Reel Talk

The Lost City of Z and the Obsession of Recognition

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We really take the size of the world for granted. We can now quickly peep in on any place on Earth, seeing what different countries look like, and how people live their lives with a click of a button. But for most of human history we had a shockingly poor understanding of the very world we live on. The Age of Exploration, for all the horrible colonialism it helped create, was a tremendously important time in human history. People literally gave their lives to make maps, just so we could know what our world looked like. And yet, stories about the Age of Exploration and the people who helped map the world are rather far and few between. So it was pretty shocking learning that we were getting a film based around the exploits of Colonel Percy Fawcett, the man who helped map out the Amazon, and whose overwhelming obsession with a lost civilization hidden inside of it. And, to make matter even more interesting, I started hearing nothing but good things about the film. Everyone who saw the film at the festivals it played at began hailing it as an absolute masterpiece, one of the best films of recent memory. And you know what? They were right.

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, the real-life explorer and soldier. We start off seeing Fawcett scraping by in Ireland, desperate to raise above his rank in the British military and make amends for the shame his father brought to their house. And he gets such a chance when he’s sent to London to meet with the geographic society, who have been contracted by the Bolivian and Brazilian governments to find the source of the Rio Verde, and thus the borders between the two nations. This will help avert a war between the two countries, and ensure that the precious rubber that they’re creating doesn’t get caught between them. So Fawcett heads out to the Amazon, along with a man named Corporal Costin and some other crew members. The group head through the jungle, slowly making their way up-river. Things are helped out when they take a native slave to show them the source of the river. However, as they’re heading closer to the source of the river the native man says something that sticks with Fawcett. He claims that there’s a secret city hidden in the jungle, one that’s older than London, and one that the white-man has never discovered. Fawcett kind of blows it off at first, but when they find the source of the river and complete their mission he finds something shocking. Some pottery and engraved images, seemingly proof of the lost civilization that the man told him about.

The crew returns to London, but Fawcett cannot help but become curious about the lost city. He gives a speech in front of the geographic society, claiming that there’s a lost city in the Amazon that proves the people of South America are an advanced people, more advanced than Europeans ever gave them credit for. They find this assertion ridiculous, but when another prominent explorer, James Murray, says that he’s intrigued by Fawcett’s ideas they raise enough money to go on a second exploration. And this one does not go well. Murray turns out to be extremely unqualified for jungle exploration, and drags the group down at every turn. They eventually have to part ways with him, sending him back to London on his own so that he’ll stop hampering them. However, he got some revenge and ruined their supplies, just as Fawcett becomes convinced that they’re close to the city, and they’re forced to return to London. And to make matters worse Murray lies to the geographic society, and gets Fawcett blackballed from further exploration. Fawcett then has to live with becoming a soldier in World War I, still seeking glory and redemption. Fawcett barely survives the war however, and he realizes that he cannot live a happy life without finding his lost city. So, along with his eldest son Jack, Fawcett returns to the Amazon, desperate to find his lost city. And he may have done so. Fawcett and Jack were never seen from again, but stories from the region claim that they became embers of a tribe, and lived out their lives in the Amazon, possibly near the fabled lost city that dominated Fawcett’s life.

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This is a truly hypnotic film that must be seen to be believed. That’s kind of how I’ve felt with every James Gray film I’ve seen, especially the Immigrant, and this film is no exception. It’s a sumptuous period picture, one that throws you headfirst into the brutal world it’s portraying, warts and all. Exploration was not a clean and kind business, and this film showed the colonialism, the racism, and the brutal conditions that entailed it. The Amazon is a beautiful and unbelievable place, and this film treated it with the fascination and respect it deserved, creating an epic film that lavished in the scenery and sheer majesty of the landscape. Which is something you really don’t see from movies anymore. But this film pulls it off. You really get a feeling for how horrifying and all-encompassing the Amazon is. But it’s not just the scenery. This film is what the Revenant wanted to be. The actors in the film didn’t need to be tortured to deliver performances full of pain and horror. You never once question their struggle against nature, doing everything they can to survive. Everyone in this film puts in a hell of a performance, but the real stand-out is the star of the film, Charlie Hunnam. I’ve never been a fan of Hunnam in the past, but he puts in a serious performance in this film. And its Hunnam’s performance that really hammers in the most interesting aspect of this film.

We all want to be remembered. Life is short and fleeting, and one of the meanings of life seems to be the drive to leave a mark on the world. But, even more than being remembered we want to be recognized for what we’ve done. There are plenty of people who get recognized for their work after their dead, not being appreciated in their own lives. And Percy Fawcett was one of them. In recent years there’s been evidence that his lost city most likely did exist, and he probably was pretty spot on about its location. But being proven right didn’t seem to be Percy Fawcett’s main goal, at least in this film. That would have been nice for him, proving to the world that he was right, and that the natives of the Amazon were better than England thought they were. But his real goal in life was to be recognized as the person who proved that. From the very beginning of the film all Fawcett seems concerned with is recognition. He’s irritated that he doesn’t have any medals from the military, and taking his first trip to the Amazon seemed like the perfect way to get recognized as being better than the average person. He’s trying to make up for the mistakes of his father, and be recognized as his own man, and it completely derails his life. Proving to the world that Z exists and that he was right becomes his all encompassing obsession, and when he hears word that some American explorers may get the credit he does everything he can to be sent back to the Amazon. Because finding the city wouldn’t be enough. It had to be him. The drive to be remembered and recognized by the rest of the human race is a powerful influence, and has led to some truly remarkable things in human history. But it’s also led to a lot of pain and destruction. At it’s heart, the Lost City of Z seems to be a warning. Finding a purpose for your life is important, but letting that purpose absolutely dominate your life will bring you to ruin.

The Lost City of Z was written and directed by James Gray and released by Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street, 2017.

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Reel Talk

Colossal and Our Personal Demons

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When you’re a movie lover you can sometimes feel like you’ve seen everything before. It reaches the point that you kind of trick yourself into thinking that there’s nothing new that can be made. That you’ve seen every story done in every way it possibly could. But then something glorious happens. You come across a movie that’s so incredibly original, and does something so shocking with plot and genre expectations that it revitalizes your faith in the movies. And when this happens, it’s a magical experience. To find something new and original doesn’t happen every day, and when it does it needs to be cherished. So you can imagine my pleasure when I first heard about Colossal. Like a lot of great movies I first heard rumblings of it during a Fantastic Fest where it seemed to blow just about everyone away. Because just that central premise, and that wonderful trailer, shows you that this movie was going to be something different. It was going to be something special. And, shockingly, when you actually sit down and watch Colossal you find something amazing. It’s even crazier, even darker, and even more inventive than you possibly could have imagined. This is a movie that I highly recommend seeing, but I also recommend going in as blind as possible. Because this movie is a hell of a trip.

Colossal revolves around a woman named Gloria whose life has completely fallen apart. She’s been fired from her job as a writer, she’s an alcoholic, and her boyfriend Tim has just kicked her out of their apartment. So, with no other alternatives, Gloria moves back to her hometown and into her parents old house. And, almost immediately, she runs into a guy named Oscar that she knew when they were kids. Oscar is very friendly to Gloria, and takes her to the bar that he owns, that used to be his fathers The two catch up, get drunk, and in the morning Gloria shuffles back to her sad little house. And when she wakes up the next morning she finds that something horrible has happened. A giant monster materialized in Seoul, South Korea, and it destroyed some buildings before vanishing without a trace. This is obviously all the people in the town can talk about, and Gloria gets dragged into many conversations about the creature. She also gets offered a job at Oscar’s bar, to help her get back on her feet, which she accepts. So Gloria begins working at the bar, and almost every day the creature reappears in Seoul, causing more damage. And as Gloria becomes obsessed with the monster she realizes something. It has the same mannerisms as her. So she begins doing some experiments, and finds something ridiculous. When she walks through a playground in town at 8:05 in the morning, she controls the monster. Somehow she is the monster. So she of course shows Oscar and some of the guys from the bar this astonishing ability that she has. However, while showing off she suddenly starts to panic when she realizes that she’s killing innocent people by proxy, and she falls down. She wakes up the next morning, and finds something shocking. When she fell Oscar jumped into the playground too, and that caused a giant robot to appear in Seoul. Oscar has the curse too.

Gloria realizes that she’s causing serious damage, and manages to make her monster give a message to the people of Seoul, telling them that she’s sorry and will never do it again. And everything seems okay at that point. Until Gloria drunkenly sleeps with one of Oscar’s friends. When he finds out, something snaps in Oscar. He drops his nice-guy act, and a much darker person emerges. Oscar becomes angry and vindictive, deciding to go around and cause havoc in Seoul as the giant robot. Gloria tries to stand up to him, but Oscar kind of has the perfect threat. He promises that if she leaves, if she does anything to irritate him, he’ll destroy more of Seoul, and she’ll be responsible. It’s at this point that we learn that Oscar is a complete creep. All of his life he’s been resentful for Gloria’s success, and when she came back to town he was thrilled that her life became as pathetic as his. Now he wants to keep things that way, and will threaten the lives of unknown amounts of people to get it done. Gloria tries to talk sense into Oscar, but he’s too far off the deep end, and she realizes that there’s only one thing to do. Go to Seoul, find the corresponding area there, and attack Oscar as a kaiju. And it works. She flies to Seoul, and as Oscar’s robot is about to attack the city she causes her monster to appear in the small town, grabbing Oscar and defeating him and his robot. She’s then free of her burden, and has to figure out what to do with her life.

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This movie is a hell of an experience. I had heard great things, but it really exceeded all of my expectations. The sheer premise of the movie, a woman finding herself while also realizing that she sometimes controls a massive monster that’s destroying a city, is so completely bizarre and wonderful, I knew that I was always going to like the movie. But then things got even crazier, with the Oscar reveals, both the robot and his true intentions, and the movie just got better and better. It threw me thought a loop, having me have no idea where it was going. Which can be a rarity. This movie was anything but predicable, and really became one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theater this year. It’s a wonderfully crafted film that is somehow able to weave between what feels like a grounded tale of a person finding her place in the world, a big kaiju film, and what essentially becomes a horror movie. And it doesn’t feel wrong. It spins all of those plates, and effortlessly weaves between them. Plus we get two legitimately terrific performances, possibly each actor’s best. Anne Hathaway has had a wide variety of roles, but this is legitimately the most interesting and believable performance that I’ve seen from her, and I absolutely loved her in this.  But the person that I came away most shocked about had to be Jason Sudeikis. I’ve always been a fan of the guy, and the first half of the movie had him exactly in his wheel-house, as a lovable loser. But then the twist happens, and his performance goes into over-drive. I had no idea that Sudeikis had this in him, and it’s a pleasure to see him get as dark and twisted as possible.

Because there’s a lot of darkness in this movie. Which stands to reason, since it’s ostensibly about a woman dealing with her alcoholism and the crushing reality that her stupid actions are killing innocent people. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very funny movie too, but at its heart is a really dark and compelling movie about something that almost everyone can relate to. That keeping your issues bottled up can hurt those around you. In this case things get very literal, with Gloria’s alcoholism and Oscar’s inferiority complex manifesting physical forms that for real hurt people, but that message still comes through loud and clear. Both Gloria and Oscar have legitimate problems that they’re just ignoring instead of confronting. Gloria’s alcoholism and general apathy towards life is slowly destroying everything around her, hurting her friends and family, and she just keeps letting it happen. It’s not until her drunken antics literally kill people that she starts to take stock of her life, and tries to better herself. Which is when Oscar’s issues come up. He’s apparently spent his entire life being bitter, thinking that someone else’s life is better than his, and it’s their fault that his life is boring. He blames everyone for his problems, and becomes an angry and resentful person as a result. And when he doesn’t deal with that, he starts lashing out, hurting people. We all have emotional baggage, and ignoring it leads to nothing but chaos. We end up hurting ourselves and those around us. It’s a very human idea. Which makes it even crazier to see it handled with giant monsters and robots.

Colossal was written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo and released by Neon, 2017.

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Reel Talk

Free Fire: Machismo Ruins Everything

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We really seem to be in a golden age for action movies. The last couple of years have been resplendent in truly amazing action flicks, which is fantastic news. We’ve finally made it out of the glut of ugly, CGI-filled, boring action flicks that the first half of the decade seemed to adore, and we’re getting some real masterpieces. And one of the most interesting parts of this new trend is the fact that a lot of these movies are telling very simple, yet compelling, stories. Action movies have never really been overly bothered with plot, really just stringing along scenarios that lead to crazy gunfights, but there’s been a recent surge in actions flicks that are beautifully simple. Mad Max Fury Road is literally just about driving somewhere, then driving back, and yet it was handled with such grace and craft that it became one of the best films of the last decade. And while I wouldn’t necessarily say that the movie I’m talking about today, Free Fire, is in the same league as Fury Road, it’s still a great movie. And it has a splendidly simple premise. It’s literally a feature-length stand-off. Which seems like a rather ridiculous idea. It doesn’t seem sustainable. And yet, this movie proves that assumption wrong. Because this is one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Free Fire is about some criminals meeting up in an abandoned factory to make an arms deal. One one side we have Chris and Frank, to members of the IRA who are journeying to America to buy rifles. Along with them is Frank’s idiot brother in law Steve and his buddy Bernie. They’re there to meet their contacts, Justine and Ord, intermediaries who have planned the whole deal. And once they get inside the factory they meet the arms dealers, the flashy Verne, the stoic Martin, and their two lackies Harry and Gordon. Things are pretty tense right from the get-go, with everyone trying to prove that they’re the alpha-male, the toughest guy in the room. But they manage to keep it civil. That is until Harry and Steve realize they know each other. Turns out just a couple nights ago Steve beat up Harry’s cousin so bad she had to go to the hospital after basically attempting to rape her. Harry had beat the hell out of Steve the previous night, but he’d gotten away. And as soon as the two recognize each other, all hell breaks loose. They begin yelling at each other, causing a riff between the two groups. And it all reaches a fever pitch when Harry shoots Steve. He doesn’t kill him, but it escalates things to the point of no return.

The factory suddenly becomes a battleground, with the IRA folks and Verne’s people fighting against each other, trying to survive, while Justine and Ord get caught in the middle. The Irish want the guns and the dealers want the money, but now there’s enough bad blood that they also want the other side killed. What follows is is some of the most inventive and slap-stick gun-fights that I’ve ever seen. The movie is basically a live-action cartoon, with everyone getting shot multiple times and mainly just complaining about it. A series of coincidences occur during the shootout that potentially could upset the balance of power, such as the realization that there’s a phone in the building that could be used to call reinforcements, Justine and Ord’s rapidly changing allegiances, the appearance of another Irishman, and two hitmen who for a long time seem unaffiliated showing up. But in the end none of these things really pan out, and it’s just a matter of time before the various combatants start being whittled down. None of them are going to get out of this in great shape, and that certainly pans out.

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This movie is a goddamn delight. I’ve only seen one film from director Ben Wheatley before, last year’s High-Rise. And I liked that movie quite a bit, it even showed up on my best of the year list. And this movie is very different than High-Rise. They both show that Ben Wheatley has a serious affection for the aesthetics of the 1970’s, but other than that the movies are night and day. High-Rise was a slow and unnerving examination of class warfare, and Free Fire is an absolutely manic and frenetic action/comedy flick. And I adored it. The action in the film is top-notch, showcasing a cavalcade of ridiculous gun-fights. And that action is held up by across the board fantastic performances. Everyone in this movie is tremendous, handling the ridiculous concept and the comedic chops necessarily to make it all work. This is a tremendously silly movie, and everyone here needs to simultaneously be a credible fighter and comedian. And they all nail it. Hell, the movie even made me enjoy a Sharlto Copley performance, which is no small feat. And he’s certainly not the only one. Everyone in this movie is delightful, especially the three ostensible leads, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, and Cillian Murphy. They all knocked it out of the park, and convinced me that Armie Hammer really needs to be in more movies. And his performance, along with all of the other male actors in the movie, help hammer in an interesting theme that I noticed in the film.

Men are idiots and ruin everything. Especially when they let their balls do their thinking for them, relying on show-boating and machismo. This should have been a simple business transaction. There was money, there as goods, and there was an assumption that these things would be exchanged for each other. But things almost immediately get screwed up when every goddamn man in the movie has to try and show that he’s the toughest. They’re constantly negging each other, tossing off little put-downs to try and show who is on top. And that’s before Steve ruins everything by refusing to just admit that he did something shitty and apologize to defuse the situation. Because once he does that it falls down a slippery slope and reaches the point that none of them can get out alive. All because they’re stupid men, trying to show how tough they are. And that’s really one of the big problems with the world. It’s one of the biggest problems in history. Men being idiots and escalating issues because they want to be big and tough. Sometimes it leads to wars and sometimes it leads to a bunch of idiots dying in an abandoned factory. But it always leads to trouble.

Free Fire was written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley, directed by Ben Wheatley, and released by A24, 2017.

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Reel Talk

Let’s Try to Figure out Fate of the Furious

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There are certain things in pop culture that can just pass you by. It’s impossible to be familiar with and experience every bit of pop culture that’s made, so you’re bound to get some weird blindspots. For instance, one of my biggest is that I’ve barely ever seen anything related to Star Trek, which can sometimes surprise people. And another thing that I’ve never quite caught on to, while observing from the sidelines, is the Fast and the Furious franchise. It’s been going on for more than a decade, and yet, I’ve never seen a single one. But people love them! I’ve seen articles written about their blissful stupidity, and listened to podcasts extolling their ridiculous virtues. And yet, it’s never seemed to be my cup of tea. At first it was just due to the fact that I’ve never really been a car guy, and had no interest in a weird Point Break ripoff with extreme car-racing. But then the franchise slowly seemed to morph into something else, seemingly getting crazier and crazier. It’s a fascinating experience barely knowing anything about these movies, and just kind of being an outside observer. Like, I just recently learned that Tokyo Drift is set after basically all of the movies. Which seems baffling, because does that mean that movie takes place in 2020? No idea. I’ve seen people try to explain the timeline, or how a group of thieves have somehow become a band of car-driving superheroes, but it seems basically as dense and impenetrable as the lore of Star Trek. And, like clockwork, they seem to come out every two years or so, giving their fans another healthy dose of Family. So, I decided to do something stupid. I went and saw Fate of the Furious, the newest and eighth installment of the franchise, having never seen another one of them. I fully understand that this is a stupid thing to do, but I figured it would be a little fun trying to piece together the franchise by just diving in. This was incorrect. Let’s talk about it!

The film starts off in Havana, Cuba where Vin Diesel and his wife Letty (who recently came back from the dead I believe) are on their honeymoon. They’re having a great time, having romantic walks and insane street-races that end with Vin launching a flaming car into the air so it can explode. You know, honeymoon stuff. But that’s all blown to hell when Vin is approached by a mysterious woman called Cipher. She’s apparently an international hacker/terrorist, and she’s going to blackmail Dom into helping her do something illegal. And what will that be? Why we immediately learn when the Rock is approached by a government agent and asked to go on a mission with his band of car thieves to steal some sort of EMP device from Germans. They drive into Berlin, steal the device, and are heading back to their hideout when Dom attacks the Rock, and steals the EMP. Everyone’s pretty shocked by this, but they keep insisting that something must be going on to make Dom do this. And because their mission was top secret, the Rock is arrested and brought to some car-thief prison where he runs into Jason Statham, who is bad and from another movie. However, both the Rock and Statham are freed from the prison by Kurt Russel, who is playing a mysterious government agent called Mr. Nobody. He wants the Rock, Statham, and the rest of the Furious Crew to team up and find Vin Diesel, because he knows about Cipher, and knows she’s dangerous. Which is hammered in when Vin Diesel and Cipher show up at their base, beat everyone up, and steal their magic computer program that could track them.

We then learn what’s going on with Riddick to make him betray his friends. Apparently he used to date some other lady, who appears to be the punching bag of the franchise, and she secretly had Riddick’s baby. Cipher figured that out, and has her and the baby imprisoned on her secret base/plane. So Riddick and Cipher’s other henchman Tormund Giantsbane head to New York to steal a nuclear football from a Russian diplomat, and make a stop to meet with a British woman who turns out to be Jason Statham’s mom. This of course is aided when Cipher hacks every car in New York, causing a stampede of self-driving cars to fly through the streets of New York, destroying the diplomat’s car. But the Furious Crew shows up and tries to stop Riddick, to limited success. Vin Diesel and Tormund then get the football, shoot Jason Statham to death, and vanish off to the evil plane to move onto the next stage of their plan. Which is to go to Russia, use the EMP to destroy a base’s defenses, and steal a nuclear submarine so that Cipher can threaten the nations of the world into being nice. But the two hackers in the Furious Crew work and manage to find where they’re going, and get in their sportscars so they can drive through the ice of Siberia. The team fights their way into the base, and destroys the computer system to launch the missiles, but still need to stop the submarine from escaping and returning to Cipher. And they get an unexpected helper from Groot. Because it turns out that Jason Statham isn’t dead, he instead is working with his brother, another villain from a previous movie, and they’re invading Cipher’s plan. They fight their way through the plane, save Groot’s baby, but not the mother, and cause Cipher to flee. And once that’s done the group all return to New York, having explained everything, and they continue to be a Family of super spy car thieves, awaiting the return of Cipher. And I guess the two evil British brothers are now their bros.

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So, I was not a fan of this movie. And I’ll fully admit that a large portion of that could be because I’m diving into a series’ eighth installment without knowing anything about the previous movies. But, in spite of that, I don’t really think that this was a very good movie anyway. This movie seems to utterly rely on you having seen the other movies, sometimes to the point that they don’t even say the names of characters, just having you know it from the other movies. No one’s relationships are explored, and it’s basically all designed to be in-jokes and references. Which is a weird way to make a movie. You would think that you would want it to be a good movie to stand on its own, not just because you’re seen seven other movies. There are a couple glimpses of hilarity in the movie, like the Rock teaching a group of little girls playing soccer a Maori war chant, or the fact that Vin Diesel is able to tear a car apart with his bare hands, but I just generally didn’t get the appeal of the franchise. This film is jam-packed with characters, but almost none of them get anything to do. More than half of the Furious Crew are basically there to spout dumb jokes during the ugly CGI car chase scenes, and easily could have been excised from the film. There’s literally two people on the team who seem to specialize as hackers, and they were always together. Why weren’t they just one character? The whole movie just seemed like a first draft.

I had always heard that the appeal of these movies was that they were just big, stupid action movies full of dumb jokes and actors having a good time. And I guess it delivered on that, but it also seemed to just be going through the motions. It’s like the series has gotten to unwieldly. There were too many characters, and it was clear that the movie was just trying to one-up every other movie in the franchise. It was trying to be bigger, louder, and dumber than everything that came before it, and while I have no idea if it succeeded on that front, it certainly didn’t succeed in being a fun movie. Very few of these characters actually have characters, they’re mostly just joke/badass line delivery systems, the action set-pieces are busy, frenetic, and frankly kind of ugly. Obviously they can’t do practical car effects with all of the stupid things that they try to do in these movies, but the effects really look cartoonish. I’m kind of intrigued with how this franchise went from a cop investigating a group of thieves to eventually having them try to stop World War Three, but as it stands this doesn’t really feel like a complete movie. It’s like downloadable content in a video game. Not a full experience, just a bit of fluff that adds onto the last story.

Fate of the Furious was written by Chris Morgan, directed by F Gary Gray, and released by Universal Pictures, 2017.

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Reel Talk

T2 Trainspotting and Living With Yourself

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It’s not often that you see a sequel to a drama. It’s obviously not unheard of, but typically you don’t get to check back in on the lives of the characters we see in more dramatic works. And you especially don’t often see a sequel that comes decades after the original. And yet, we have one. I feel like when they first announced that they were making a sequel to Trainspotting, one of the most beloved and successful indie films of all time, people were a little wary. It seemed like a strange idea. But then they started saying that Danny Boyle would be back to direct, and that the original cast would be back, and people got a little more interested. But still not completely sold. Because Trainspotting is a very complete film. We meet our lovable group of heroin addicts trying to survive in Edinburgh. We see them kind of grow as people, have weird little adventures, and are given a sliver of hope by seeing Ewan McGregor’s Mark escape the vicious cycle of life at the end of the film, taking the money that the gang were more than likely just going to blow on heroin, and running off to try and reinvent his life into something better. It’s a great ending, and one that you wouldn’t think would need to get checked up on. True, Irvine Welsh wrote a sequel to the novel the film was based on, but that’s all about the boys running back into each other while working on porno movies, not exactly what you would expect. So T2 had a pretty big hurdle to cross, having to make a story that’s both interesting and worthwhile, a story that makes it clear that there was actually a reason for this film to exist, and not just be some sort of nostalgic cash-grab. And, against common sense, they actually succeeded in doing that.

T2 picks up twenty years after the events of the first Trainspotting, and we’re given a quick montage showing us what the various characters are up to. Simon “Sickboy” Williamson is still running cons, trying to blackmail prominent men when they sleep with his prostitute girlfriend Veronika while trying to scrape enough money together to open a brothel. Daniel “Spud” Murphy is still an addict, constantly going through phases of sobriety and lamenting the fact that his ex and child refuse to see him. Francis “Franco” Begbie has been in prison since the first movie, and is hatching a plan to escape by faking a shanking and fleeing from the hospital. And Mark Renton is living a decent life in Amsterdam. He’s married, has a decent job, and is healthy. He’s off heroin and has made a good life. But he’s decided to visit Edinburgh, and check in on his family and friends. He finds Spud in his apartment, preparing to commit suicide, and Mark saves him. Which doesn’t really make Spud happy, and after some tense arguing the two realize that they’re happy to see one another. Spud and Mark have a nice time together, and Spud recommends that Mark goes to see Simon. Which he does. And it’s not a good call. Simon is furious at Mark for abandoning them and taking the money that could have changed his life, and the two end up fighting. But after they’re done Simon realizes that he could get some revenge on Mark by conning him. So he begins weaving a sob story, trying to get Mark to invest in his brothel idea. And, surprisingly, Mark agrees. Which is because he’s not really here to just hang out. It turns out Mark is getting divorced, is about to be laid off, and has realized that this nice life he’s created is completely fabricated, and falling apart. So he’s returned to Edinburgh, and has decided that Simon’s plan is as good as any he’s come up with, so he agrees to help out.

So Simon, Mark, Spud, and Veronika begin working on transforming Simon’s rundown club into a high-end brothel, becoming friends again and generally having a great time. Which is of course when Franco escapes prison, and is thrown back into the scene. He’s still furious at Mark, and desperately wants to kill him. But, he doesn’t know that Mark is back in town, and when he goes to see Simon, he isn’t told. Simon actually keeps this a secret from Franco, but also doesn’t tell Mark that Franco is out and looking for him. So things keep progressing, with Simon and Mark simultaneously becoming better friend while also competing for the affections of Veronika, Franco struggles to find a new life outside of prison, and Spud begins writing down all of his stories, becoming a sort of poet. And things really take a change when they successfully manage to trick the EU into giving them a massive loan, since they lied and said that they were turning the bar into a bed and breakfast to reinvigorate the area and improve the economy in Edinburgh. So now they have a bunch of money, and are put back in the same position as the last film. Which is when Franco finally finds Mark at a club, and comes to kill the group. There’s a tense couple of scenes between all of the former friends at the club, and the movie ends with them all ready to begin a new chapter of their lives, living and remaining friends while still struggling to find purpose in their lives.

 

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I was actually a little surprised at how much I enjoyed this movie. And it kind of surprisingly made a great double-feature with Raw. I certainly went into this movie with a lot of doubt. This movie had to do a whole lot of work to convince me that it was necessary. Trainspotting has an incredibly solid ending, and I was in no way convinced that this movie needed to be made. But I was proven wrong. Because almost everything in this movie clicks for me. Danny Boyle has been a very hit or miss director with me, but I really think he was firing on all cylinders here. It never got too flashy and remained a very character-driven film that certainly showed the growth he’s had as a director since the 90s, but you can also still see the passion and reverence that he has for the subject matter. You simultaneously get the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting while also giving us a more modern Boyle, and it worked very well. It was also fantastic to see the cast back, putting in truly terrific performances. Despite all having their own careers, I think all four of the principal actors in this film will be most remembered for their Trainspotting roles, and they did those roles justice. They slipped right back into the roles, bringing new life and depth to these characters. They were no longer just dumb kids, but there was a magic when they got back together that was undeniable. You can tell that the characters and the actors’ smiles of joy are legitimate when they get up to their old shenanigans, slipping back into the roles like well-worn clothes.

And that familiarity with the roles is what really made this movie for me. The idea of checking back in on these characters from such a beloved movie is a dangerous one, because you have to beg the question of if it’s necessary. And they made a story that made it necessary. This movie wouldn’t have been interesting at all if we checked back in on the boys and they were all doing great. But it also wouldn’t have been interesting if they were doing just as bad as they were in the original. They’ve all grown as characters, had twenty years of changes. Some more than others, but they’re different people. And yet, believably different people. They’ve all had a lot happen to them, and they’ve changed. And yet, when they get back together, it all comes back to them. They start trying to relive the glory years, even if those years happen to have been them addicted to heroin. Because these are a group of people who have to come to terms with the fact that they wasted their youth. The stupid decisions they made when they were little more than kids have had profound and indelible effects on their lives. Mark thought that escaping it all with some ill-gotten money would have saved him. But it didn’t. It certainly made his life better than if he had stayed behind and blown it all on more heroin, but it didn’t make him happy. What made him happy was reuniting with Spud and Simon. They’re all constantly blaming each other for the lives they’ve led, but in the end they realize that it was all their own faults. They made stupid decisions as children, and those decisions have gone on to control their adult lives. Which is a very true and interesting way to have handled this film. It didn’t give us a complete downer of an ending where they all revert back to addicts, and it didn’t give us an unrealistically happy ending where they become rich. Instead we got a realistic ending where they’re doing fine, but better because they’re together. They’ve let their decisions define themselves, but also have found ways to make it work. Which is probably the best outcome any of them could have asked for. They’re back together, ready to move on from their past and continue living their lives, not by ignoring their decisions, but by accepting them.

T2 Trainspotting was written by John Hodge, directed by Danny Boyle, and released by TriStar pictures, 2017.

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Reel Talk

Raw and the Horror of Finding Yourself

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Horror really isn’t my genre. I’ve said that a lot on this site, but it’s probably my biggest gap in cinematic knowledge. I don’t really have anything against the genre, it’s just never really been my thing, and typically hasn’t spoken to me. But there are certainly horror movies that I enjoy, and it certainly seems like we’re in a bit of a Renaissance going on for thoughtful and interesting horror. I don’t want that to be a slam on horror, saying that it’s normally all dumb, bloody, and full of jump-scares, but I’ve certainly been noticing more and more horror movies that seem to have something interesting to say, and approach the genre in new and unique ways. So I’ve been trying to keep a more open mind, and give more horror movies a fair shot. And it’s helped when I start to hear amazing things about a horror movie that seems to blow everyone away. Especially when it’s a movie that’s almost universally beloved, is hailed as a staggering work of genius that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche, and represents one of the strongest debuts from a filmmaker in recent memory. Those kind of accolades will certainly pique my interest. And once such movie is the French-Belgian film Raw, which dominated several festivals last year, and has finally been released to the larger public. So I went to check it out, probably unfortunately at an Alamo Drafthouse so I had just had a meal sitting in my stomach just in time for the gore to begin, and got to witness this fascinating film.

Raw tells the story of a young woman named Justine who is being brought to a veterinary college by her parents, who happen to be alumni. It’s apparently a family profession, because Justine’s sister Alexia is also attending the school, a couple years ahead of Justine. Justine is an incredibly sheltered person, having seemingly never been out on her own, living under her rather oppressive parents and their rules. So it’s quite a culture shock when she finds herself in the college, suddenly able to make decisions on her own. And it’s not helped by the fact that this school has some absolutely absurd hazing, putting these first-year students through absolute hell. It seems like Justine has a supporter in Alex, but she too seems to side with the hazing, trying to get Justine to be a normal student. She even doesn’t have a roommate to lean on, because she can’t quite get over the fact that her new roommate is a gay man named Adrien, who also expects her to be something she’s not. So Justine just has to drift around, trying to keep a low profile and figure out who to be. And, to make matters worse, one of the hazing standbys is to have the students eat a raw rabbit liver, which becomes the first piece of meat that Justine has ever had. And she seems to have a severe allergic reaction to it, being covered in a horrible rash.

And this is really just the beginning. Justine continues to drift through the college, finding herself at odds with seemingly everyone. She just can’t get a hold of this new culture, and this strange sickness that seems to be affecting her. And things absolutely get crazy when Justine is hanging out with Alex one night, and after a series of mistakes, Alex’s finger is cut off. Alex passes out, and while Justine panics about what to do, she’s met with a sudden and powerful desire to eat the finger. Which she does, right as Alex is waking up. Which you would think would be a huge problem. But it turns out that this little spate of cannibalism is a family trait, because once Alex gets out of the hospital she reveals that she too has a penchant for eating humans. And if Alex thought that this would make Justine feel safe and accept her issue, she’s wrong. Justine is horrified by this, and begins doing everything she can to ignore her issues. She slowly begins to go insane, constantly surrounded by gore and horror from learning how to be a veterinarian, and doing everything she can to smother her impulses and pretend that the don’t exist. Which isn’t helped by Alex taking these measures as a slight, and doing everything in her power to expose Justine during a party. And from there everything falls apart. Justine, Alex, and even Adrien’s lives are completely changed, and no one is better off for it.

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This is a movie that really needs to be seen to be believed. I heard all kinds of things about this movie. People at the various festivals reported that it was a magnificent debut from Julia Ducournau that exceeded every expectation, and that it was one of the most effecting films released in that festival. I heard that there were people throwing up from the gore. But I also heard that this was a deeply personal and fascinating coming of age tale. Which would seem at odds with each other, but it somehow isn’t. This is a beautifully and impacting movie that really wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. It’s a gorgeously shot, meticulously crafted, and deeply personal film that almost defies explanation. Every actor in the film is knocking it out of the park, delivering performances dripping with tension and horror. This isn’t a film that relies of gimmicks or tricks. There aren’t any jump-scares that are meant to startle you. The gore is there, but it’s not a centerpiece. This isn’t a gore-fest like an Eli Roth movie where there’s no substance behind it. This isn’t a movie that’s just trying to disgust you. It’s trying to terrify you by showing something that’s so outside the average person’s experience, and re-contextualizes it a setting that seems relateable.

And that’s really where the genius of this movie comes from. Yes, they made a gory cannibal movie. That’s something that’s been done. But this film somehow took the idea of a cannibal, something a majority of people have no experience of knowledge of, and somehow made it understandable. Because this movie isn’t necessarily about cannibalism. It’s about being different. This is a movie where Justine is finding herself in a new world, a world where there are certain things expected of her. College is a time where you’re supposed to find out who you really are. But, there’s a bit of hypocrisy in that, because you’re also expected to perform to some designated roles. College students are supposed to find themselves, but in the way that’s been preordained. You’re supposed to party, celebrate your freedom, and generally act like an idiot. Which isn’t helped by things like hazing, which lets people who are still basically children act like fools with little to no supervision. And this isn’t how Justine wants to be. She has a different view of herself, and she’s constantly being socially punished by the others for this. And then she discovers something about herself, something that she knows will ruin her, and she has to keep it hidden. Now, this could take on several different meanings, but they all boil down to finding out something about yourself that you feel should be hidden. Cannibalism is just the extreme of that sentiment. It’s one of the biggest double-standards of growing up. You’re expected to find out who you really are, but only if that someone is who you’re supposed to be. And that’s an immensely relateable kind of horror. Finding out who you are, and finding that it’s not something that others have deemed as acceptable is one of the scariest things that can happen in your young life. You just have to hope that what you are isn’t a cannibal. Fingers crossed.

Raw was written and directed by Julia Ducournau and released by Wild Bunch and Focus World, 2017.

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Reel Talk

Power Rangers and the “Mature” Reboot

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As someone who’s obsessed with movies, and who tries to see a movie every weekend in the theater, it’s pretty clear that they’re not all going to be winners. Going to the theater to watch movies is basically the closest thing I have to going to church every Sunday, and sometimes the sermon is going to be better than others. When I saw that they were making a film reboot of the Power Rangers in the hopes of starting a big franchise and leech off the money from the superhero craze, I was worried. Because whatever’s wrong with my brain was going to ensure I was going to see it. And as the movie continued to be developed, and information came out about the movie, I got more and more concerned. But then when it actually was released I started seeing some surprising responses. There was some praise that the film features the first lesbian “superhero,” and also the first “superhero” on the spectrum. I also kept hearing that people’s general reaction was that it was incredibly stupid, but surprisingly fun. And “incredibly stupid but surprisingly fun” is kind of my wheelhouse. I have a certain amount of nostalgia for the Power Rangers, so that combined with some slightly better than tepid responses made me assume that I was maybe not in for a rough time this week. I was wrong.

The movie attempts to retell the background of the Power Rangers, and show their first adventure together. Which obviously means that we start in the Cenozoic Era as a group of aliens do battle on the Earth, ending when the leader of the aliens, Zordon, causes a meteor to crash into the planet, killing the enemies and the dinosaurs. We then cut to present day and meet our rag-tag team off teenagers with attitude. The movie basically starts like the Breakfast Club, with a bunch of kids going into detention on a weekend and meeting each other. We have Jason the jock who ruined his knee and his future, Kimberly the popular girl who has lost her status, Billy a nerd on the autism spectrum, Trini a loner “new girl” to the school, and Zach the goofy idiot. Their lives are all brought together one night when they all happen to be at the gold mine outside their town when Billy blows up some of the cliff-side. They all run over to see what happened, and find that Billy has uncovered a strange wall of glass with five glowing coins held within. Zach breaks through the glass and gets the coins, one for each of them. All of the coins glow different colors, and the five kids think it’s pretty neat. Then the mine security shows up, and they have to have a high-speed chase with Billy’s mom’s van, which ends with them getting hit by a train. However, they all then wake up in their homes a few hours later, fine, and now possessing superpowers. They all have heightened strength, agility, and reflexes, and decide that they need to go back to that gold mine to figure out what happened to them. So they meet up at the mine and find a hidden chasm with a lake at the bottom. They swim around in the lake, and eventually find an alien spaceship that’s been hidden under their city since the Cenozoic Era. The ship opens up for them, seemingly because of their glowing coins, and things get nuts. They meet an annoying robot caretaker of the ship named Alpha 5, who tells them that the fact they found the coins means they’re meant for something grand. He then introduces them to Zordon, that alien from the beginning, whose soul is not trapped in the ship’s computer. Zordon explains that because they have the coins they’re going to be Power Rangers, a group of superpowered peace keepers who are tasked with protecting something called the Zeo Crystal. Apparently every planet where there’s intelligent life has a Zeo Crystal, and an evil ex-Ranger named Rita Repulsa is trying to steal Earth’s destroying the planet. And these five teenagers are the only hope to stop them.

The team is a little surprising and unwilling to accept the fact that they’re now defenders of the Earth, but they pretty quickly decide to give Zordon a shot and become Power Rangers. But that’s going to require them to hang out in the spaceship’s basement with Alpha 5 and learn how to fight, because something seems wrong with the system and they aren’t able to access their special suits of armor. And while the Rangers are hanging out and bonding/training we see that Rita has arrived in town, looking for that crystal, and is killing people and stealing their gold so she can bring a giant golden monster to life to help her. So hopefully the Rangers get their shit together! But that doesn’t seem likely. They hang out for a bit, trying to see if the reason their armor isn’t working is because they don’t know each other, and we then get treated to their depressing back stories. Zach’s mom is dying and he doesn’t know what to do, Billy’s dad died and he’s lonely, Trini I suppose is questioning her sexuality, Kimberly lost all of her friends for sharing a nude photo of one of them, and Jason misses playing football. One of these things is not like the others. But this little team-building exercise, along with Jason giving them an impassioned speech about how they’re all screw-ups, gives them the confidence to go beat up Rita! And they promptly get their asses kicked, she learns the location of the crystal, and she drowns Billy. Whoops. Anyway, they carry Billy’s body back to the spaceship, Zordon brings him back to life, and they’re able to finally access their suits. Which is right when Rita goes to the gold mine and gets enough gold to create her giant monster and head to the location of the crystal, a Krispy Kreme is town. So the Power Rangers get in their giant mechs, here called Zords, and head into town to fight Rita and her giant Goldar monster, helping them destroy their town. Rita’s able to find the crystal and beat up the Rangers, causing them to hook all of their Zords together to form the Megazord. They then kill Goldar and smack Rita into orbit, saving the day. They then go hang out with Zordon and promise to be back in a sequel which almost certainly won’t happen.

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Folks, this movie is real bad. Like, worse than I was anticipating, and I was going in expecting that it was going to be garbage. I mean, a big-budget remake of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was never going to be be quality cinema, but I didn’t think it was going to be this rough of a movie. Honestly the only thing that I think I can praise is how little of a shit Elizabeth Banks is giving as Rita, putting in a completely unhinged performance. It looks like she was having a blast being as campy and arch as possible. Otherwise? Yikes. None of the kids had any chemistry, it dragged on to more than two hours, they didn’t even have action set pieces until the last twenty minutes, and it was ugly as hell. I don’t know why people think costume design has to be so complicated now, but those were some ugly costumes. And the original designs are even that great, but at least they’re simple and fairly pleasant to look at. These costumes are so busy and poorly rendered that the final fight scenes are just bad to look at. But beyond visual problems, this movie’s story is just kind of a mess. The show had a fairly easy to follow formula, and instead this movie decided to devote two thirds of it’s run-time to having these unpleasant character talk to each other, bare their souls, and somehow not develop themselves. The characters just blatantly explain their character traits throughout the movie, even going to far as to have Zach multiple times say “I’m the crazy one!” We’re definitely supposed to relate to them once they sit around a fire and say everything wrong with them, but that scene just felt so weird. Zach, Billy, and Trini actually have issues, but then we find out that Kimberly ruined a girl’s life for fun and Jason just is sad he can’t be a jock. And then Jason says that they’re all “screw-ups!” Yeah, I guess your mom dying really makes you a screw-up. I know the movie was getting some praise for featuring a superhero character on the spectrum, and I do think that that’s applaudable, even though Billy’s performance is just kind a caricature. What I’m kind of struggling to get is how much praise the movie was getting for featuring a LGBTQ superhero. The closest this movie comes is having Zach ask Trini if she’s having girlfriend problems, and she doesn’t answer. That’s the bar Hollywood has to jump to get praise? If Trini was actually questioning her sexuality they should have gone for it and actually looked at what that could mean, instead of kind of mentioning it and then accepting accolades. It’s just kind of weird. But I guess they knew they had to cross off some diversity to make this movie even remotely interesting.

The thing about this movie is that it’s so emblematic of the trend where studios make big-budget remakes of things people liked as kids. There’s nothing wrong with the old Power Rangers show. It’s dumb, but it’s for kids and it has fun action and usually snuck in some sub-after school special level morals. But whatever, it was fine for what it was. But now it’s 2017, and the people who grew up watching Power Rangers have the clout to make a remake, and they obviously can’t make it for the same demographic they were when they watched it. No, instead you have to make it gritty. Take a show that was bright, colorful, and kid-friendly and put on the Zack Snyder grim color-correction and have the characters have “real world problems.” I’m kind of surprised they didn’t decide to have Kimberly be a rape survivor, since that’s usually what shitty Hollywood dudes come up to make female characters interesting since they can’t write a decent female character. I’m sure people will like this movie, and more power to them, but there’s just something about this movie, and movies like it, that don’t make sense to me. When I was a kid Power Rangers was something I really loved, and then I grew up. I don’t need to have Power Rangers try a relate to me anymore, let a younger generation enjoy them. But this movie doesn’t agree with that. Power Rangers used to be a property for children, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking they should bring their kids to this, unless they’re up for explaining bull hand-jobs and revenge porn to their kids. And that’s just a bummer. In my mind a person would want to make a Power Rangers movie that feels similar to the show, so that the people who grew up with it could take their kids to it and show them something from their childhood. Instead you create a movie that should be for kids, and make it for adults who probably have no interest in it anymore. But I guess these sorts of movies are financially successful, because we keep getting them. Now we just have to wait for an R-rated Darkwing Duck movie or something.

Power Rangers was written by John Gatnis, directed by Dean Isrealite, and released by Lionsgate, 2017.

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