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Kubo and the Two Strings

August 19, 2016
Kubo and the Two Strings

Is it even possible for Laika to make a bad movie? The Boxtrolls may have been their weakest offering, and even that was plenty entertaining. Kubo and the Two Strings brings their storytelling back up into the realm of ParaNorman and the Neil Gaiman-inspired Coraline.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother on the outskirts of a quiet village. Every day he goes down to tell stories in the square. As he plays his shamisen, his origami papers fold themselves into animated figures of the great samurai Hanzō, and the legendary monsters he fights on his adventures. But his stories are always left without a proper ending, as he must rush back to his mother’s cave before dark. In her moments of lucidity, she tells Kubo that Hanzō was his father, and that they had to hide from the jealousy of her own father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), lest he pluck out Kubo’s other eye.

Of course, one night Kubo does stay out late, and he is spotted by his mother’s two sisters (Rooney Mara). Kubo’s mother comes to his defense, and uses the last of her power to enchant his kimono so it flies him to temporary safety. When he wakes, she is gone, but his monkey statue has come to life as his guide (Charlize Theron). They must seek out a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet that will keep Kubo safe from the Moon King.

Along their way, they meet one of Hanzō’s samurai legion, turned into an amnesiac beetle (Matthew McConaughey). With Monkey as Kubo’s stern guardian, bickering with Beetle as his enthusiastic protector, the three form an odd sort of family as they go on their adventure. And what an adventure! Giant skeletons, lake monsters, and of course the Moon King and his remaining daughters stand in Kubo’s way. Director and Laika CEO Travis Knight’s love of Ray Harryhausen fantasy is evident in every frame.

Kubo shows a clear respect for the Japanese folk-tales it draws from, though it does seem odd to choose an entirely western core vocal cast. The artistic style owes as much to Japanese culture as the story does, and it’s so smoothly executed it’s difficult to remember that this is stop-motion rather than computer-generated animation. Remember, as usual, to stay through the credits to see Laika’s signature stinger: a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the film’s production.

But it’s not just the gorgeous animation that makes Kubo a winner. Kubo stayed out that night because he wanted to talk with his father, the way the rest of the villagers speak with their deceased loved ones. Memories like these are powerful and meaningful things. So are the relations we build within families — even ersatz ones — and communities. It’s why Beetle’s punishment was so cruel, and why Kubo’s mother is so tragic; they are cut off from the same wellspring of meaning that Kubo desperately seeks for himself.

And it’s why Kubo’s avocation is so perfectly chosen: we pass down our memories and our meaning through the stories we tell, modifying and transforming them according to our own talents. Stories are how we tell each other who we are. Kubo, like Knight, tells his by forming and animating lifeless scraps into vivid images, and we are all the better for the telling.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

August 19, 2016
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

On the evening of October 29, 1969, a computer at UCLA logged in to a computer at Stanford. It was a landmark, but not quite the one that Werner Herzog makes it out to be in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, his musing on the Internet, how it affects and changes our modern lives, and how it might do so even more into the future.

This was the first established link of ARPANET, which introduced the idea of packet switching to computer networks. Prior to ARPANET, there were computer links from UCLA to Stanford, MIT, and other academic and military research sites, but there was one dedicated line with a dedicated computer at each end to communicate between each pair that wanted to. This clearly isn’t a scalable solution; packet switching allows messages to transmit across established links so one terminal at each site can handle traffic to many remote sites. You don’t need a separate phone line to call each of your friends; one can contact any of them, with the call routed by their phone number. Now the same was true for computers.

But this is not yet the Internet, largely because of another technical shortcoming. On ARPANET, you still needed to know how to get from one point to another, or at least your computer did. If you’re at Stanford in the middle of 1970 and want to talk to MIT, you need to look up the path in routing tables that tell you Stanford connects to UCLA which connects to the RAND Corporation, which connects to BBN Technologies, which connects to MIT. Or if the BBN links are down, RAND connects to the System Development Corporation, which connects to MIT. And every time the network topology changes, every computer needs to update its knowledge of how to get to every other computer.

The solution didn’t come for another five years, and wasn’t really implemented for almost ten more. The Internet Protocol (IP) routes packets of information somewhat randomly through a network, so each node only needs to know what it can connect to, and what its neighbors are likely to know. It’s like Stanley Milgram’s “Small-world” experiment — yes, that Stanley Milgram — where a letter had to be sent from one person to another through chains of people who knew each other on a first-name basis. Different parts of an Internet message might even be sent along completely different routes; they might arrive jumbled and out of order, so the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is in charge of breaking up messages into packets and reassembling the packets into messages on the other end.

It’s this sort of “social network” of computers communicating through TCP/IP that makes the Internet so robust and flexible. Of course, their deployment on ARPANET in 1983 doesn’t make for as singular and striking a story as the first link from UCLA to Stanford, so I understand why Herzog fudged the details in his telling even though the true story seems more thematically resonant. But it also points to the bigger problem with his technological meditations: he skims each subject with a perspective that’s a mile wide, but an inch deep.

It would be natural to ask why a man who does not own a mobile phone “for cultural reasons” is in the position to analyze our society’s relationship to the Internet. On some level, the answer comes down to our western ambivalence towards technology. We have a real Luddite streak that claims every new development — the Internet, television, radio, novels — to herald the end of some well-established moral order. Then the next generation grows up, sees nothing wrong with the technologies they’ve always known, and turns around to impose the same moralism on their children. And so a man who eschews modern communication technologies in his own life is somehow “purer” than the rest of us, which allows him to be our scold.

Which is not to say that Herzog’s tone is always scolding. For each story that comes off harshly critical, there is another one that uplifts. Herzog shows pranksters coming together over the Internet to torture a family in the wake of their daughter’s death, but he also shows people working together solving scientific puzzles about protein folding by turning it into a massively networked game. He visits a community hiding from electromagnetic fields in the shadow of a radio telescope, but also talks to Elon Musk about how the Internet can maintain communication with a colony on Mars. The firehose of data that can be collected in a massively connected world has chilling implications on our privacy, but it can also be used to train expert systems that help computers do more for us than ever before.

Any one of these dichotomies could, in the hands of a documentarian who really digs into them, make a fascinating and thought-provoking film. Herzog — the man who dragged a steamship over a hill — does not seem interested in muddying his hands here. Referring to his stories as “reveries” seems designed to inoculate him against criticism for their shallowness, and allow him to flit from one to the other, following his momentary interests.

Still, even a minor effort by Werner Herzog is engaging. The film is certainly never boring, and not often preachy. If you’re not steeped in the world of technology and the Internet already, you might even learn a few interesting nuggets you can deploy at your next cocktail party while you wait for Malcolm Gladwell to crank out a new collection of anecdotes. But if you’re waiting for substantive thought and insight about our connected world, you’re going to have to wait to hear from someone willing to join it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

War Dogs

August 19, 2016
War Dogs

A newspaper exposé about a couple of scrappy kids from Miami, eyes starry with visions of the American dream, leaping before they look into a situation that quickly has them in over their heads. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Pain & Gain, but no. This is War Dogs, about an entirely different couple of screwups, as much as Hangover series creator Todd Phillips seems to wish he were directing Michael Bay’s best movie in a decade.

The similarities are impossible to miss, right from the beginning at a moment of crisis. The lead and narrator has been up and felt his position slipping, but we come in just when it gives way entirely. In this case it’s David Packouz (Miles Teller), who went in with his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as an international arms dealer. We meet him as he gets kidnapped in the middle of Albania and brought before black marketeer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who thinks Packouz is trying to screw him on a very big deal, which is about to go very sideways. And then we flash back to the beginning.

Was there really a Henry Girard? I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Packouz would hide this man from his testimony when facing charges, and then tell all about him in a memoir. Packouz and Diveroli, at least, are very real, although it seems unlikely that Teller and Hill’s performances reflect their reality. Told entirely in Packouz’ narration, he comes off as as a well-meaning kid who fell in with the bad influence his parents had always warned him about. And even Diveroli comes off as less of a flat-out, manipulative psychopath and more of a bro whose friends tend to take the fall when his lulz go wrong.

I’d say that this sort of first-person narration requires a sympathetic narrator, but that’s not really the case. Bay — God help me, I’m about to praise Michael Bay here — managed to soften Daniel Lugo without losing sight of his fundamental scumbag nature. These guys didn’t stumble into their hubris; they were brought up in ease and privilege, scions of well-off and well-known families. But you wouldn’t know it to hear Phillips tell their story.

And this really is the story they might want to tell about themselves. Even Diveroli; he’s suing Warner Brothers not because he doesn’t like how he’s portrayed as the bigger, more irresponsible screwup between the two, but because he’s not getting the piece of the action he thinks he deserves. That whole “drove through the ‘Triangle of Death'” bit heavily featured in all the ads? never happened, but it does make them look like accidental badasses doesn’t it?

Pain & Gain was fictionalized, but every scene contained a kernel of its bizarrely true story. War Dogs just makes up whatever it thinks the audience would like to hear. But then, that’s pretty much what its own protagonists would do, so maybe it’s fitting.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Hell or High Water

August 12, 2016
Hell or High Water

Some scripts from the Black List, once their newfound fame leads them to production and release, make it apparent why they hadn’t been produced before. With Hell or High Water, I can see why producers might have been leery; who makes a contemporary western and doesn’t use it to deconstruct its own genre anymore? But it’s absolutely solid work on the part of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, outdoing Sicario, whose buzz almost certainly helped clinch the production last May.

Director David Mackenzie sets the film’s tone in graffiti on a wall as the sun rises over a sleepy West Texas town: “two tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us”. If it’s not the wall of the West Midlands Bank branch, it’s nearby. We see two men pull up and get out of a muscle car wearing ski masks as the branch’s first teller opens the door. It’s quickly apparent that these two don’t quite know what they’re doing, but they do it well enough to get away with a few thousand in loose cash from the drawers. Then they repeat the process at another branch a few towns over before they bury their car.

Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has more of a taste for the life of crime. Jumpy and excitable, he’s just a year out from his latest stint in jail. His brother Toby (Chris Pine) has barely a traffic summons on his record, but he thinks he can plan the perfect series of bank heists. Just don’t get too greedy; hit them early when nobody’s around; don’t take anything that might be a dye pack. You can launder the cash at a casino on a reservation up in Oklahoma.

It’s not a big mystery, but the script does take its time unspooling just why these brothers are hitting this particular chain of banks at this particular time. While we wait, it gives Pine a chance for some of his best character work ever, opposite western veteran Foster. Not a moment slips by that Mackenzie doesn’t put to good use in developing these two men, how they pull against each other, and yet are bound together.

Even if it’s not treated like a big mystery for the audience, it’s obviously a mystery for the Texas Rangers. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) grabs the case as one last gasp of relevance, two weeks before his mandatory retirement, backed up by Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Bridges plays Marcus weathered and craggy, recalling Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men. He manages to pull off a certain laconic charm, even while cycling through hoary stereotypes about Alberto’s native ancestry on his way to separate litany about his Mexican ancestry. Marcus and Alberto mirror Tanner and Toby, giving another pair of men who chafe at each other’s differences even as they need each other.

This all plays out against the backdrop of the Llano Estacado’s plains, dry and tight, but not quite arid. The land is expansive, and Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens allows it to show clearly why the spirit of frontier individualism once flourished here. But as gorgeous and open as it appears — especially in the breathtaking shots of the escarpments at the edge of the mesa — we know that things are different than they were in the days of the classical western.

The land stretches out forever, but it’s been invisibly carved up by the interests of banks, ranches, and corporations exploiting natural resources from oil underground to the wind that passes unobstructed over the plains. In the classical western, frontier settlers would pit their mettle and ingenuity against a harsh landscape to carve out a place of their own. In Hell or High Water, the land has been replaced by corporate landowners, but the same struggle continues.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Florence Foster Jenkins

August 12, 2016
Florence Foster Jenkins

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Meryl Streep’s singing as Florence Foster Jenkins is painfully bad. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be bad. This is not a negative comment on Streep’s considerable talents, but a kind of public service announcement: some people — and you probably know if you are one — risk actual disorienting pain from the off-key caterwauling. Regardless of the movie’s quality, forewarned is forearmed.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the second version of the socialite’s story we’ve seen this year, after March’s release of the Franco-Belgo-Czech Marguerite. Where that film took an artier, more impressionistic approach to its adaptation, this one is thoroughly geared towards mainstream Anglophone tastes. Which one you’ll prefer is largely dependent on the direction your own tastes run, but I want to assure the arty audience that Florence Foster Jenkins is not as insufferably smarmy as the worst of its “inspirational” marketing might suggest.

To be sure, it can be as spectacularly unsubtle as Jenkins voice. Where Marguerite discarded literal biographical details in favor of a meditation on the interplay between fortune and image, Florence Foster Jenkins treats the details of her life as a checklist. Common-law marriage to failed thespian St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant): check; accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg): check; the unfortunate fallout from Jenkins’ first marriage: check. The movie opens on a collection of Jenkins’ tableaux vivants, and sprinkles tidbits such as a childhood piano recital at the White House generously into Jenkins’ exposition to the other characters around her.

Nicholas Martin’s script does round off some of the corners, though never all that unforgivably. McMoon worked with Jenkins for almost twenty years in reality, for example. Though Bayfield did formally marry Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson) shortly after Jenkins’ death, there’s little concrete evidence that they’d carried on an affair before it. And Jenkins’ piano career was cut short by damage to her left arm, it was caused by an injury rather than as another consequence of her first marriage.

That last change seems to be a gesture towards a theme, something along the lines of a Gatsbyish attempt to recover regretfully lost chances. Unfortunately, the script never really follows up on it. Streep, to her credit, makes good use of it in her character work.

Similarly, Bayfield’s affair points to a certain tension: is his relationship with Jenkins innocently affectionate, or is he something of a leech? Does he jump through hoops keeping the truth about her voice under wraps out of a desire to spare her feelings, or is he just trying to keep the gravy train running? A better film — like many director Stephen Frears has made before — could engage thoughtfully with this question, but it would have to go to a darker place than this opera buffa is willing.

In fact, for a moment early on I thought that Florence Foster Jenkins was going to turn into exactly that movie. At McMoon’s audition, Jenkins requests he play something light and inoffensive, and not terribly loud. He chooses “Le cygne”, while the other pianists outside the door snark about “some Saint-Saëns [crap]”. And indeed, the piece would have been taken by serious musicians as hopelessly outdated and smarmy pablum, but it’s exactly what Jenkins wants to hear as it recalls some fond childhood memory. This is another fudge, by the way; it was actually released around the time of her first marriage and the end of her piano career, so changing this misses the opportunity to capitalize on another nascent theme I mentioned earlier.

But it made me think, has this man sussed out what the others haven’t? Is he obsequiously feeding her what he knows she wants, knowing on which side his bread will be copiously buttered? Is the film, dare I hope, self-consciously setting up a coded reflection of the way the movie it seems to be treats its middlebrow target audience?

No, of course that’s too much to hope for. Everything is exactly as it appears. McMoon is no conniver playing on a mincing variation of an aw-shucks San Antonio hayseed image. He really is as guileless as he appears, and it honestly takes him a while to pick up on Bayfield’s deadpan, arched-eyebrow irony. And Bayfield, for his part, really does harbor a genuine affection for Jenkins, and the script never gives any serious reason to doubt it.

Florence Foster Jenkins is light and inoffensive, even though Jenkins’ terrible voice is often terribly loud. I’d normally be smirking on the other side of the door. But I’ve already had my version of this story this year. Here’s one for Florence and her friends in the Verdi Club. Who am I to deny them their pleasures?

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Anthropoid

August 12, 2016
Anthropoid

It’s nice to see World War II films branching out into different stories. Reinhard Heydrich — or rather his nom de guerre, “The Butcher of Prague” — shows up on the periphery of many Holocaust stories, almost like a bogeyman who is never seen directly. Heydrich was the third in command of Nazi Germany. He organized Kristallnacht, set up the Gestapo along with other intelligence and security services, and was the chief architect of the deportation and genocide of Jews and other “undesirables” from German-occupied Europe.

And then he took over as governor of the part of Czechoslovakia that Germany had annexed in 1939, under the terms of the Munich Agreement, or “Diktat” as it was known in the occupied lands. His enforcement methods were brutal, with torture and executions the norm even for criminals who weren’t part of the Czech resistance. The Czech government-in-exile operating in London decided that he should be assassinated — a paramilitary operation dubbed “Anthropoid”.

Writer/director Sean Ellis’ movie, Anthropoid, comes in here, with the British-trained partisans Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) parachuting into the outskirts of Prague along with a half-dozen others and making contact with what remains of the local resistance, headed up by Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones). They are put up in a safe house under the protection of Mrs. Moravcová (Alena Mihulová), where they start making their plans. Jan strikes up a romance with flatmate Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), who introduces Jozef to her friend Lenka (Anna Geislerová) as cover for their operations.

Aside from providing some eye candy, the young women mostly serve to humanize the stakes for Jozef and Jan. The men are chasing after their target like a dog chasing a car, with no more thought given to what will happen if they succeed. The question comes up repeatedly, what do they think will happen after the assassination attempt? Killing one man will not bring the machine to a halt, and the blowback may be — and was — incredibly cruel even by Heydrich’s own standards. And since Ellis doesn’t have time to make Jan and Jozef’s families more than abstractions, Marie and Lenka serve in their places as objects to be threatened and killed in the wake of the operation to get emotional reactions out of the leads.

But that question itself is repeatedly waved off; it’s something for the government in London to decide, and not for these men to question why. The full extent of Germany’s wounded wrath is pushed into title cards at the end of the movie, along with any indication of what geopolitical significance this particular story has. And it has plenty, being the point at which the Allies dissolved the Munich Agreement and made freeing Czechoslovakia a goal of their campaign.

That’s why the story is so important to the film’s Czech backers, but it doesn’t seem to be of much importance to Ellis himself. No, the real purpose of Anthropoid is identical to that of Lone Survivor. Both movies seek to advance the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — “it is sweet and good to die for one’s homeland”.

Anthropoid spends most of its second half on a siege assault on the church where the remaining conspirators hid out. As in Lone Survivor, the Nazi soldiers come in faceless hordes, to be mowed down in quick, single shots by the scrappy resistance defenders. But Ellis squeezes every ounce of pain he can muster out of the protagonists, and savors every drop of their blood before they die, usually as graphically as possible.

And it’s hardly limited to the soldiers; Ellis depicts the savage torture of a child (Bill Milner) with sadistic , almost pornographic glee. Every narrative function of this scene could be just as well satisfied in the next scene where his broken body is carried along a hallway, along with a line about the information he gave up. But the purpose of this scene isn’t narrative at all. On the surface it’s about reinforcing just how horrific the Nazis could be, which I doubt anyone in attendance doesn’t know already. And under that lies the disturbing truth that some part of Ellis believes that, on some level, his audience actually wants to see a boy turned into a bloody pulp as much as he wants to show it.

All of this is underscored none-too-subtly by readings from a convenient copy of Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” That’s the axis around which this story turns: not sacrifice or even doubt in the face of great evil, but simply cowardice and valor. These men are great not because they achieved a great thing, but because they suffered greatly in doing so. At least according to this movie.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Don’t Think Twice

August 5, 2016
Don't Think Twice

“Your twenties are all about hope,” Bill (Chris Gethard) says about halfway through Don’t Think Twice. “And then your thirties are all about how dumb it was to hope.”

I certainly know what it means to have expectations ratcheted down, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly. I think most people get to a point where they have to come to terms — more or less willingly — with the fact that the grand visions they’d had for their lives aren’t going to work out. For Bill and most of the others in his small improv troupe, that vision was getting picked up by SNL-analogue “Weekend Live”.

Miles (writer/director Mike Birbiglia) actually got to an audition once, but it didn’t work out. He teaches improv now, sleeping with his students and hoping to get another shot even as he defensively disparages the show. The rest of the group are a bit younger, and still hustling on the side while they try to make it. Allison (Kate Micucci) has a graphic novel that may or may not go anywhere, and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) comes from money so she can take her time.

But it’s Jack and Samantha (Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs) who stand out. They get the call for auditions, and immediately face a choice that seemed less difficult in the abstract: to be the small fish in the big pond, or a big fish in a small pond? And if you do make it, can you even stay friends with the people who you knew coming up? The rest of us who have learned to settle for the merely achievable can’t help but envy the lucky few who never had to give up hope.

Birbiglia’s script does well by straddling this divide. It allows for angst on both sides. The newly-successful need to protect their tenuous positions, which naturally leads to conflict and recrimination. But the harder trick — believe me — is for those who fall short to come to an honest peace with other people’s good fortune.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail.

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