A week’s worth of movies

I’ve watched more movies than usual in the past week, and my wife suggested I write a post to summarize my thoughts on each. Many of these films wouldn’t normally get mentioned on this site–though I admit my criteria are somewhat arbitrary, shifting, and unclear.

So, here you are, Sam!

We started the week with Ant-Man and the Wasp. It was fun but unexceptional. I wouldn’t really mention it except for this post. Lots of humor, lots of heart, and a surprising amount of cool ’60s pulp sensibility, but not a lot of purpose. It actually annoyed me that a mid-credits scene tied the film into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking a largely whimsical film and inserting the illusory stakes and high death count of Infinity War. Special mention should be made of Michael Peña’s performance; he’s just incredible, and nothing highlights his range more than the jump from lighthearted and lovable sweetheart Luis in the Ant-Man films to the angry, bitter, aggressive, and courageous DEA agent at the heart of Narcos: Mexico.

Next up was American Gangster, and I had originally planned to write a post on this film alone. I might still do that. It instantly became one of my favorite crime movies, on par with something like Goodfellas or Casino–and the accelerating pace of the film as it progresses over the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’s criminal empire invited further parallels. I was therefore not at all surprised to see Nicholas Pileggi listed as an executive producer (though this was written by Steven Zaillian). Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were absolutely mesmerizing as Lucas and detective-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, respectively. And I was surprised to see Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba pop up in significant background roles (many other great actors and performances here, but those were the ones that immediately stood out to me). A film directed by Ridley Scott is a little bit of a wild card, but American Gangster definitely stands among the good ones. It was interesting to read afterward how far the film deviated from actual events, and it probably warrants a discussion about how far true events can be stretched for dramatic purposes, especially if the film will still be marketed as a true story. Either way, Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article, “The Return of Superfly,” which was the basis for the film, has been bumped near the top of my reading list.

Then I watched The Incredibles 2. I liked that the sequel seemed like a movie with new ideas to explore using the setting and characters from the original. It was the rare sequel that felt like it had its own purpose for existing, and it built on the original film in fun and clever ways. I enjoyed it a lot, and I especially appreciated the added tension between husband and wife, the slick retro-futurist setting, and the still-interesting dynamics of this superhero family. I don’t know if I have much to say about it now, though. It was fun, but I don’t know that it will stand out much in my mind even half a year from now. (Ironically, Sam suggested this post in large part because she wanted me to write out my thoughts on this movie in particular, and yet it’s the one that I have the least to say on now.)

The best animated film I watched this week was Coco. This movie was so pure and beautiful. It would have been easy to do a movie that was about the young protagonist following his dreams despite his oppressive family situation; it would also have been easy to have a movie where family love and support is more important than chasing ambition. This movie very carefully found a middle ground, in the process developing rich themes and a complex cast of characters who all had room to learn and grow. I cried a lot, both out of heartbreak and joy. All that said, at the end of the day, the afterlife scenario laid out leaves some questions for me. Why do some of the deceased not only seem surprised but scared of the presence of a human boy? Why is there a second life after death that in turn leads to a second death? Do people have to work to have a decent afterlife? Is the relative affluence of a person tied to their remembrance by the living, and if so, how? Can people choose to appear any age? Do kids stay kids and the elderly stay elderly? To be fair, these are the sorts of problems inherent in many common conceptions of the afterlife, but the realm of the dead seemed fully realized and yet left ample opportunities for this sort of fridge-logic concern.

In other Pixar news, I also watched the new short film Kitbull, which similarly prompted a lot of crying for a lot of reasons. I have a lot of feelings about Kitbull. It hurt me and it made me feel really happy. It’s sweet. It’s touching. And the artwork and animation are great. With two Pixar feature films and this short, I guess I had a fairly Pixar-heavy week.

So after Coco was In Bruges. A dark comedy of two idiotic assassins camped out in the eponymous city while waiting for instructions from their benefactor, In Bruges started slow for me, but its ending was bittersweet, tragic, and ultimately ambiguous. I found much of the film crude, and Colin Farrell’s younger assassin character is excessively vulgar, often making ugly comments about race, sex, gender, and dwarfism (a dwarf actor, who is also a racist drug addict, serves as the center of a very bizarre B plot throughout the film, tying into the conclusion in a startling way that is ridiculous and kind of funny). The ugly humor, plus a proud ignorance and practically manic energy boiling over into child-like impatience, makes Farrell’s character difficult to like, and liking him and wanting to see him live become pretty central to the latter part of the film. Thankfully, Brendan Gleeson’s older mentor figure is sort of sweet and charming, and his faith in and love for his partner provides enough of a push to keep me invested. The best part is that the film’s twists and turns were genuinely unpredictable; the movie kept throwing me off course every time I thought I’d figured it out. I like weird films, and I like crime films, and I’m a little surprised that I never got around to this one before now.

To keep mixing things up, I watched All Work All Play next. This is the film I would least expect someone to recognize. It’s a documentary about professional esports, tracking the 2015 “season” of the IEM professional games. This was the only film I watched this week that I didn’t like. There were a lot of interesting individual stories, but nothing really got focused on. The team that had the most focus, set up as underdogs, was Cloud9, which was crushed in the championship and largely dropped from the film’s concern after that. The American team that won the championship, Team SoloMid, was injected intermittently throughout. Team WE, a Chinese team that seemed to actually be interesting underdogs, barely appeared at all. The personal life, ambition, and struggles of championship organizer Michal Blicharz represented the closest to an emotional core for the film, and I could have watched a whole film about him, his wife, and their child, but they were ultimately de-emphasized in favor of the tournament players (still, Blicharz serves as our guide throughout the events of the film). There were so many faces and names, and there was not enough focus. Curiously, the rules of League of Legends are explained, but then we barely see any coherent game footage. Additionally, the film felt overly defensive of esports as a real sport. I actually felt less inclined to view professional gaming as a legitimate sport by the end–certainly there’s a lot of skill, and the professional level of gaming is impressive, but I can’t help but wonder if “sport” is overused as a descriptor, if we shouldn’t come up with new descriptions or categories for tasks that aren’t strictly physical. Additionally, esports seems like a fundamentally flawed product that is ultimately bad for its players. The film almost unintentionally observes players acting like immature children, with at least one parent expressing concern about their emotional well-being. Plus, pro gamers are considered “old” before they hit thirty, yet their potential earnings appear to be considerably less than that of professional athletes. This seems like a situation setting these players up for doom in later life, especially since many of them are college dropouts who are probably too young to be making responsible financial decisions. The cheery optimism about the profession, and the attempt to combat negative stereotypes of pro gaming, results in the dodging of several thorny issues. Basically, every decision made by the documentarians, and the resultant lack of focus, made for an underwhelming narrative and uninteresting presentation. This documentary, if nothing else, helps to showcase how much of an art the genre of documentaries can be. When things go wrong, a documentary fails to be a good story worth watching, even if the subject matter should be interesting.

I closed out my week’s viewings with a solid choice, though: The Graduate. Dang, I know it’s a classic, but I didn’t realize just what a brilliantly neurotic dark comedy it would be. Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the insecure, depressed, aimless college grad Ben who is seduced and exploited by the predatory yet tragically broken Mrs. Robinson, played to perfection as well by Anne Bancroft. It’s in many ways an intriguing psychological study, and a scandalous presentation of upper-middle-class life, but it was the comedy that stuck with me the most. The dialogue was hilarious, the delivery impeccable, and The Graduate is loaded with strikingly absurd visuals, like the backyard pool scuba session or Hoffman’s swinging of a cross to ward off enraged wedding attendees. The cinematography in general is brilliant; I loved how Ben was often small and distant in the frame, overshadowed, if not surrounded, by Mrs. Robinson in the foreground, and I loved it even more when the film reverses this dynamic in a key moment. I only wish that Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) was given a little more purpose. She’s ultimately an object used in the power struggle between Mrs. Robinson and Ben. Sure, Ben loves Elaine and Elaine loves Ben, but it’s not clear why; I suspect that the intention was that Elaine is in many ways a younger version of her mother, someone who has yet to be broken and twisted by the world. Still, Elaine is mostly acted upon, and even in the wild ending, it’s unclear if she’s yet to make a decision that she truly wanted for herself.

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