Movies of the Week #51 (2019)

Shoplifters (2018): There are so many things to like about Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2018 family drama that I don’t even know where to begin. If you’ve seen any of Koreeda’s films, you’ll be familiar with the manner in which he dissects Japanese society and class with a focus on the family unit. In some way, Shoplifters is the Japanese version of Parasite, a bizarre, occasionally confusing, but thoroughly entertaining story about a makeshift family and the things that bring them together. It feels like Almodovar at times, reframing the criminal nature of its characters in a humanistic way. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, because of its slower pace and the hard-to-swallow resolution, but I found myself fascinated by it and the questions it poses about the most human of desires, to find acceptance within those that should be closest to you. 9/10

Marriage Story (2019): I’m not sure if I’m a Noah Baumbach fan or not. I’ve generally liked his movies (probably The Squid and the Whale the most), but have failed to fall in love with them. His existential familial drama takes on a more vicious form in Marriage Story, the kind of viciousness that’s neatly wrapped inside layers of complex, ambivalent interactions. This makes it very easy to appreciate the unraveling of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) marriage, because it feels so true, so dignified and yet so appalling, the way these things go. I do find it amazing, what people who once loved each other can end up inflicting upon one another, without malice, yet terribly vile. Baumbach’s latest does extremely well in touching upon those sore spots, present within most relationships, that so easily end up causing a lot more pain and misery that you would expect. Yet, within its familiarity and the showcase performances of its leads, I found myself foreign and distant, yearning to know more of what is implied, humanizing the source of their discontent beyond its veneer. 8/10

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019): I enjoyed the re-envisioning from two years ago, thanks to the strong cast and amusing premise. This sequel shies away from innovation, which means that while it still provides some entertainment, it feels less fresh. Adding Danny DeVito and Danny Glover to the cast doesn’t shake things up enough, as the two ‘grandpas’ are sucked into the world of Jumanji and struggle with even the lowest concepts of console gaming. It’s amusing at first, but wears its welcome by the halfway point, with the by-now impressive Awkwafina swooping in to provide some much needed color to the proceedings. Just enough to make it a moderately enjoyable flick. 6/10

Take the Ball Pass the Ball (2018): This adaptation of Graham Hunter’s book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, gives a fair assessment of what made early 2010s Barcelona a team that was not only successful, but truly exciting to watch. My parents, who wanted nothing to do with football before, no matter how much I talked about it, were just taken in by the style that Guardiola’s tiki-taka showcased. While the docu doesn’t quite manage to bring this across, it’s still a valuable source of “insider” information, neatly structured and emotionally resonant. Several of the key players provide their insights into what made Barca tick, with Xavi, Dani Alves and Thierry Henry particularly interesting to listen to. It does feel like the movie could have achieved more in the hands of an Asif Kapadia, but alas, maybe a day will come when all the glory of Guardiola’s Barcelona will find its way onto film. 7/10

Heroin(e) (2017): This short Netflix documentary garnered an Academy Award nomination two years ago, for its coverage of the role three women take on in managing the opioid epidemic in a small corner of the US. It’s an effective segment on the importance of taking it one battle at a time and making sure you approach the issue from multiple angles, with commendable efforts from all those involved. Nothing more, nothing less. 7/10

Movies of the Week #50 (2019)

The Farewell (2019): There’s nothing like a good meal of family contrivances. In this much praised movie, a US-based Chinese family needs to return home in order to deal with the impending death of their grandmother/mother. The “trick” is that nobody plans to tell said grandmother that she only has a few weeks left to live. This poses some ethical conundrums, especially for those used to a more Western approach to personal rights and freedoms. Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed the movie, finds just the right tone and pulls at just the right sensibilities in a story that feels both timely and universal, in spite of its cultural particularities. Not completely unlike China, there are large communities of Romanians abroad who have to deal with complex family problems from a distance, mixing values and priorities. 8/10

Dolor y gloria (2019): I’m not sure if this needs to be labeled a “return to form” for Almodovar, yet it’s his best effort since 2011’s The Skin I Live In. Coincidentally (or not), both star Antonio Banderas, whose dramatic roles have been more than convincing. With its beautiful and peculiar characters, Dolor y gloria feels like an honest exploration of (artistic) depression, doubled by an “origin story” that’s poetic and austere at the same time. There are a few almodovar-esque moments of manifest destiny in it, that, I’d argue, add to the movie’s flair, making overall for one of the better cinematic experiences of the year. 8/10

Midnight Express (1978): Oliver Stone’s first major screenplay brought him an Academy Award in this acclaimed flick directed by Alan Parker. For me, Midnight Express was a terribly uneven ride – a first hour marked by excellence, a sense of forlorn anguish at a foolish man being imprisoned in an unforgiving Turkish prison. Funnily enough, my parents had just seen the movie when they first visited Turkey and, as a custom’s officer was angrily waving at them to turn their car around after having inadvertently passed the border without going through all the formalities, they expected the worse (spoiler: not much happened, but it sure as hell wasn’t fun). So yes, Midnight Express’s first half is terrifying. The second half is overlong and overdrawn, with a couple of scenes making evident and uninspired abstractions from the real events that they were based upon. It still makes for a good show, even if the kind of American-centric views of the Orient it embodies are what one expects these days from Rambo, not an Academy Award frontrunner. 7/10

11:14 (2003): If you’re running out of light, gimmicky movies that are unexpectedly clever and entertaining to watch, you’re in luck. A bunch of unfortunate events unfold one evening at 11:14 in an irrelevant corner of the world, that end up being all tied together while only relying on a modicum of contrivances. The surprisingly strong cast consists of Hillary Swank, Patrick Swayze, Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas, Rachel Leigh Cook, Clarke Gregg, Barbara Hershey and even a couple of minor appearances from Jason Segel and Rick Gomez – basically, you know everyone. So this gives 11:14 a strong nostalgia vibe, which carries it across its 86 minute runtime, avoiding any sensation that your brain might have died in the process. 6/10

The Report (2019): I love me some talky movies about political pressures and conspiracies. Starring Adam Driver, actor of the year with four major and diverse cinematic experiences, the film also gets the support of a bunch of high-profile actors, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm leading the pack. Together they make for a captivating and depressing viewing, in spite of delving dangerously into moralizing and preachy territory. Ultimately, The Report is a softcore Edward Snowden story, with a bit of nuance, greater focus and just as much passion in telling about the CIA’s inhumane treatment of detainees after 9/11. It’s not as fresh as it wants to be, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. 7/10

Movies of the Week #48 #49 (2019)

Doubles Vies (2018): Pretentious movies stick to me like flies to…cake, so it’s no wonder this talky French flick about books, technology and relationships tickled my fancy. I quite enjoyed Assayas’s previous two movies, Personal Shopper (2016) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), but Double Vies is a different adventure altogether. Fast paced, cerebral, yet not particularly contrarian, its punches land against protective gear – no splash of literal or metaphoric blood, so you’re either in it for the deluge of conversation topics it offers, or you’re not. With so many things up for debate, there are few comprehensive answers in store, just chunk-sized bites of our modern world, with firm and flashy judgments. Once I got into its rhythm, I became at ease with the movie, fully engaged, which is the most you could ask of Doubles Vies. My favourite form Assayas until now. 8/10

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019): I would describe the movie as 5% funny, 25% preachy, 25% sappy and 45% horror – which is not as bad as it sounds. Brittany is an overweight, irresponsible, mean-spirited, defensive mess and she turns it around in the span of one hundred minutes and almost two years. Legit. The movie feels real a lot of the time, which also makes it awkward and uncomfortable, unlike with the trailer might want you to believe. That’s not a problem per se, but it lays it on too heavily in the last third, for an underwhelming and thoroughly predictable conclusion. That being said, Jillian Bell, whom I’d recently seen in Sword of Trust, offers an intense performance, with a lot of variety, making for an additional argument in favour of seeing Brittany. 7/10

Pontypool (2009): I’ve seen my share of zombie movies and I never thought there could be a variation on the theme left untouched. Alas, there was, with Pontypool a sometimes confusing, often meta, but definitely innovative take on “infection” and “disease”. A less than cheerful host of a morning radio broadcast, Mazzy, goes into work on a seemingly innocuous winter’s day, that proves to be anything but. Together with only his producer and his technician (I think?), Sydney and Laurel-Ann, they try to make sense of what’s happening outside, in a world gone crazy that they have no eyes on. What’s real, what’s fake, what’s it all about? With a phenomenally meta climax and conclusion, this zombie movie turns out to be a creative take on the way that language conditions our lives. For a movie that came out more than ten years ago, it feels eerily prescient of things to come. If it wasn’t for a few pacing issues and certain scenes that could have done with sharper writing, this could have been an actual must-see for genre fans. As it stands, it’s still something pretty special. 8/10

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019): PBF proposes a light and easily likable story about Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome who escapes from an assisted facility to follow his dream of becoming a wrestler. Along the way, he gets entangled with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a good-for-nothing drifter with a big heart, and they set upon their adventure to find the “Salt Water Redneck”, a legendary wrestler of old. I’m not sure why wrestling is so “in” these years, but it sure suits Zak’s pursuits and makes for an engaging, humanistic story, if nothing more. 7/10

Tale of Tales (2015): It feels like I’ve postponed watching this one for way more than four years. Alas, in spite of a colourful set of stories, beautifully shot and boldly structured, Tale of Tales never really got going for me. Perhaps the issue lies with the structure, because the movie leaves it to the viewer to make out where something begins and where it ends, which means you never have time to settle and warm up to the plethora of characters and their peculiar fates. 6/10