In Spirited Away, the most critically acclaimed film in Hiyao Miyazaki’s extensive and oft-praised career, the most powerful and memorable image isn’t of wonders like a multi-armed spiderman operating a bellows or a dragon fleeing from a swarm of paper birds. These, and many others, fill Spirited Away, but an early shot wins out. It’s simply a broad-shouldered man, shot from a low angle, walking confidently forward. Through the eyes of pre-teen protagonist Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragai), daughter to the man, the whole world is captured in her gaze as she watches her father lead her into an unknown future. Her parents can lead her to the enchanted spa she finds herself stuck in, but she has to be the one to get out of it. That shot is so self-evidently loving, that it is enough to want Chihiro to escape a truly incredible place, one of cinema’s great fantasy locations. It’s the fulcrum on which the film is balanced, and it powers Miyazaki’s masterpiece as surely as that aforementioned spiderman powers the spa.
Modern media coverage guarantees that atrocities like mass shooting will now be covered for weeks, filling the public with dread and fear and morbid curiosity. The most recent (ugh) instance in Las Vegas shows no signs of abating two weeks later at the time of this review. In Keith Maitland’s meticulous reconstructing of the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting, the opposite was true. Despite the deaths of 16 people and the wounding of three times that number, there isn’t much sense given to a national rending of garments. The Austin campus was open for class the following day. Any national examination is concentrated in the detailed memories and lasting trauma of the survivors, the heroes, and the bystanders. Maitland’s Tower uses rotoscoping animation to capture the deadly drama, allowing the viewer to relive an incident widely credited with being the fulcrum on which the depressingly routine cycle of US mass shootings rests.
The textured moral world of Russian novels is alive and well in cinema, if Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is any indication. Zvyagintsev adapts the biblical story of Job to a Russia dominated by the kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin, an able stand-in for a capricious Old Testament god if ever there was one. Evoking deeply-felt character dramas like Kramer vs Kramer at the same time it constructs a fetid swamp reminiscent of Chinatown, Leviathan is a step up from Zvyagintsev's previous film Elena and one that marks his work as a must-see, if a must-see that requires some mental bracing.
Genius animator Hayao Miyazaki stretches his pacifist muscles in Howl's Moving Castle, a film produced and released during the run-up to and execution of the Second Gulf War. Outspoken in his opposition to military adventurism, Miyazaki puts anti-war critique side by side with magical scarecrows and obese witches. His best films, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, get their considerable power from small-scale emotions and a healthy helping of awe. Howl's Moving Castle retains these attributes but slightly muddles them with allegory and some jumbled storytelling.
Despite all kinds of useful research and technological advances, it seems like being a modern mother has never been more emotionally taxing. A never-ending stream of hysterical Mommy Blogs politicize every single decision a parent makes regarding her children. Hacky news reports raise the daily parenting stakes, elevating each purchase or choice or interaction as one that could doom a kid to mediocrity or worse. Toxins are everywhere and must be kept away from the sterile little angels fighting the urge to find out what dirt tastes like. Celebrity moms take great pains to make everything look easy, and if it's not, then buy this sponsored product that will make your life happier and healthier. All this nefarious marketing conspires to make women feel bad and doubt themselves while fathers seem to get copious praise for doing anything at all. This poison makes the culture ripe for a film like Bad Moms, and the cathartic premise itself likely contributed to its box office success. Moms behaving in their own self-interest to often funny results is a recipe for a timely statement on parenting, but writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore complicate the germ of the idea with inconsistent characterization and ridiculous plotting. There's enough here to recommend, but the total package is too sloppy to admire.
The easy line, and one I erased on a first draft, on Equity is that Anna Gunn, having played a critically beloved but widely and unjustly despised character on Breaking Bad, gets to take her own shot at anti-heroism. In actuality, there's no comparison between Gunn's terse, by-the-books investment banker character and the man she was married to on TV. One yells at an assistant in an imploding situation while the other contracts with neo-Nazi's to stage the simultaneous murders of a dozen men. Equity, an underseen financial drama by Meera Menon, brings those differences in perception to the surface. The female equivalent to violence and megalomania in male characters surely isn't a curt demeanor or a wariness about who could potentially supplant you in your competitive field. Why did I go straight to thinking of Naomi as an anti-hero instead of a protagonist?
The title of Sam Blair and Joe Martin's documentary Keep Quiet comes from an interview they conduct with a survivor of the Auschwitz death machine. She returned to her Hungarian home after the war, and found that the titular maxim was the best thing for her and her remaining family in a country that Adolph Eichmann said, at his trial, contained the most exuberant collaborators in rounding up Jews. She so closely stuck to her rules that her grandson, Csanad Szegedi, would help found a successful anti-Semitic fascist party in Hungary. Szegedi would live well into adulthood before he would take notice of the serial number tattoo on his grandmother's forearm. Keep Quiet is a bracing film with a foot in the present and a foot in the past, a reminder that the latter always informs the former. It's also a fascinatingly relevant picture of right-wing extremism, of the coded language and skillful, noxious messaging that continues to tap into the body politic's worst impulses.
The iconic xenomorph from the Alien franchise returns in Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, the eighth film featuring the xenomorph and the third with Scott at the helm. Covenant finds the franchise in an odd place. Prometheus, while a joy to look at, was a grandiose jumble of plot holes and mischaracterization, a descent for a franchise that experienced its greatest success in competent people experiencing primal, visceral horror. Covenant continues in both trends, finding biblical parables where none are necessary and grafting didactic motivations onto characters in pursuit of a muddled theme. It's a modest step up from Prometheus, but with so much proven potential for greatness around Alien, anything less than a hit is a disappointment.
In The Lost City of Z, well-regarded American director James Gray takes a page from legendary German director Werner Herzog. There's a fair amount of Fitzcarraldo in Gray's jungle-trekking protagonist Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), though Gray takes a far kinder view than Herzog towards the purpose of the onscreen mission. Where Herzog's favored lead, Klaus Kinski, was impossible to believe as a pure-hearted character and therefore was never cast as one, Gray's choice of Hunnam gives him a straightforward hero trekking towards his own glory and plugging away at the small-minded beliefs of his fellows. The Lost City of Z loses something in that uncomplicating, but still leaves the viewer with plenty to chew on. In this decades-spanning adventure, Gray weaves a dense tale of obsession, regret, and pride under the umbrella of imperialism.
Jordan Peele made his name as part of a comedy team known for sending up the interactions between black and white people, for finding the absurdities and inanities in what the latter expects from the former. Code-switching seemed to factor into every episode of Key and Peele, something the biracial Peele surely had to contend with as a child and as an adult. Peele brings that sensibility to Get Out, a Polanski-esque instant horror classic. The best horror films often contend with social commentary, and Get Out is no exception, taking the implicit envy white people have for black culture to an extreme conclusion. That the breakout critical and commercial hit of 2017 is also scathing and intelligent makes for a hopeful statement on the potentially increasing sophistication of the movie-going public.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.