Sunday, January 21, 2018

Enchanting and Entrancing: THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water
2017 - 123 minutes - Drama / Fantasy
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
Country: United States
IMDB: 7.9
RT: 92%

Guillermo del Toro loves to make creature features. From his 2006 masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth to his 2013 action extravaganza Pacific Rim, del Toro films tend to focus on supernatural monsters and their interactions with humans (both positive and negative). 

The Shape of Water is no different. This time, del Toro crafts a love story between two societal outcasts - a mute custodial worker on one side and a fish-person on the other. In fact, most of the film's characters are members of oppressed or marginalized groups, including Communists, African Americans, and homosexuals.

Set in the early 1960s during the height of the Cold War and Space Race, The Shape of Water features a conventional plot that unfolds mostly how one would expect. The dialogue is solid, and the acting across the board is quite good. Sally Hawkins, in particular, does a phenomenal job silently emoting through her facial expressions and sign language. The film also contains a number of interesting Biblical allusions (including the tales of Moses, Samson, and Delilah) which aid the viewer in interpreting the film's deliberately ambiguous ending. 

However, like most of del Toro's films, what makes The Shape of Water truly beautiful is a unique visual flair and direction that carries most of the film's emotional weight.  

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) comes face to face with the creature
First things first - the color palette in this movie is breathtaking. The film exudes warmth through a seamless blend of subtle blues, greens, and browns across set design, lighting,  costuming, and visual effects. Our protagonists are always framed using these warm colors. Conversely, when the film's villains appear, the colors shift to black and white, visually conveying their lack of any sort of moral spectrum or understanding. Without getting into too much detail, the primary antagonist wanes in color and complexion over time until he becomes a black and white husk without a trace of humanity by the film's climax.

Del Toro's visual flair behind the lens is on full display here. The film's opening and closing scenes in particular are some of the most beautiful and atmospheric sequences I've seen in recent years. Del Toro's direction and cinematography perfectly mirror the film's mood at all times and never become obtrusive or overbearing. The visuals are perfectly accompanied by a smoothly nostalgic score by Alexandre Desplat equal parts ethereal and heartwarming.

Del Toro's use of perspective is also a highlight of the film
I really don't want to say too much more about The Shape of Water for a few reasons. Firstly, because it tells a simple tale that I don't want to spoil, but more importantly, because I don't want to hype the film too much either. Del Toro's films are polarizing because he has a very unique style that folks usually tend to love or hate. I personally find myself on the "love" side of that spectrum, but totally understand those who don't. That said, I think most people with reasonable expectations can find something to enjoy in The Shape of Water, provided they are willing to dive headfirst into a rich and dark fairy tale with an open mind.


P.S. - I've been told the trailer contains A LOT of major spoilers, so I won't post it here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Love and Attention — Lady Bird

By Christian Sandler

I'm not sure why I find the coming-of-age genre so fascinating. Maybe it's because I experienced all of it. Maybe it's because it's so deeply moving. It's consistently the only genre that makes me feel nostalgic, awestruck, and full of life. Watching Lady Bird was like growing up again.

On the surface, there are plenty of differences between my childhood and Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's. I grew up in Tampa, she grew up in Sacramento. I went to a preppy suburban high school, she went to a small catholic school. I went by Chris because Christian wasn't cool enough, she went by Lady Bird because she never chose Christine. I'm a guy, she's a girl. Really, though, it's all the same. The details come second because every great coming of coming-of-age story is about the subject. It's about finding yourself and probably coming up short.

Saoirse Ronan, a stunning Irish actress in her early twenties, is seamlessly transformed into the edgy teenage outcast of Lady Bird on screen. She wears short, messy red hair and bracelets that clash with her school uniform. She's snarky, rebellious and doesn't have a clue about who she truly is or what she truly wants to do. She speaks maturely of leaving Sacramento behind to join writers in the woods of New Hampshire, but after she throws herself out of a car and breaks her arm, the cast is bright pink to go along with her bedroom decor.

It's not exactly this wildly original plot line — every high school has a Lady Bird. What makes the film so special is that all of these things happening, all of these seemingly uninteresting and commonplace obstacles of adolescence, seem to really matter. There are plenty that would argue nothing earth-shattering occurs in Lady Bird, but for someone like me that consistently thinks back to my time in high school and wonders just how it shaped me, everything happened.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig sends us plunging into Lady Bird's world in the opening scene of the film, a car ride with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. At first they seem to be enjoying each other's company, but soon the conversation shifts to a mother-daughter standoff. "I want to move out of Sacramento and live in a city with character, like New York." "We don't have money for that, Christine, we'll barely have enough for in-state tuition." You see where this is going.

I didn't throw myself out of a car when my parents told me I couldn't get out of Florida and go to Penn State, but I probably thought about it. Lady Bird's dream was one I just woke up from, and Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, captured scenes like this perfectly, because she lived them too. For so many high schoolers, senior year is a harsh, hazy gateway into a world that just has to be better. Lady Bird and I didn't appreciate it at the time.

The film coasts freely along the ups and downs of senior year, with Lady Bird falling in love and giving the school play a shot. She's somehow not good at math like her dad, so maybe theater is her calling. Maybe that's what she's been looking for. Breaking news: it's not. She disappoints her mom and spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend's family, only to watch the relationship crumble in an instant.

I remember lying in the grass under the same blanket of stars that Lady Bird did, telling someone I love them and thinking nothing else could possibly matter. Then suddenly, we aren't talking. Why aren't we talking?

The beauty of Gerwig's perspective as a thirty-something is that she can look back on the experience and laugh. Laugh at writing a guy's name on her bedroom wall and laugh about the painstakingly awkward conversations with her mom about having sex at a "good time." Adolescence is often hilarious, and Lady Bird is just that. Amidst all the raw and visceral emotion is Lady Bird's friend Julie drooling over the math teacher in front of his pregnant wife. It's throwing the teacher's grade book in the trash and buying a Playgirl magazine solely because she can. Gerwig handpicks and writes all of these moments flawlessly, as if they'll soon turn into memories that Lady Bird will fondly look back on.

In her solo directorial debut, she's also surprisingly slick with the camera. No one would have blamed her for "just close-ups of Saoirse Ronan's face" given her beauty, but Gerwig was very thoughtful with perspective. In a more playful scene filled with giggles, she shoots from above and captures an upside-down view of typical teenage girl dialogue. For the tense sequences, Ronan is often the sole focus. Lady Bird is masterful not only in its authenticity, but in its craftsmanship.

As senior year rolls along, Lady Bird has lost her virginity in a very unflattering and un-special way. It wasn't supposed to be like that. But with prom around the corner, she's in a tough spot. "Are we still going to prom together?" stands out as one of the most organic lines of the film. Such a letdown, such an awkward, hurtful letdown. But it's prom. It's the last dance.

I never went to prom. My senior year, the only girl on my mind was going with someone else, so there was no place for me. I never understood why it was so important. Lady Bird saw it differently, because as her new "friends" are ready to ditch and go to a house party instead, she decides it matters. She wants to go. In a night of rediscovery, she ends up dancing with Julie all night and taking silly prom pictures next to all the real couples.

I had this romantic idea of prom in my head, where I'd go with my girlfriend and I'd remember it for the rest of my life. Maybe Lady Bird will remember prom for the rest of her life in a totally different frame.

When she lives the dream and makes it to New York, all she can think about is Sacramento, the very place she'd been trying so desperately to escape. It was the same way for me. I made it to Penn State and now I joke with my friends about how much Tampa sucks. The truth is I miss it. It's pretentious, shitty, overcrowded, and too hot. But it's where I grew up. It's where my story unfolded.

High school was a winding roller coaster laced with bliss and heartbreak for me. Watching Lady Bird go through something so similar was a true emotional rush. I look back now and all I can do is thank my parents for what they gave me over those years. That's where the movie ends and where Christine grows up.

As a film enthusiast, I can respect what Lady Bird is. I can applaud the brilliance of Ronan and praise Gerwig for her extraordinary vision. It very well could win best picture and as a film, it would deserve it. But as a human, I can empathize with Lady Bird. As a 24 year old still trying to find myself, I can so fully and wholeheartedly relate to her. Nothing else makes me feel quite that way. Nothing else brings me to the verge of tears.

Lady Bird is an absolute coming-of-age marvel and like my adolescence, I'll never forget it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Far From Just Ordinary — Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder (2003)

(major spoilers below)

The American crime genre seems to have a very worn-out structure. We see crimes, we see suspects, we see a police investigation, and we see someone get caught. Maybe that's precisely what people want. By the end of the film or TV show, the stage is always clear for the next crime and the next set of cops. 

I think that's why I found Memories of Murder so haunting. By the end, the stage wasn't clear at all. The actors were starring back at the audience wondering who?, what?, how? as if nothing in the film happened. Where most stories would come full-circle, Joon-ho Bong's just stopped, creating a shape that would never be whole. In a lot of ways, it was far more chilling than any real suspect could be. 

On the surface, the storyline in Memories of Murder is quite familiar. Multiple murders break out in a small Korean province in 1986 and the police start to notice a trend — always female, always at night, always when it's raining. There's a good cop and bad cop, only the good cop is only good-ish. Detective Park Doo-man, played by famous Korean actor Kang ho-Song, claims he can see through every suspect. All he has to do is usher them to look into his eyes and he can decipher guilt from innocence. It's "how he survives as a detective," but on this case, it's not working. Detective Cho Yong-koo is slapping suspects around and kicking chairs over and nothing is coming of it. Not even coerced false confessions are making it go away.

Then the young hotshot violent-crimes detective from Seoul hits the scene. He's volunteering his time because at this point, the murders are being plastered all over the country. While Doo-man and Yong-koo interrogate and pressure suspects with their typical tactics, Seo Tae-yoon is in the background smoking a cigarette and contemplating his next move. This punk isn't the killer and he knows it.

It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? They'll keep investigating and eventually Tae-yoon will be one step ahead of the killer and catch him in the act. At one point early in his screen time, I even thought "I've seen all of this before." But Memories of Murder is like nothing I've ever seen before, and it didn't take long to realize it.

Tae-yoon, seen in the far left, isn't on board
Like all great thrillers, the film builds tension in seemingly trivial scenes. Every conversation and every shot has a purpose. Sometimes it's a slow-burn to the next light bulb going off and sometimes it's out of the blue. It's all thoroughly effective because it's not quite predictable. There's no pattern to anything unfolding, but it's all shot smoothly and it's often accompanied by an eerie score from Taro Iwashiro. Bong has everything envisioned perfectly and all you can do is watch.

He even manages to successfully intertwine some dark humor throughout the story, which doesn't seem to call for it all. Rumors are swirling throughout Gyunggi of the police torturing innocent people inside their headquarters, and at one point late in the film, it's not getting anywhere. Everyone in the building is going through the motions when Tae-yoon comes in and proves what they're doing is a waste of time. Off in another room, the sergeant hands Yong-koo a piece of rope and nonchalantly asks 'Have we hung him from the ceiling yet?"

In the middle of a terrifying killing spree that's based on real murders from the time period, what place could cheeky little one-liners like that have in the script? I don't know, but it works. Normally, I'd find them distracting, unfunny, irrelevant, or all of the above, but in Memories of Murder, they just seemed to work.

Some of Bong's cinematography at work
Really, everything works. Everything in the film works while absolutely nothing in the investigation works. The suspect leaves no evidence at the scene. It's always raining, so footprints are smudged. He's precise and professional and everyone's dumbfounded. It gets to the point where every time it rains, they declare a state of emergency and send cops everywhere. The entire province is safely indoors and yet, he kills again.

What's truly refreshing about Memories of Murder is very little of the actual crime is shown. You don't have to see it. A few sharp takes before or a couple post-mortem shots is all it takes because the atmosphere is so engrossing. It's all frightening enough on its own, and that's hard to pull off.

The film's most climactic scene comes after the final murder. Tae-yoon knew the killer would strike again and let his prime suspect get away the night prior, causing a major guilt trip. He storms to the suspect's house, pulls him aside to some desolate train tracks and resorts to what he doesn't stand for. He's punching him, throwing him to the ground and pointing a gun in his face until he gets a confession. "I killed them all. That's what you want to hear isn't it?" Except, it's not. He didn't do it. 

Doo-man bursts onto the scene with the paperwork they've been waiting for. Without advanced-enough technology in Korea at the time, they had to send a crime-scene sample off to America in hopes of matching DNA. It doesn't match. This isn't the killer. Doo-man is staring deeply into his eyes. The camera is zoomed in tightly on his face for an uncomfortable amount of time. It's haunting because it's not even him. The detectives desperately need him to be the killer and he simply disappears into the darkness of a tunnel, still in handcuffs. 

Memories of murder
Normal films might end there. It was fitting enough. That was their last chance of cracking the case and it evaporated. But what Bong has in store is far more captivating. He flashes forward, years after the crime spree caused Doo-man to quit the police force. As he's driving by the field that sparked the entire story, he tells the driver to pull over. He meanders down the dirt road and bends over to peer into a small tunnel. It's where he found the first body. 

A little girl comes by and asks what he's looking at. "Just looking," he says. And that's mysterious to her because not long before that, another man came by and was doing just that. He had memories there from years ago and just came back to look. Stunned, it occurs to Doo-man that it was him. He came back to the scene. The killer was there.

"What did he look like?" he asks. The little girls struggles to answer. "Well...kind of plain. Just...ordinary." Doo-man's stare into the camera gets deeper and deeper. He's looking into the lens, into the audience, into the world, in search of the killer. How will he ever be found? Who is he?

They'll never know.

— EE

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Revolutionary Genius of Survivor

Survivor: Borneo (2000)

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Three simple words that redefined the landscape of network programming and ushered in the golden age of reality television.

Survivor, like many reality shows born in the early 2000s, is still around today. While the show has long lost the originality that made its first season so groundbreaking, the fact it's still going strong 17 years and 34 seasons later is a testament to the strength of its brand and loyalty of its fanbase (around 10 million people still tune in to each episode).

While the show has devolved to a parody of its former self, it's hard to overstate how big of a deal the first season of Survivor (later re-titled Survivor: Borneo) was when it premiered back in 2000. The show's mammoth popularity is largely credited for the introduction of the Emmy category for best reality competition program in 2003. An estimated 51.7 million people watched the finale on August 23, 2000, with 125 million tuning in for at least part of it. 

To put those numbers in perspective, the US population hovered at about 281 million in 2000. So around 18.5% of the population of the entire United States sat down in front of the TV and watched the 2-hour finale to a show in its first season. Barring high-profile sporting events (e.g. the Superbowl), numbers like that are unheard of for network television nowadays. (Fun fact: it also put a decisive end to the reign of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as the most popular show on television at the time.)

The zeitgeist surrounding the airing of Borneo represents one of the most significant events in the history of American television. So what made it so popular? 

"Got Milk" ad campaign capitalizing on the popularity of the show

I decided to sit down and watch the show to find out. I was a fan of Survivor back in middle school and watched several seasons with my family in the mid-2000s. However, I didn't watch the original season when it aired, and as an adult, I had always dismissed the
Survivor franchise as just another manifestation of trashy, low-brow reality entertainment. 

The verdict? I. Was. Blown. Away.

The show is absolutely worth watching and holds up incredibly well to this day. Two characteristics make it so captivating: its documentary-style tone and its outstanding cast of everyday people from across the canvass of American society.

The show opens with 16 strangers scrambling to salvage as many supplies as they can from a boat before being forced to paddle on crude rafts to a remote island off the coast of Borneo. They arrive on two beaches and quickly have to find water and shelter, all while working with a group of strangers with which they have no preexisting bonds of trust. Friendships are formed, conflicts arise, and we watch as these people struggle to survive - going hungry for days and braving the elements -  all while navigating the foreign rules of a competition where the castaways are forced to vote one another off the island. 

The original 16 castaways on Survivor: Borneo
Borneo's paltry budget and modest production values made the show lean and mean and feel more like a documentary than standard TV entertainment. Subsequent seasons of Survivor featured massive competition set pieces and slick editing, but Borneo just feels really gritty and down-to-earth. 

Regardless of the show's tone, watching 16 strangers mope around on a deserted island for 39 days would grow dull quickly if the cast weren't so darn interesting. Several castaways became national celebrities as the show aired - particularly Richard, Kelly, Susan, and Rudy - but pretty much everyone that washed up on the beach on day 1 had their own unique story to tell. The producers did a fantastic job in selecting a group of individuals who in many ways reflected America as a whole.

Watching these people interact is absolutely riveting. In many ways Borneo feels like a social experiment - how will strangers act and react when deprived of food and modern amenities and thrown into an extremely high-stress situation? We witness friendship, loathing, competition, attraction, sorrow, despair, and more. 

The castaways arrive on the beach on Day 1
At the time, reality TV was in its infancy, and many of the well-established tropes of the genre (forming alliances, practicing open deception while claiming the excuse "it's just a game," etc.) hadn't yet been formed. As a result, we witness many castaways take issue with the ethics of the game - i.e. coping with the fact that only one winner can take home the $1 million prize, and can only do so outlasting everyone else by voting their peers off the island. Who's the most deserving? Who's the best player? Who's the best person? These are all questions raised by the castaways as they determine the fate of the others on the island.

Several struggle with setting aside their own personal ethics to advance in the game, some have no issue whatsoever compartmentalizing the game from reality, and others refuse to participate altogether, openly disdaining the nature of the game and rejoicing when they are finally voted off. In this regard, Borneo is vastly different from later seasons, where all 16 castaways arrive ready to lie and cheat their way to the money. 

The two original tribes - Tagi and Pagong
In retrospect, it's easy to look back and blame Borneo for the deluge of trashy reality shows that would follow in its footsteps. However, the first season of Survivor stands out for its creativity, originality, and execution, and deserves credit for the massive impact it had on the network television landscape. Like it or not, Survivor is one of the most influential franchises of all-time, and any serious lover of TV history should take the time to check out the first season. Not just because of its historical significance (though that's reason enough), but because at the end of the day, it's damn good television.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan - West Side Story

West Side Story (1961)

I spent most of my academic life ensconced in every type of musical ensemble imaginable. No surprise, then, that I've been intimately familiar with the superb score to West Side Story for quite some time. One of Leonard Bernstein's most famous compositions, it melds the traditions of musical theatre with the bombastic leitmotifs of Romanticism, all injected with a substantial dose of American jazz. 

Most musicals contain one or two truly memorable songs; WSS gave us a litany - from "Maria" to "America." I cued up the full WSS soundtrack while at work a few weeks back and - shocker - had difficulty getting much work done. At that time I came to the realization I had never actually listened to the entire score from beginning to end. It's a well-known masterpiece, of course, and remains delightfully infectious. The mixture of Bernstein's raucous riffs with Stephen Sondheim's legendary lyrics combine to produce a simply unforgettable aural experience.

Shortly after plowing through the soundtrack a half-dozen times, I also realized I had never seen the famous cinematic adaptation of the original musical. Released in 1961 to much fanfare, WSS won 10 Oscars (including Best Picture). Rightfully considered a classic, I checked out a copy from my local library and sat down to watch it.

The Sharks (left) and the Jets (right) face off
While it definitely shows its age at times, WSS is a film that I think everyone should see at least once. The plot of film is essentially a modern re-telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in 1950's Manhattan. Two street gangs, one white (the Jets), the other Puerto Rican (the Sharks), are tussling over turf on the Upper West Side. In the midst of their brawling, a young Puerto Rican woman (Maria) and a former member of the Jets (Tony) meet and fall for each other. Like Shakespeare's play, the story ends in tragedy, with conflict between the warring gangs, and Tony slain by a member of the Sharks.

The story is nothing to write home about - it unfolds predictably and with no real twists or turns. What really makes the film outrageously memorable isn't the tragedy of of its star-crossed lovers, but the outstanding score and lyrics - and, of course, like many an excellent musical, the staging and choreography of its dance sequences.

The Sharks showing off their stuff
Choreographed by Jerome Robbins and directed by Robert Wise to perfection, the dance sequences in WSS are simply extraordinary. From the inventive staging and camera angles, to the impressively technical choreography and splendid costuming, the numerous ensemble dance numbers in the film are a sight to behold. Expertly edited and accompanied by Bernstein's rousing score, each song features a wide variety of moods and moves. The diversity of set pieces and styles is really astounding, and the visual direction of each scene perfectly mirrors the music and movement unfolding on screen.

The opening scene ("Prologue"), in particular, is a fantastic example of the best the WSS has to offer. The film opens with a series of panning shots across the cityscape of Manhattan. Accompanied by whistling tri-tones, an extended unison note slowly swells and swells until exploding into a biting resolution while the camera simultaneously zooms at light speed to the Jets, cloistered together in the corner of a basketball court. What follows is 10 minutes of beautifully staged and choreographed dancing as the Jets and Sharks go toe-to-toe. No dialogue, just Bernstein's wonderful music.

The first time we meet the Jets
That's not to say we don't want the gangs to talk! Once they start singing you'll wish they'd never stop. Sondheim's energetic lyrics mix incisive social commentary, lighthearted gamesmanship, and pure machismo while critiquing a range of societal ills omnipresent in 1950's New York - from racism to drug abuse. The film's subject matter is surprisingly progressive given the fact it was released in 1961, and a few couplets in particular remain pretty relevant today:

"Our mothers all are junkies / our fathers all are drunks / golly, Moses / naturally we're punks!"

"Life is alright in America / if you're all-white in America!"

The Jets try to play it "Cool" in an explosive dance number near the end of the film
Despite the sheer exuberance and energy exuded throughout most of the film, WSS does drag in spots. The main romance between Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) is painfully unconvincing. Part of that may be because the acting hasn't aged all that well, but the over-the-top faux-Shakespearean writing doesn't help things either. Though their love affair is supposed to be the centerpiece of the film, I just found myself wanting the Sharks and Jets back on the screen, and for people to start singing and dancing again. 

While the film's leads certainly fizzle, WSS has a whole swath of outstanding supporting characters. Two in particular stand out - Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. They play a pair of Puerto Rican lovers and steal every scene they're in with a fiery chemistry that totally outshines the dry, wooden interactions of Beymer and Wood. The duo sang, danced, and acted to a pair of well-deserved Supporting Acting Oscars. Moreno later went on to become the first woman EGOT - winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.

Despite a few lulls here and there, West Side Story remains an outstanding film that still holds up well today over 50 years later. The music and choreography make it worth watching alone. Throw in outstanding direction along with a cast of memorable characters, and you have yourself a musical accessible for all ages.


Not sure if WSS is for you? Check out "America":

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What is Fooly Cooly?

FLCL (2000)

What is fooly cooly? 

That's just one of many questions raised over the course of the 6-episode animation Fooly Cooly (FLCL). Most of these questions never get fully answered, and when they are, it's usually in the most oblique and abstract manner possible. 

Normally, that phenomenon irritates me to no end (see: Lost). It didn't bother me one bit while watching FLCL. I'll get to why that's the case in a bit.

FLCL takes place in the fictional Japanese town of Mabase and centers on the life of a 12-year old boy named Naota. The show opens with Naota musing that nothing ever happens in his town; everything is ordinary. The weather is tranquil, the streets quiet, and the scenery undistinguished — with the glaring exception of a massive factory operated by the enigmatic corporation Medical Mechanica. Naota seethes with pubescent brooding, interacting with friends and family in the most aloof fashion possible and spending his afternoons wasting time with the 17 year-old girlfriend of his absent older brother (who moved to the USA to play baseball). 

The Medical Mechanica factory looms over the town of Mabase

It is against this backdrop that an eccentric pink-haired woman named Haruko runs Naota over with her bright yellow Vespa and proceeds to smack him in the forehead with a bass guitar. Soon afterwards, a horn grows out of his head, and all sorts of strange (and I mean very strange) things start happening.

Haruko and Naota

FLCL's narrative starts off on this bizarre note and only becomes more hyperactive over the course of six zany episodes. The show speeds along at a blistering pace. Art styles shift from scene to scene and the mood alternates between comedic to somber to sensual to meta in the blink of an eye. All sorts of references abound — from American pop culture (one scene is drawn in the style of South Park) to European fairy tales (one episode is a modern retelling of the 17th-century tale Puss In Boots). Given the rapid pacing and sheer volume of insanity unfolding on screen, I had a hard time following the plot my first viewing. However, like I said earlier, that didn't really matter to me. Watching FLCL is an experience more than anything else, an experimental audiovisual thrill-ride that invoked in me equal parts nostalgia and excitement.

These unique characteristics helped FLCL break out of the traditional Japanimation mold upon its release in 2000.  However, the show is more than just a patchwork of allusions and art styles aimed at subverting the expected normalcy of narrative cohesion. At its core, FLCL is a coming of age story, and a potent allegory for the absolute madness that nearly all human beings undergo as they transition into adulthood — puberty.

FLCL pays homage to South Park

When we first meet Naota, he's doing all he can to maintain a facade of stoicism while surrounded by a sea of immaturity. All of the adults in Naota's life don't act like adults. Or rather, they don't act how he (with his 12-year old worldview) thinks adults should act. He views his father and grandfather as lecherous old men, his teacher as an incompetent hack, and Mamimi (his brother's girlfriend) as a chain-smoking truant. And we, the viewer, see them in a similar light. 

However, as the show progresses, it becomes apparent that Naota is in fact no more mature than the rest of them. Like many kids entering their teens, Naota holds himself in higher esteem than everyone around him. By assuming an aloof and disinterested demeanor, Naota seeks to elevate himself above the adults in his life, all of who he views as irresponsible. But in reality, Naota has yet to grow up and escape the familiarity of childhood (represented metaphorically by the "ordinary" surroundings of Mabase). Naota remains fearful of the unknown, and even more fearful of actually expressing himself.

Naota retreats from the advances of his student class president, Ninamori.

Enter Haruko. A dynamic ball of unpredictability, Haruko smashes into Naota's life, breaking down barriers between fantasy and reality. She rips him out of his comfort zone and kick starts his libido. At first, he protests vigorously, rebuking her ideas and actions, retreating to the safety of his routine. However, over the course of the narrative, Naota slowly becomes more assertive and sure of himself. His progression mirrors that of many a teenager moving through puberty, from awkward fumbling to assured confidence to heady arrogance before finally petering out and landing in adulthood. Through a series of harrowing adventures, Naota is forced to face the reality of his coming of age.

FLCL lives on extended metaphors that underlie Naota's arc. They include the aforementioned childhood metaphors, as well as a host of innuendos, some subtle, others anything but. However, by far the most important one involves the refrain Haruko repeats to Naota throughout the duration of episode 4 — "nothing can happen until you swing the bat." As in, you'll never get anywhere until you put yourself out there and start taking chances. This is the true turning point of FLCL, where Naota starts to grow. He certainly hasn't abandoned all the vestiges of pre-pubescence just quite yet, but finally takes his first step out from beneath the shadow of his older brother. Of course, FLCL being what it is, this metaphor plays itself out literally on screen, as Naota is forced to save the planet from a giant baseball hurled through the Earth's atmosphere by, you guessed it, swinging his bat (erm, well a guitar, but you get the picture).

Naota swings his bat

One of FLCL's less-than-subtle instances of innuendo

At the end of FLCL's six short episodes, everything has changed, yet at the same time, nothing has changed. Naota is a fundamentally different person, yet his life in Mabase is fundamentally the same. He's fallen in love, yet he's also learned to move on. He's finally learned what it means to be an adult, yet this means that he's finally learned the truth — that just because one is an adult doesn't mean they know all the answers. To a certain extent, everyone out there in the world makes it up as they go along; the world doesn't get any less strange or inexplicable as one gets older. And in arriving at this revelation, Naota follows in the footsteps of many before him who have made the journey through puberty. The world's not a different place; he just views it through a new lens.

Haruko leaves Mabase - and Naota

So what is fooly cooly, aside from the eponymous title of the show? We get hints that it could mean all sorts of things - sex, life, coming of age - but it's never made quite clear to us. But again, none of that really matters. One rarely gets answers to all of life's questions throughout its ever-winding course. As always, life is about the journey, what you make of it, and whether or not you're willing to swing the bat.


P.S. - I would be remiss not to mention the fantastic soundtrack that accompanies FLCL. Written and performed by the Japanese rock band The Pillows, the entirety of the show unfolds with music in the background, music that perfectly captures the wistful nostalgia one feels when reminiscing about their formative teenage years. Check out one of the best tracks below:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The 'Force' is Strong with This One — ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

2016 — 133 minutes — Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Director: Gareth Edwards
Country: United States
IMDB: 8.1
Metacritic: 65
RT: 85%

EpicEnthusiast's Rating: C

Watch this movie if you enjoy: 
  • Star Wars
  • Felicity Jones
  • visually appealing Sci-Fi's

Avoid this movie if you dislike:
  • Star Wars
  • excessive drama
  • long films

(spoilers below)

I'm worried that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the new norm. I'm worried that all future Star Wars directors will be setting out not to make a great film, but to make a great Star Wars film. 

I'm worried that all future Star Wars films will have way too much of the "Force."

If you saw the Rogue One teaser trailer, chances are you were very intrigued like I was. In fact, I've never been so intrigued by a Star Wars film. The Force Awakens was a huge deal and the official return of the franchise last year, but Rogue One's storyline was captivating. Stealing the Death Star plans essentially sparked the entire saga, and it absolutely called for its own film.

Felicity Jones, the sirens, Forest Whitaker, "I rebel," Felicity Jones. Yeah, I'm in.

The problem is, aside from some of the footage, almost none of this trailer was in the actual film. Not really shocking, but by the end of Rogue One, contrary to its theme, I didn't have much "hope" for the franchise.

And let me be clear: I am far from a Star Wars fanboy. My only connection to the universe is I've seen all the movies. If I was a mega Star Wars fan, though, I'd feel like Rogue One was just one giant piece of bait swinging in front of my face. Like many shots in the film were solely included because they would appeal to the fanbase. I'd even feel manipulated.

That's because throughout Rogue One director Gareth Edwards includes forced, fan-focused sequences that just don't need to be there.

The film opens with a shot we've seen before: an imperial ship approaching and landing on a remote planet in search of something/someone. This time, they're looking for Galen Erso, a former imperial engineer that is being called upon again to work on the Death Star. He expected this day to come and urges his wife and daughter (Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones) to hide out in an underground bunker. On her way to safety, Jyn turns around and witnesses the troopers kill her rebelling mother before she avoids detection and retreats to the bunker. While it's nothing original, it's an effective opening. A true rebel is born.

We first see Jones as a grown up Jyn in imperial custody and she proves fit for the role from the get-go. She's so stubborn and independent that she fights off would-be rebel rescuers on a transport vehicle. She's been through it all and she trusts no one. 

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso
The only thing holding her back is a limited screenplay. Writing has never really been the strength of Star Wars films, but in Rogue One, drama takes over. Lines like "Everything I've done, I've done for the rebellion" and "You're not the only one that's lost everything" wear a bit thin by the end of film. We know what the cause is and we know it's worth fighting for. 

Like many prequels, that's really what the film suffers from most — we know too much. Yes, when Jyn sees her father's hologram message about how he secretly planted a mechanical fault in the Death Star and how she's the rebellion's last hope it's emotional, but when she's initially denied by the rebel council after a speech about how "rebellions are built on hope," it's not as impactful as it could be because we know, in one way or another, they're going to infiltrate the imperial base and attempt to steal the plans.

"Rebellions are built on hope" is actually a very symbolic line when it comes to Rogue One. Jones delivers it perfectly, but ultimately it sounds far better than her future actions depict. She successfully poses as an imperial trooper with Cassian Andor and K-2SO (think snarky, C3PO-esque droid) and even when she's confronted by Director Krennic (commanding imperial officer) at the top of the transmitting tower that will transmit the plans to the rebellion, we know she's not really in danger. Sure enough, Andor recovers from being shot and falling onto a platform to shoot Krennic and save Jyn.

Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe
But wait, the plans haven't reached Princess Leia yet, because the physical file has to be delivered and the door is jammed. Oh, and Darth Vader is coming. 

Now, I'll admit, this sequence is pretty badass. In a homage to his first appearance in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Vader breaks through a door and appears from the blackness with his red saber to slaughter a hallway full of rebels. Is it necessary? No, because the rebel at the end of the hallway simply hands the file off through the jammed door. 

It looked awesome, though. Much of the film did did. The strength is unquestionably its visuals. Edwards succeeds in creating the quintessential Star Wars atmosphere that make the films so engrossing. Sprawling landscapes and smooth fly-by space shots from cinematographer Greig Fraser make Rogue One watchable. 

And it is watchable. It's just much more dramatic than it needs to be. In the original script, all of the main characters survived. Eventually, though, Edwards pitches to Disney to kill them off heroically in the name of the rebellion — to his surprise, he gets the green light. So, in the revised script, each one of the main characters gets their own overblown, melodramatic death shot. In Saw Gerrera's (Forest Whitaker) case, we know almost nothing about him. Just that he fought the rebel fight and left Jyn behind on some mission. We don't know much about any of the main characters, actually.

So, why can't they just get shot like everyone else? Why does Donnie Yen's character (an older blind man in touch with the force) have to walk across the battlefield and open up a communication line for the rebels before perishing in an explosion? Why can't Vader slaughter the main characters like Edwards and company pondered? Disney, I guess.

Stormtroopers on the beach, oh my
So much of Rogue One felt like trying too hard. So much of it felt forced. Just because you find old film canisters from the original trilogy in the Lucas Films warehouse doesn't mean you have to insert them into the new film.

I fully understand that Rogue One is not only part of a franchise, but part of an entire culture. I understand that if R2D2 and C3PO aren't thrown into the film to retain the only "been in every Star Wars film" credit or that if there isn't at least one lightsaber, backlash from the fans is coming. But can't you just make a great film? There's never anything wrong with that.

For such a gutsy mission and a monumental story, there really isn't anything gutsy or monumental about Rogue One.

— EE

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Seamless Real-Life Masterpiece — MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

2016 — 137 minutes — Drama
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Country: United States
IMDB: 8.5
Metacritic: 96
RT: 97%

EpicEnthusiast's Rating: A

Watch this movie if you enjoy: 
  • dramas
  • Casey Affleck
  • small town stories/New England
  • Michelle Williams

Avoid this movie if you dislike:
  • profanity
  • family dramas

(spoilers below)

Manchester by the Sea is the type of film you wish would keep going, but you couldn't possibly ask anything more of.

The story revolves around Casey Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman that seems dead inside. He moves from building to building unclogging toilets, shoveling snow and painting walls with little to no positive emotion and eventually receives a phone call that forces him to drive back up to his hometown.

We find out that Chandler is dead inside much before we find out why he's so reluctant to go back to Manchester-by-the-Sea (a real town on the northern coast of Massachusetts, population roughly 5,000), but the circumstances more than serve as a proper build-up to the unspeakable tragedy he can't get past.

Lee's brother Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, has suddenly passed away and he's called on Lee to be the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick, in his will. The problem is they never discussed it and as director/writer Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) made clear in the opening minutes of the film, Lee is far from fit to be a parent. Not like he used to be.

Casey Affleck (right) as Lee Chandler and Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler.
His relationship with Patrick is one you might expect from a deeply scarred uncle and a grieving nephew. It's often awkward, unsure and filled with profanity. But like just about everything in Manchester by the Sea, it's incredibly real.

Matt Damon, a producer of the film, was originally set to direct and star as Lee, and despite what he brings to the screen, the story benefitted greatly from his scheduling conflicts (The Martian). It's tough to imagine Damon in such a hard-hitting, small-town role that demands so much. He's a far cry from the young, feisty Boston janitor in Good Will Hunting.

Affleck, however, plays Lee to perfection. His scruffy hair, worn-out t-shirts and bar fights are fitting because they're real. When Lonergan finally gives us the source of his grief in a somehow seamless, gut-wrenching flashback, it's heartbreaking not only in nature, but because Lee was content just prior. In an earlier flashback of the same night, we see him drunk, laughing and messing around with friends in the basement. It's one of the few times in the film we see Lee smiling.

The contrast of what happens later in the evening is dangerously sharp, and it's Affleck that makes it so devastating. Lonergan said, "People find ways to live with tragedy. But some people don't. And maybe they deserve to get a movie about them, too." They certainly do, and Affleck follows up noteworthy roles in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone, and Out of the Furnace with an unquestioned career best.

His Oscar-worthy performance dominates the screen and carries you seamlessly through the story. The entire film is seamless.

Lee (Casey Affleck) with his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lee Chandler is a fascinating character that intersects with a vulnerable teenager in need of an adult figure in his life. Sure, Patrick has two girlfriends, cusses at his hockey coach and is sometimes unlikeable. He's flawed, just like Lee is flawed. And by the end of the film, they need each other.

That's why the plot details don't matter. You trust Lonergan as a storyteller very early on and know that whatever happens to Lee and Patrick will be authentic. It might be troubling and it might be painful, but real life often is. Manchester by the Sea is about real life.

So much so that arguably its most impactful scene takes place in a beat-up old alleyway of Manchester-by-the-Sea. While Lee is still in town taking care of funereal arrangements and living with Patrick, he runs into his ex-wife Randi, played by Michelle Williams. Randi is walking with her friend and newborn son and stops Lee to talk.

She "doesn't have anything big to say," but wants to apologize for things she said to him after the accident. She admits that, despite a new husband and a new child, she loves Lee. "Maybe she shouldn't say that," but Lee tells her she's allowed to say that. He can't stay and talk and he can't have lunch with her in the future, but she's allowed to say that.

Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler speaking with Lee.
How is that one of Manchester by the Sea's most memorable and impactful scenes involves a character that's on screen for just a few minutes? Michelle Williams deserves a lot of the credit and will have a fourth chance at an Oscar. Primarily, though, it's because Lonergan's dialogue is impeccable. As if he took his camera crew up to a little town in Massachusetts and somehow came across a startling example of pure, raw human emotion.

It's the kind of story that can only take place in a town like Manchester-by-the-Sea. A story that's too big for Hollywood. Lonergan has absolute control over it and in just his third feature film, he's created a masterpiece.

The scenes that make it so touching are the ones that maybe even he wasn't planning on. The scenes where Patrick tells Lee "Let's just go" and Lee thinks he means let's drive away and not go see his dead father inside the hospital, so he floors it while Patrick is getting out of the car. They shout, they tell each other off and they apologize.

They co-exist in a town, in a life, that is severely messed up. So messed up that the every-day moviegoer can relate to it. It's not often that a filmmaker is so brutally honest with the audience.


As of December 21, 2016, Manchester by the Sea is in theaters everywhere.