of the Amazons- and into the trenches of “the war to end all wars”. This is after American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane on the island. Steve must return to London to deliver important intelligence. Having learned about the horrible war being fought out there in the “world of man”, Diana decides to tag along with a personal mission: kill Ares, the God of War who is surely pulling the strings behind this conflict.

From there, Steve and Diana make their way to London in what is the most entertaining part of the movie. There is a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy, as you might expect when you have the strongest of the Amazons walking the streets of London at a time before women were even allowed to vote. The jokes are good, and the fact that Gadot and Pine share tremendous chemistry doesn’t hurt. British actress Lucy Davis is also really funny as Steve’s secretary. This is the section in which the movie most closely resembles an old fashioned action adventure. It also works really well as a buddy comedy, a romantic comedy even. I’m just saying, it’s a lot of fun.

Finally, we get to the Western Front, and we get the scene that will most likely live on as the purest distillation of the movie’s power. Surrounded by wounded soldiers and mortified civilians who speak of the horrors going on at the other side of the trenches, Diana decides that she can’t continue her mission without first helping these people. And so, she climbs over the trench and makes one heroic walk across “no man’s land”. It’s one woman against a whole army, the bullets bounce off her bracelets without hurting her as she moves forward. Unbreakable. Unstoppable. It’s a magnificent sequence, that leads us into the movie’s final third. Sadly, it’s this last sections of the movie that contains the movie’s two biggest problems.

The first problem is the action. We get a couple of really effective set pieces earlier in the film (most notably a German invasion on the shores of Themyscira and a fistfight in a London alley), but this last section at the Front devolves into a big, messy blob of computer generated images. That, sadly, seems to be a requirement with current superhero movies, and movies based on DC Comics characters in particular. The finales of both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad featured incoherent battles against ugly looking CGI monsters, and so does Wonder Woman. What makes this finale particularly disappointing compared to the others is that the movie has been pretty great up to that point.

It’s not like the movie goes completely off the rails in its last fifteen minutes, but it comes really close. There are still a couple good things in this last section: the way the movie pays off the relationship between Diana and Steve is very effective, and the character arc for Diana, in which she is confronted with the possibility that her actions won’t be enough to change humanity’s flawed nature before deciding that humanity is worth fighting for, makes a lot of sense from a thematic perspective. The way the writers decide to get to it, however, involves one of the most underwhelming and tired trick in the current superhero manual, in which the real villain is revealed to be someone we didn’t know was the villain! The cheapness of the trick, combined with the underwhelming characterization and hideous design of the villain made it really hard for me to reconcile this last battle.

The thing is, this last confrontation isn’t particularly bad when compared to the final confrontation in your average superhero movie, and that’s the problem. Wonder Woman isn’t your average superhero movie. It is bound to become the most commercially successful movie directed by a woman. Director Patty Jenkins should be really proud of her work here. People have been waiting for a good movie starring a female superhero, and they finally have it. They have more than that, actually, since this movie isn’t merely good. There is one big flaw there toward the end, but that can be forgiven. Most of the movie is just wonderful.

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.


2017 Summer Box Office Predictions

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Every year, once the summer months approach, I start thinking of my yearly tradition of trying (and invariably failing) to predict what movies will make the most money at the American box office. Recent developments like the ever growing importance of international box office to Hollywood’s economy, the proliferation of big budget summer-type movies in other seasons of the year, and the increasing way in which blockbusters feel more like prefabricated products than actual movies make this exercise feel less vital than it once was, but as long as we have a “summer movie season”, I’ll be willing to play along. Because if these movies feel more like excuses to make money than works of art, why not talk about how much money they will make? By the way, I recorded a podcast discussion about this project with fellow blogger Rachel Wagner, which you can listen to here. I think we had a pretty good conversation trying to make some big box office predictions, so please give it a listen.

Alright, before we get into it, let’s see how I did last year (hint: not great). I assumed (wrongly) that Captain America: Civil War would dominate the box office, and that the only other movie with a chance at the throne was Finding Dory. Well, Dory had more than a chance, and it ended up as number one for the summer despite the fact that I don’t think anyone (myself included) remembers having seen the movie. My predictions also included Alice Through the Looking Glass making 240 million dollars. Instead, Alice was one of the biggest flops of last year, not even clearing 100 million. So that’s how bad I did. But let’s not dwell on the past, but look forward into the future. Here are my predictions for 2017:

1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Release Date: May 5
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 450 Million
I have wrongly predicted a Marvel movie to come out on top of the box office two years in a row now. How could I be foolish enough to predict the same foolish thing for a third year in a row? Well, I just can’t see any other movie doing better. Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest hit of summer 2014 bringing home 333 million dollars, and if the sequel is going to follow in the pattern of most superhero franchises, Volume 2 stands to do better than the original. I think 400 million is almost guaranteed, and if word of mouth is good, the movie could even reach 500.

2. Wonder Woman
Release Date: June 2
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 350 Million
Warner Bros. has a horrible track record trying to recreate the Marvel model with its DC Comics adaptations, but even movies as critically reviled as Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad cleared 300 million dollars. Now, audience fatigue for these movies might have grown big enough to turn this movie into a flop, but Wonder Woman’s appearance was one of the few things people liked about Batman v. Superman, and I sense true audience excitement to finally have a female hero front her own movie. If the movie is better than the last two DC adaptations (and how could it be worse than Suicide Squad?), then it’s bound to make more money than they did.

3. Despicable Me 3
Release Date: June 30
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 300 Million
Kids just can’t enough those Minions… or can they? Minions saw a rather small -but perhaps indicative- drop in box office results from Despicable Me 2. If the drop-off for Despicable Me 3 is analogous to the one experienced by Minions, that would still put the movie in the 300 million ballpark. Animated family movies do well in the summer, and without Disney or Pixar (kind of, more on that later) in the mix, this seems like the most likely candidate to end up on top as far as that type of movie is concerned.

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Release Date: July 5
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 280 Million
Not unlike Wonder Woman’s role in Batman v. Superman, Spider-Man’s appearance was the most celebrated part of Captain America: Civil War. That regained excitement for the character, paired up with Robert Downey Jr’s expanded role in this movie, should guarantee Homecoming to be a success. Not quite big enough to reach the heights of the Sam Raimi years, but certainly enough to do better than the last entries in the franchise.

5. Transformers: The Last Knight
Release Date: June 23
Studio: Paramount
Predicted Box Office: 225 Million

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Release Date: May 26
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 200 Million
I’m bundling up these two movies together because they strike me as two very similar cases. They’re both fifth entries in franchises that strike me as not particularly beloved, and while the last installment of each saw a significant drop in box office, they still cleared 200 million quite easily. In both cases I’m making a conservative prediction of how much money they will make, with the thought in the back of my mind that either one could turn out to be the big flop of the summer. And even if they end up being duds in North America, both movies are more than certain to make ridiculous amounts of money overseas, where both franchises remain intensely popular.

7. Cars 3
Release Date: June 16
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 190 Million
Kids love Cars, but not as much as they love Minions, and more importantly, parents don’t enjoy them as much as they enjoy other Pixar franchises. Cars 2 was the first Pixar movie since the nineties to not clear 200 million, and while I don’t foresee a surge in enthusiasm making Cars 3 somehow a bigger hit than its predecessor, I don’t foresee a slump in enthusiasm either. I’m predicting it to do pretty much as well as the last one did.

8. Dunkirk
Release Date: July 21
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 180 Million
Seems like the days in which Nolan could open an original movie to Inception numbers are gone, but Interstellar brought in 188 Million, and I don’t see a reason why Dunkirk shouldn’t be able to come really close to that mark. Who knows, maybe this will be the surprise hit of the summer and dominate the box office, but World War II seems to close to reality for summer audiences who prefer escapist superheroes and talking CG creatures.

9. War of the Planet of the Apes
Release Date: July 14
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Predicted Box Office: 155 Million
The Apes franchise seems pretty healthy (money wise), though it’s fairly certain it will never climb up to the upper echelon of billion-dollar blockbusters, it’s probably got enough good will to clear 150 Million. Whether it can do more than that is the real question.

10. Alien: Covenant
Release Date: May 19
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Predicted Box Office: 150 Million
This seems like a significant question mark for me. People are certainly excited for Ridley Scott coming back to the Alien franchise, or perhaps that’s just the people in my Twitter feed? Do casual moviegoers care about this sort of thing? Prometheus cleared 100 million, but didn’t get too far beyond that. I expect the name Alien to bring more money than that, even though I don’t expect it to be a huge hit by any metric.

River of Dreams: A Review of ‘The Lost City of Z’

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In movie-world, South America exists only so white men can get lost in its jungles. Half the time, these explorers are motivated by greed, and are destined to go mad searching for entire cities made of gold. The other half is dedicated to those noble explorers who will find spiritual salvation by connecting to a primal spirit that can only be found in such a remote place. I can’t stop thinking about James Gray’s new movie The Lost City of Z since I saw it Thursday night. It is, again, the story of a white explorer who searches for a mythical city in the Amazon. It is Romantic, pragmatic, realistic, and fantastical all at the same time. It belongs -without a doubt- to this long list of movies about white explorers getting lost in the jungle, and yet, it is unlike any such movie I have ever seen.

Critics who love it -and there are many- are sure to point out how The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made any more. And they’re right. This is the type of old-fashioned adventure that Hollywood studios will be thoroughly uninterested in financing as long as superheroes and loud robots keep bringing cash the way they do. We’re talking about a movie filled with explorers, dangerous rivers, panthers, and cannibals. The kind of adventure movie that could’ve easily been made by a major Hollywood studio in the forties, fifties, or sixties. Had that been the case, though, the movie would’ve surely been of the kind that we now call “problematic”.

While those movies undoubtedly have their merits (and there are many), they are products of a different time. A time in which it was perfectly fine for Alec Guinness to play an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and nobody batted an eye at the grotesquely insensitive portrayal of African warriors in the movie Zulu. Later in history, when we started to feel bad about this sort of treatment, filmmakers went to the other extreme, portraying indigenous people as ridiculously noble, almost magical creatures that showed the white protagonists how to become his better self. Somewhere along the road it’s become clear that the best way to deal with these questions of representation is to allow for movies written, directed, and told from the perspective of the indigenous people (a good example would be the Australian film Ten Canoes).

That is not the kind of movie that James Gray wants to make, and that’s ok. Gray is often described as a classicist; a director interested in re-examining the perennial genres of American cinema. He’s given us his take on the New York cop drama (We Own the Night) and the American dream melodrama (The Immigrant), and now gives us his take on the white explorer movie. And it’s quite fascinating. He is undoubtedly more interested in the white protagonist than the indigenous characters he encounters, but the nuance with which Gray portrays the man’s adventure feels unprecedented. What’s more, he brings something to the movie that wouldn’t fly with any big studio, no matter the era. Something that exists beyond the story and scope of the movie. Something that cannot be understood, only felt. Something mysterious and moving.

Before you dismiss me as some sort of cheap guru, let me tell you what the movie is about. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by American journalist David Grann, which is in turn an exploration of the life of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, a real life English explorer who disappeared in the Amazon, as he was obsessed with finding a lost city he called, you guessed it, “Z”. As portrayed in the movie by Charlie Hunnam, Fawcett is a man with a mission as ambitious as his mustache. Born to an alcoholic father, Fawcett is determined to prove himself and climb the ladder of English high society. After embarking on a trip to map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil, however, he finds himself fascinated with the possible existence of an ancient civilization hidden deep in the jungle.

A lesser film might’ve portrayed Fawcett as a strictly noble character, but Gray’s portrayal is meticulously unsentimental. Fawcett’s motives for trying to find this ancient city aren’t nefarious. He is not searching after gold or riches, he wants to prove to the scientific establishment back in Britain that they have “underestimated the Indian”. Perhaps he sees himself in these Indians, dismissed as savages the way he’s dismissed for being the son of a drunk. Fawcett devotes his life to this quest, neglecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children (the oldest of which is played by new Spider-Man Tom Holland). He is a dreamer, but also an obsessive. When he goes off to fight in World War I he shelters himself from the horrors of war by clinging not to a picture of his wife or his kids, but of the jungle.

If you truly think about it, Fawcett is neither a hero nor a villain. He is a fascinating and engaging figure, but it’s as hard to fully root for him as it is to dismiss him as a colonialist. That’s one of the great virtues of Gray’s touch. Whenever he is given a choice in how to portray Fawcett, he chooses the more complicated option. For every moment in which Fawcett is ambushed by a hostile tribe and orders his men not to shoot but instead sing a song and attempt to make contact, there is a scene in which he has a conversation with his wife about how he considers her an equal, but don’t be ridiculous she can’t join him in his next trip the jungle is no place for a woman. The purpose of his quest is to point out the arrogant blindness of European scientists, but Fawcett has blind-spots of his own.

And while this meticulously calibrated -and rather distant- exploration of the character is happening, the movie is indulging in the kind of fabulous imagery that makes people fall in love with the magic of cinema. Cinematographer Darius Khondji turns the Amazon into a Romantic painting, with flickering torch-light, glowing rivers, and purple-red twilights. The score, by Christopher Spelman, is right out of a classic epic, with swelling strings and pounding drums. And the sound design, quiet and merciless, does as much as any other craft to convince us that this jungle is as much a real space as a figment of our imaginations. What is this place? It looks and sounds like nothing we’ve ever seen. Are we also explorers?

That’s the question that opened up the movie for me. I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching when I sat in the theater for The Lost City of Z, but thinking back on it I’ve come to realize the brilliance of Gray’s style. You wouldn’t expect it from a movie as elegant and restrained as this, but more so than any movie I’ve seen in quite a while, The Lost City of Z is an immersive experience. It is designed not to make us understand, but to make us feel the themes of the movie. This is most explicitly clear in the last section of the movie, when a final expedition finally  has the world of Fawcett’s family life in England and his adventurer life in South America meet, and reality becomes a dream.

What exactly happens in those last fifteen minutes of movie? The real Fawcett disappeared in the jungles of Brazil in 1925, his movie equivalent fades out of the screen in a haze. He started out trying to better his station, then the jungle become something more. The myth he created for himself has become his own reality. But what does this mean? Is this a beautiful moment of rapture, or a tragic end to a fruitless mission the ramifications of which he couldn’t fully understand? Whatever it is, we cannot make sense of it, only feel it. That weird feeling of excitement that comes with a chill to the bone when you respond to a movie that you don’t quite understand.

In an interview with film critic Peter Labuza, James Gray talks about the importance of story in film saying: “Birth, life, death. We have to make sense of that cycle.” He’s talking about why telling stories is a fundamental aspect of film making. “Nobody is above story”, he says, and with Lost City of Z, he’s made a movie that embodies that mantra. He’s made one of those movies that are inexplicable. You watch them, and you feel like the filmmaker isn’t even sure of what exactly he’s trying to say, only that he had to say it. It’s a movie that feels bigger than itself, a movie that suggests there is something more.

I’m not even sure I like The Lost City of Z and I couldn’t care less. It feels beside the point. I’ve thought about the movie incessantly since I watched it, and I can’t wait to see it again. I can’t wait to think of twenty more interpretations, trying to figure out what the movie is trying to say. Even though I know, all twenty times, I will be wrong.

Cannes 2017 Preview

ismael's ghosts

The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious and exciting event in a cinephile’s calendar year. Every year, for two magical weeks in May, the world’s most respected filmmakers and some of the biggest stars in the world get together to celebrate the best of cinema in the beautiful French coast. I can’t help obsess about the Festival, and so it’s become a tradition for me to comment on the Official Selection every year right after it is announced.

This year’s Main Competition titles include new works by some of my very favorite filmmakers in the world, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suffer from some of the problems that are seemingly indebted to the selection process. First of all, this lineup includes only three female directors (which is on part with the last couple of years, but still a frustrating number for a Festival that is the ultimate gatekeeper of what is considered great cinema). Second, it’s a lineup very much focused on American and European filmmakers. There are only three East Asian productions, and no representation whatsoever for Latin America, Africa, and any Asian country other than Japan and South Korea. One or two films are usually added to the competition lineup after the announcement, so we’ll see if any of those bring a little more diversity to this group.

But let’s not bury the lead here. The biggest story of the day is that Nicole Kidman has FOUR (!) different movies premiering at the Festival. After captivating the world with her incredible performance in HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Kidman has set her eye on world domination, and I for one welcome our new Australian thespian overlord.

Most years I get so excited and can’t wait for the time when all these movies are released in theaters and I can finally see them that I end up watching (or re-watching) other movies by the selected filmmakers. So this year, I decided to include some recommendations for those of you who are unfamiliar but would like to get acquainted with these Cannes-approved auteurs.

Ismael’s Ghosts (directed by Arnaud Desplechin)
This movie is not in the Main Competition, but it will open the Festival. There is a history of Cannes openers being bad (past openers include The Da Vinci Code and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), but this drama about a film director dealing with the return of his former lover feels right at home at Cannes. Desplechin is a festival favorite, as are Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Mathieu Amalric, all of whom star in the movie.
Where to start: Desplechin is one of the most well-respected French filmmakers working today. Some of his most well-known films are heavily autobiographical, but I think the best place to start with him is with his family drama A Christmas Tale , (newly available through the Criterion Collection) starring frequent collaborator Mathieu Amalric and the legendary Catherine Deneuve.

In the Fade (directed by Fatih Akin)
This is a thriller set in the Turkish-German community in Hamburg. It follows Diane Kruger as a woman who seeks revenge after a bomb kills her family.
Where to start: Akin is a German director of Turkish decent. His most popular movie, The Edge of Heavenpaints a wonderful portrait of the complicated relationship between Germany and Turkey, and won the Screenplay Award at Cannes in 2007.

The Meyerowitz Stories (directed by Noah Baumbach)
The latest movie by one of my favorite American directors has already been picked up for distribution by streaming giant Netflix, so expect this to be available in your computers later this year. As far as we can tell, this is the story of an estranged New York family reuniting to celebrate the patriarch. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, and… Adam Sandler?
Where to start: Based on the description, this new movie sounds quite autobiographical, just like the coming-of-age tale The Squid and the Whalewhich put Baumbach on the map. That would be a great place to start for those who are unfamiliar with his work, as would the new-wavy Frances Hastarring a delightful Greta Gerwig. My personal favorite, however, is the hilarious Mistress Americawhich also stars Gerwig.

Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
This is the second movie in Cannes Competition produced by Netflix, which is kind of a big deal for a company that has struggled to be embraced by cinema purists. Sure to inspire comparisons to E.T.this movie centers on a girl trying to keep her monster-friend-creature Okja from being taken by an evil corporation. It’s the kind of action-packed movie you wouldn’t expect to see at Cannes, except Bong has proven to be a master when it comes to mixing high art and genre cinema. In case you’re not sufficiently excited, let me mention that Tilda Swinton is in this movie.
Where to start: The movie that made Bong famous is the disaster-kaiju movie The Hostwhich was a blockbuster hit in his native South Korea. If you’re a little scared of subtitles, though, you can’t go wrong with his English debut, the violent and rebellious Snowpiercerwhich features Tilda Swinton in a delightfully unhinged performance.

120 Beats per Minute (directed by Robin Campillo)
I don’t know much about this movie, except that it focuses on the history of the activist group Act Up, which organized to fight AIDS in the early 90s.
Where to start: I haven’t seen Campillo’s other features as a director (this is his third), but I can vouch for his talents as co-writer and editor of Laurent Cantet’s The Classwhich won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)
The best way to get excited for this movie is to just watch the trailer. I’ve already written about this movie as one of my most anticipated of the year, and don’t have much to say except that it’s a Civil War-era drama where a Union Soldier (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge in an all-girls school in the South, whose inhabitants include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. If you are, like me, a fan of Coppola, well, then you’re already sold.
Where to start: Coppola’s biggest mainstream success was undoubtedly the Oscar-winning Lost in Translationbut I think the best introduction to her unique style and mood is through her first film: The Virgin Suicides

Rodin (directed by Jacques Doillon)
A biography of famous French sculptor August Rodin starring Vincent Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 2015. Back then, he was playing a man struggling to provide for his family during the economic crisis in The Measure of a Man.
Where to start: I’m mostly unfamiliar with the work of Doillon, except that his most famous title is the nineties drama Ponetteabout an infant dealing with the death of her mother. You’ll know whether you want to watch the movie based only on that premise.

Happy End (directed by Michael Haneke)
The king of Cannes returns! Haneke has won the Palme D’Or for his last two movies (Amour, The White Ribbon) and there are many an oddsmaker who will tell you the odds of him winning a third time aren’t bad. As we all know, Haneke loves to put the bourgeoisie through misery, so this time he has made a family drama with the European migrant crisis as the backdrop. Jean-Louis Trintignant and the fabulous Isabelle Huppert are his subjects.
Where to start: Like I said, Haneke’s films can come off as hugely sadistic, so if you want to ease into his relentless style, you might want to start with the Oscar-winning Amourwhich focuses on a man caring for his dying wife. Yup, Haneke’s meditation on death is the most accessible of his movies.

Wonderstruck (directed by Todd Haynes)
One of the most talented directors of his generation, Haynes returns to Cannes with a tale about two runaways. A contemporary midwestern boy and a girl living in 1920s New York. The cast includes Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, and the 1920s section is supposedly a silent film. So, yeah, I’m excited.
Where to start: If you haven’t experienced the miraculous benefits of watching Carolthen you should right that wrong as soon as possible.

Redoubtable (directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
Last time Hazanvicius was at Cannes, his remake of The Search was met with loud boos and scathing reviews. He is back, though, with a biopic of iconic French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard.
Where to start: I think it’s time to give The Artist a second look. Now that the noise and tension of its Oscar campaign has dissipated, you will probably find it to be a charming little comedy. At least I do.

The Day After (directed by Hong Sang-soo)
I can’t find a reliable plot synopsis of this movie. I only know that it stars Korean actress Min-hee Kim, who was absolutely wonderful in last year’s The Handmaidenand was embroiled in a tabloid scandal when she started a relationship with… Hong Sang-soo! I’d tell you more about it if I had access to the Korean equivalent of OK Magazine.
Where to start: Hong is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, often making a movie a year (not only does he have this movie at Cannes, but another starring Isabelle Huppert will play Out of Competition). I have only seen Right Now, Wrong Thenwhich is a very interesting (and endearing) movie, and I’m told is quite representative of his style. I guess it’s time for me to catch up with his work.

Radiance (directed by Naomi Kawase)
You would be absolutely insane to except a random person on the street to know who Japanese director Naomi Kawase is, but at Cannes, she is a perennial fixture and there is a whole narrative about when will she finally win the Palme D’Or. That’s why this place is magical.
Where to start: I must confess I haven’t seen any of her movies, though I hear The Mourning Forest is the place to start.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
The second of Nicole Kidman movie in the Competition, and the third to have been included in my list of the Most Anticipated of 2017. Needless to say, I’m excited about this movie, and not just because The Lobster was one of my favorite movies of last year. The cast for this one includes Colin Farrell and Alicia Silverstone (!!).
Where to start: Lanthimos’ English debut The Lobster is probably the best place to start, but if you want a peek of truly insane art house cinema, then you have to watch his breakout movie Dogtooth

A Gentle Creature (directed by Sergey Loznitsa)
The movie is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, and focuses -like so much of Russian literature- on a woman’s suffering. Joking aside, this Ukranian movie should be hugely political in its message, at least based on what I know about the director’s previous work.
Where to start: Sadly, I haven’t seen Loznitsa’s other work, though I’ve heard nothing but good things about My Joy and In the Fog

Jupiter’s Moon (directed by Kornel Mundruczo)
All I know about this movie is that it’s some sort of “refugee drama”, but let me say I’m highly suspicious of this title. We all know Jupiter has more than one moon. I don’t know what this guy is trying to pull here.
Where to start: This is Mundruczo’s second film, so the obvious (and only) place to start is White Godwhich won the Un Certain Regard Award in 2014, and features a truly epic stampede of wild dogs through the streets of Budapest.

L’Amant Double (directed by François Ozon)
I don’t know much about this movie, so let me take the time instead to tell you all that I very recently watched Ozon’s latest movie, Frantzwhich is currently playing in theaters and is absolutely fantastic. If you’re a fan of classic cinema, romance, or just good movies in general, you should seek it out.
Where to start: If you can’t afford to the ticket or the babysitter required to go see Frantz in the cinema, then my answer for the best introduction to Ozon’s world of emotion and melodrama is the wonderful musical 8 Women.

You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
Like so many female directors, Ramsay doesn’t get the chance to work as often as we would like her to. This is her first movie in six years, a thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a veteran trying to save a girl from a sex trafficking ring. 
Where to start: Ramsay is a fascinating filmmaker, and she announced herself as such with her very first feature, a unique coming-of-age story by the name of Ratcatcher

Good Time (directed by Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
Perhaps the most gratifying surprise of this year’s announcement was the inclusion of this team of brothers who’ve been working for a while in the micro-budget section of American cinema be included in the big boys club reserved for international auteurs. I mean, they were already climbing up, judging by the fact that this movie stars Robert Pattinson.
Where to start: And the reason why everyone was excited about the Safdies inclusion in the lineup wasn’t just the underdog factor, but the quality of their last movie, Heaven Knows Whata tough but truly outstanding portrait of drug-addiction.

Loveless (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The one Russian film in the competition, and judging by Zvyagintsev’s previous work, surely to be subversive and political in more ways than one. According to the synopsis I could find, this is about a couple that must suspend their divorce-in-progress in order to find their son, who mysteriously disappeared during one of their arguments.
Where to start: He gained praise for his mammoth Leviathan, but if you don’t want to commit to the two-and-a-half hour running time, then may I suggest Elenaabout a housewife trying to secure some money for her future.

What’s the Point? A Review of Beauty and the Beast

beauty and the beast

Why would you make a live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Other than to make a hell of a lot of money, that is. The 1991 musical is one of the crown jewels in Disney’s history, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and a family classic whose popularity endures to this day. The fact that everybody already agrees that the original is great is both the reason this movie got made, and the reason why it should’ve never been made in the first place. When you’re working with such a beloved property, it doesn’t make sense to make any big changes that could potentially anger the fans. But if you’re not going to make anything new to the material, well, then what’s the point of remaking the movie in the first place?

That doesn’t matter to the stockholders. For almost a decade now, Disney has been cranking out live action versions of its most popular movies.They started out with clever twists, like re-telling the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainous enchantress Maleficent, but somewhere between Cinderella and The Jungle Book all pretensions of originality were dropped, and so we are presented with a Beauty and the Beast that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a reenactment designed to feed on nostalgia and make lots of bank.

The biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is the conundrum I already mentioned, the fact that it must exist in this weird place of trying to update the story to our contemporary cultural moment, while not changing anything too much, so as to not anger the people who grew up loving the original. The second biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is that every time director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his collaborators are presented with this conundrum, they settle in the worst possible decision.

For example, why would you cast Emma Watson, an actress who simply does not have the vocal power to star in a musical, as the star of a musical? I imagine Condon wanted to play off of Watson’s public persona as an outspoken feminist, trying to bring some 21st Century relevance to a character who was designed as a “strong female lead”, but still received criticism for falling in love with the talking buffalo who imprisoned her. Regardless of the motives, it was a bad decision. Watson can’t sign well enough to not need considerable auto-tune help on her tracks, and she isn’t completely comfortable spending most of her scenes acting against computer generated characters. Despite coming of age with the Harry Potter movies, Watson has always been better with contemporary material. Her one truly great performance remaining Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

Even if Watson was able to extract pathos out of having a conversation with a candlestick and her only set-back was the singing, there wouldn’t be a particularly good reason for her casting considering how lazy and half-baked Condon’s attempts at updating the material are. There is a scene in which the town’s people punish Belle for trying to teach a girl to read, a seriously clunky moment that tells us nothing we already didn’t know from listening to the lyrics of the opening number. The inclusion of a trip to Paris courtesy of a time-travelling book also goes nowhere, and doesn’t add any real value to the themes of the movie.

There are hundreds of similar little changes that don’t really have a reason to exist. Not only do they make the movie longer, but they muddy the plot and the message of the movie. One of the most admirable things about the animated version is how streamlined it is, how it doesn’t waste any of its 84 minutes and manages to tell a captivating and beautiful story. What’s the real reason why you would add an eleven o’clock number in which the Beast sings a ballad saying “I let her steal into my melancholy heart”, when we’ve already witnessed that happen on screen? We don’t need a CGI singing wilderbeast to recount the plot for us, especially since everyone in the audience will already be familiar with the story.

I know what you’re thinking. Is everything about this movie so bad? Isn’t there anything redeemable about it? The truth is the movie isn’t really all that bad, or all that horrible. It’s simply mediocre. I didn’t feel particularly bored or restless watching it, but the movie kept tripping on its own feet, reminding me that I had already seen this very story, told in a much better way. If there is a silver lining to this, it’s Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, who benefit not only from having extensive experience as musical theater performers, but from being able to play off each other and not having to constantly interact with computer generated characters. You know, acting.

This is particularly noticeable in Gaston’s show-stopping number, “Gaston”, which Condon stages like an old-fashioned musical, with a set of extras dancing around the tables and singing along. A good musical number will get you a long way, even if you decide to cut and re-arrange some of Howard Ashman’s magnificent lyrics for no valuable reason (I could go on a tirade about how incredibly stupid and disrespectful it is to change a score that is the crowning achievement of one of the great lyricists in the history of musical theatre but I don’t want to sound like too much of a maniac).

We are so familiar with the animated version that even the slightest change to a musical number feels like a betrayal, and every change made to the script feels like a deterioration of the original. The most successful parts of Beauty and the Beast are the ones that adhere closest to the animated classic. But if the best possible version of this movie is a frame-by-frame recreation of another movie -and if there are already remakes of Mulan, Aladdin, and The Lion King scheduled for the coming years- one can’t help but ask the question: is there any legitimate reason for this movie to exist?

Grade: 4 out of 10