The Swimsuit Issue (Allt flyter)

With the English title I was expecting something more along the lines of Calendar Girls or The Full Monty. The original title of this film is actually a bit more on target for the story. Loosely translated it means “everything is flowing well” or “going in the right direction.” That’s a very loose interpretation, but you get the idea.  Really, it is more a family drama with comedy than a comedy with family drama.

Of course, while this is a comedy, it is a Swedish comedy, so I didn’t expect a lot of belly laughs. It is more subtle than A Man Called Ove, and even a bit darker, in its way, about the characters. Though both are character driven, Swimsuit is more wry. The script is also more forced, but it still manages to entertain both with some fun moments as well as overall.

The Swimsuit Issue

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)

Animation is so often seen as a children’s medium. Zucchini turns this on its head by making the kids the subject of the film. And not just any kids, this bit of stop-motion (an oddly poetic medium for this tale) focuses on the broken, abused, and ignored children of society. It isn’t a maudlin tale, it is, in fact, hopeful and sweet, but it doesn’t ignore the harder truths in life.

The voice work (French and English) is interesting and subtly effective. By design, it feels almost documentary-like in its delivery. The approach and sound quality, however, also leaves it oddly distancing. Perhaps that is a good thing given some of the emotions. We get to hover above it all and enjoy the successes rather than struggle with the realities.

As his first feature, director and co-writer Claude Barras adaptation of this challenging tale is impressive and even snagged an Oscar nomination as well as other nods. There is even a delightfully weird short animation on the disc to enjoy (The Genie in the Ravioli) that exposes his odd sense of wonder and design even more. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Barras and his crew in years to come.

Even if it isn’t overly brilliant animation (which isn’t to say it isn’t good), make time for this if you haven’t already. It is pretty unique in its tale and is definitely worth the 70 mins you’d need to invest.

My Life as a Zucchini

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

Sense8

A Dog’s Purpose

Sometimes you just hate a movie for making you like it. This film is in that category. It is a near bullet-proof collection of puppies, romance, comedy, and life lessons. It isn’t a great movie, but it knows how to pull heart-strings. I have a love/hate relationship with being emotionally manipulated by a flick in that way. Sometimes it is just what I’m looking for, but I always feel dirty afterwards.

The primary success of this tale is down to a very few actors. K.J. Apa (Riverdale) and Britt Robertson (Space Between Us) in the primary section make a great couple. [For the record, this confluence of Robertson movies was  unintended and unexpected and there is still one more to come.] Robertson makes her moments seem almost improvised. Her naturalness and charisma are necessary to make the whole movie make sense. She has to become a true “love of his life” so that Dennis Quaid’s (The Words) resolution of the tale makes sense. And I also give props to Quaid for capturing some of Apa’s mannerisms to let us feel he is the older version.

And, of course, the voice of the various dogs by Josh Gad (Angry Birds Movie) creates the entire emotional level-set of the piece. Gad is kept at a very even energy, allowing the situations to speak mostly for themselves. He never goes to his extremes, which keeps it all at just the right sensibility with a loving and slightly baffled dog viewing the world through a very narrow lens and a pretty small brain.

Director Lasse Hallström (Hundred Foot Journey) is very comfortable in this arena and he keeps the script moving along. He lingers on the darker moments just long enough to allow another dive into the comforting light of reincarnation, which keeps him from having to keep raising those stakes past credibility.  I will admit that the handling of the transitions between segments was handled pretty well on those lines. The cadre of 5 writers on the script managed to merge their voices to something cohesive, but not something overly memorable. There were also some definite gaps in research on their part around K-9 dogs and police procedure.

See this with someone you care about or when you just need a sugary drink to raise your spirits. Or see it for Robertson, if you’re following her career. Or see it if you’re a dog freak and love pretending you know what’s going on in their furry brains. There is entertainment to be had here… not a lot to return to, but enough to snack on once.

A Dog

Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

The Space Between Us

What could have been a really solid science fiction romance in the vein of The Martian meets (pick any teen romance), ends up as a sweet film with no teeth that leaves adults in the dust. I so wanted this to be more than it was.

Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland) and Asa Butterfield (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) play your typical young couple separated by circumstances and, literally, the world who find each other. Both are strong actors. Both do what they can with the script they are provided, but neither is overly deep or realistic because the story just isn’t. Despite that, they both make their characters feel real, within that limitation.

The two primary adults in the film have their own journeys to navigate, but the movie doesn’t really give them the space they need either. Carla Gugino (San Andreas) delivers what she has to, though she ends up sort of hollow due to a lack of script and screen time. And Gary Oldman (Léon: The Professional) was just off in this role. His reactions were far too broad and obvious for me. He is usually an actor of such great power, and in this he is a fragile and uncontrolled mess as an actor. His performance is within the bounds of the sense of the story, but that is another problem.

Director, Peter Chelsom (Hector and the Search for Happiness) shook what he could from the movie. I think he could have exerted a stronger hand over several moments to keep them from going as large as they did, but he generally kept the main relationship at an even and digestible tenor. The real problem was the script… which you may have picked up on by now.

I wish Space had included some of the craft and complexity that Loeb’s other recent screenplay, Collateral Beauty, had contained.  I could even give Loeb and his co-writers a break on the utterly absurd faster-than-light communication if he hadn’t also blown other major science issues. You’re only allowed one big lie per story. More than that and your audience notices and starts to get annoyed, even if they don’t know why. The story was also massively inconsistent in what Butterfield’s character knows or has been exposed to. This tale had a lot of potential, but little of it was realized because the script writers thought that their audience wouldn’t notice the difference, which was a mistake. Just as I would get engaged with the characters, another silly assertion would arise and I’d have to take a breath and consciously ignore the stupidity. Sort of breaks your rhythm as a viewer.

Ultimately, this is a film that will appeal to a younger audience and, in fact, they may enjoy it a great deal as they tend to be more forgiving as long as the main characters are engaging. But even as a metaphor or allegory, adults will be challenged by some of the logic and lack of depth. At least watching Robertson and Butterfield work is always rewarding. The two are growing up to be very capable actors and will be around a long time if they can negotiate their transitions to fully adult roles. They are certainly on the right track… they just have to get their managers to pick better scripts for them.

The Space Between Us

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

La La Land (redux)

I was worried this movie wouldn’t hold up to a second watch. It is, after all, a fluff movie with some sharp edges. I needn’t have worried. It still delighted and tugged at emotions and dreams in all the right ways.

It is also one of the most beautifully composed films I’ve seen. The framing, edits, and production design are just, simply, delightful. The camera floats along with the action. The colors are striking, and the intra-scene edits are almost non-existent (and when they are, they are seamless).

It is still flawed, as a story. Uneven and, shall we say, light on characters, not to mention just a tad long for its purpose. The lightness is was what it was meant to be, so I don’t judge it for that so much as still get frustrated when other films of the year (like Arrival) were pushed aside. But I ranted on that enough already. I will say that I still marvel at the choice and delivery of the final moments. It was brave and a much better resolution than the obvious.

La La will remain in my circle of rewatch for many years, I’m sure. Just as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, neither of which are perfect movies either.  And I will certainly be watching whatever Chezelle comes out with next.

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

Ikiru (To Live)

What is a life worth living? What is a life well-lived?  Akira Kurosawa tackles these questions through the life of a mid-level bureaucrat in 1950s Japan with his trademark patience and dark humor. From the start, Kuraosawa makes sure that while the subject may be deep, you aren’t taking it too seriously. His intent is to nudge rather than hit you upside the head.

Takashi Shimura drives this film in the main role. It is one of the most unpresupposing performances I’ve seen. We watch him literally open up and flower as the film goes on. There are few “big” moments, but several small, intense events that awaken in Shimura’s character a need to live. But is isn’t just the character journey that has impact. The overall structure of the narrative is just as intriguing as the story itself, unfolding in unexpected but necessary ways. If it weren’t for Kurosawa’s inventiveness, the 2.5 hours would have suffocated under its own weight. Instead, he manages to keep us intrigued through fearless storytelling, probably informed a little by his previous foray into narrative structure in Rashomon just two years previous.

Ikiru also marked Kurosawa’s moment before Seven Samurai and some of his most lasting cinema. Kurosawa, as a writer and director, has created and influenced some of the top films and directors of all time (including Star Wars via The Hidden Fortress). There is a beauty to his stories and craft, but never a moment when he insults his audience. His films are about his characters and their troubles and challenges… they just happen to also provide inspiration and commiseration for the viewer. Ikiru is a beautifully funny and heart-warming part of that opus that can still inspire 65 years after its release.

Ikiru

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…