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.

Review: “Amo” and “Ma’ Rosa”

Over the past couple weeks, my wife and I watched first season one of the television series Amo and then the film Ma’ Rosa, both directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza.

Mendoza’s presence is obvious in both enterprises. Both show and film have a naturalist approach to film-making, with documentary-style shots of characters interacting, walking, reflecting. The cameras always feel physically present, jostling along in step with a protagonist, zooming in on a memento hanging from a rearview mirror or resting on a table, blurring in and out of focus as though the cameraman is reacting to a truly unexpected series of events. Dialogue is naturalistic, too, with the delivery often muted, lines often rambled and repeated and murmured and talked over. (The actors delivering these lines also carry the fingerprint of Mendoza–we noticed, for instance, that Vince Rillon stars as high-school-age drug runner Joseph Molina in Amo and also has a bit part in Ma’ Rosa, while Felix Roco portrays Molina’s sleazy drug-dealing brother-in-law in Amo and has a supporting role as one of the children of Rosa in the film). Scenes occur where a lot is said, but very little is of importance. It’s not as easy to expect narrative payoff of certain themes or people focused on early on, as the characters and events don’t have arcs so much as a zig-zag series of happenings.

Most importantly, both show and film deal with drug dealers and corrupt police in the era of the Duterte administration. And both have similar things to say. For one thing, Amo and Ma’ Rosa seem to suggest that the ones actually selling the drugs are often very normal, family-oriented, impoverished people who need the extra income in their lives.

In Amo, the primary character is a teenage drug courier who spends his earnings not on himself (for the most part) but on his family; he’s pushed along to move from meth to designer party drugs, getting in increasing legal troubles even as he stays a fairly quiet, reserved young lad. The customers he serves are often young and wealthy–even his early meth trades are on behalf of kids spending their days playing video games in internet cafes (and his original supplier, in contrast, seemed even worse off than him, living in a ramshackle slum dwelling with his wife and daughter). In Ma’ Rosa, Rosa and her husband run a convenience store, which also serves as home for them and their four kids, and the meth dealing they do is presented as a small side business to supplement their meager earnings. There are a couple moments where Rosa’s view lingers on other families. After she and her husband are arrested in a raid, she solemnly watches kids digging through recycling, and the message seems to be that she fears that now, if her husband and she are locked away, her kids might end up on the streets. In the final scene, she watches teary-eyed as a younger family packs up a cart that offered many small convenience goods, and it implicated to me that she now reflected on a simpler time when her family had less, a time before the involvement of drugs.

Amo and Ma Rosa’ also clearly show the police force to be corrupt and ineffective. In Amo, the police kidnap a drug dealer to attempt to get a ransom out of his wife. In Ma Rosa’, the entirety of the plot revolves around Rosa’s arrest and her children’s efforts to collect enough money to meet the police’s required bribe to release their parents (the cops never register them, offering freedom for cash in contrast to otherwise being held without bail with potential life sentences for drug crimes; in a scene that caused a bit of sympathetic terror for me, the kids were led from location to location in the police precinct, no one having any idea of where their parents are or if they’re even there, until a corrupt cop overhears and leads them to a back room). Mendoza often shows police brutality: beatings, kidnappings, warrantless arrests and harassment, and a willingness to kill suspected drug dealers and users. Many are killed by police while fleeing or fighting back. Some are killed without cause, simply because the police had information that they were dealers. And it is implied that some vigilante efforts might also have police involvement or tolerance. Amusingly, Amo also shows how futile some of the police initiatives are. They rounded up people for mandatory drug testing, and those who were willing to promise never to use drugs again were put into zumba courses. Yes, zumba courses as the entirety of drug addiction treatment. The crazy thing is, that surreal practice is real!

Both productions come with ample problematic messaging, as well. Mendoza always displays acts of police brutality and corruption in relation to actual drug users and dealers. I don’t recall a single instance in show or film where the police targeted an innocent person (beyond innocent spouses and children losing their drug-dealing loved ones). Mendoza thus narrows the frame to ask the question, “Is this police force justified in light of the criminal epidemic they face?” And secondarily, he seems to say, “When faced with such greedy, repugnant vice, it is natural that law enforcement would in turn become greedy, repugnant, and vice-driven.” We sometimes hear Duterte in the background of Amo, in news programs, but the top-level officials are presented as blameless (if misguided); corruption is always in the low- and mid-level ranks. Additionally, the drug dealers are shown to be undesirables: the impoverished slum dwellers, foreigners (including Chinese and Japanese nationals), religious minorities (the Muslim community in particular), and hedonistic homosexuals. As much as Mendoza seems at first to be presenting a balanced viewpoint in the early episodes, by the end it should be of no surprise that he is a fervent Duterte supporter. Some of the above just seems to be baggage for this type of crime narrative, though. I saw some reports comparing Amo to Narcos following the former’s acquisition by Netflix, and to an extent this makes sense: both are about real moments in history (one much more recent than the other) in which postcolonial governments have struggled to control the spread of drug trafficking. And Amo and Narcos both seem to apologize for the excesses of law enforcement in their campaigns against the traffickers, even as both shows are quite ready to show that those excesses exist(ed). Maybe it’s the culture gap, or maybe it’s the benefit of slicker American production values, but I think that Narcos managed to be a little subtler in that messaging.

Of all of the problematic elements in Mendoza’s works, I think the most egregious is the representation of homosexuality: in short, always a symptom of widespread vice. In Amo, a couple of nightclub owners apparently get up to homosexual debauchery while using cocaine, and the malleable young Joseph seems to end up as their boy toy for a while (though he also has sex with a lot of other women, as well–more generally, loose sex is linked with drug use in the show). In Ma’ Rosa, one of Rosa’s sons turns to prostitution to raise money to get her out of jail. There’s an uncomfortable scene of the young man lying nude on a bed while his much-older male companion kisses him. The whole time, the boy just looks off in the distance blankly, dispassionately, disconnectedly. It’s not hard to see how Rosa’s arrest led directly to this moment–and her arrest was a direct result of her drug trade. (There’s also some uncomfortably on-point ambient radio chatter directly beforehand about how crocodiles can change sex based on their temperature.)

Despite the problems of both productions, my wife and I largely enjoyed them. Their naturalistic style results in a gritty, simmering narrative where it can be difficult to predict the outcome (especially in Amo). Ma’ Rosa had a carefully tailored narrative arc beneath its naturalistic veneer, and the acting–especially that of Jaclyn Jose as Rosa and Julio Diaz as her husband Nestor–was great. And Amo had the time to explore a great many themes about life under the Duterte administration. Additionally, Amo managed to be simply weird. While couched in realism, the show often veers into the surreal. This ranges from an ever-present street hip-hop crew that raps about the themes and emotions of the episode like a Greek chorus to occasionally disorienting visuals that highlight emotional realities over verisimilitude.

I would recommend both Amo and Ma’ RosaAmo is currently streaming on Netflix, and so is probably the more accessible of the two, but I think that they are both compelling works.