Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Film (page 4 of 14)

Thoughts on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Whenever the punching started, Thor: Ragnarok felt like a Marvel movie. Once the punching stopped, it felt like a Taika Waititi movie. Luckily Waititi’s mark on the movie is strong enough to overwhelm the underwhelming elements.

The Thor movies are my least favorite of the MCU thus far—I dare you to tell me anything about The Dark World—and I think Marvel understood that, which explains the left-field choice of Waititi. The goofy, laid back, self-effacing style of comedy he brings to what’s otherwise standard superhero fare follows the trail blazed by Guardians of the Galaxy but also ends up on a planet of its own.

It’s a damn shame Cate Blanchett’s Hela—Thor’s banished sister and Goddess of Death—is relegated to the film’s B-story. Not only is she a way better villain than Loki, Blanchett looks like she was having a ball. Alternating between petulant narcissism and terrifying fury, she’s like if Galadriel took the One Ring when Frodo offered it and went on a Middle-earth killing spree, demon antlers in tow. She deserves to be in more Marvel movies.

Jeff Goldblum seems to have achieved a kind of Bill Murray status where he is effusively praised for repeatedly playing himself.

Move over, School of Rock. “Immigrant Song” has a new movie home.

Guess the movie

Movie trailers usually spoil too much so I try to get to theater showings late to avoid them. But since I was right on time to Thor: Ragnarok, these were the trailers I saw: Jumanji, Pacific Rim Uprising, Justice League, Black Panther, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Guess which one made me literally say “Oh hell yeah.”

I’m assuming the Jumanji trailer already used up the good jokes. Didn’t see the first Pacific Rim and I thought this was another Transformers, so no. The latest Star Wars interests me only because Rian Johnson is directing. Justice League might be good if Wonder Woman isn’t the only good thing about it.

So the winner is: Black Panther. Lupita N’yong’o! Michael B. Jordan as the villain! Non-CGI Andy Serkis for once! Ryan Coogler directing! Sign me up.

Media of the Moment

I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.

So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.

Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.

The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.

Columbus

Columbus, the first feature film of the talented film essayist Kogonada, calls enough attention to its subjects to captivate viewers but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit, which is usually a formula for great cinema.

Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, a recent high school graduate, works at the library in Columbus, a small Indiana town that’s a mecca for modernist architecture. She lives with and cares for her mom, a recovering addict now working in a factory. She says she loves Columbus, but you get the sense she’s also stuck in it.

Then there’s John Cho’s Jin, a literary translator who comes to town when his architecture professor father suddenly falls ill before a lecture. The two meet by chance as Jin holds a grudging vigil for his comatose father, whom he openly resents despite, or because of, his academic renown.

Sensing a spiritual match in the other, they wander Columbus looking at the modernist buildings, looking and wondering at each other, and looking inward, perhaps in search for what Jin’s father referred to as “modernism with a soul.” They struggle with their pasts and parents as they struggle toward a companionship that takes as many forms in their few days together as the buildings they gaze at.

They begin as strangers, become debate partners, and end up confidantes as they forge a temporary intimacy borne out of commonalities, though sometimes tensed by their differences.

The burdens they wrestle with—Jin with resentment toward his ailing father and Casey with her traumatic past—loom almost as large as the buildings, captured with determined stillness by Kogonada both as background scenery and as havens for Casey and Jin’s ambling.

The power Kogonada gives to moments of silent observation is the film’s strength (even if it made it seem a tad too long). In that way Columbus felt like a Midwestern version of This Is Martin Bonner, with characters yearning for connection while trying to soldier through minor existential crises in an alienating modern milieu.

I’d only seen Cho as Sulu in the new Star Trek franchise and Richardson as Hailee Steinfeld’s friend in The Edge of Seventeen, so they both kinda blew me away here. Bolstered by Parker Posey and Rory Culkin in supporting roles—Culkin’s conversations with Casey in the Columbus library about literature and librarianship made me smile—the two leads shoulder the film equally and prove as complex as their surroundings.

Grateful as always to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for bringing in movies like this.

The People’s Machine: On ‘California Typewriter’

As was the case with Tom Hanks’s new typewriter-inspired short story collection, I was the easiest mark in the world for the new Doug Nichol documentary California Typewriter, which profiles the titular typewriter repair shop in Berkeley and the wider place of the typewriter in modern culture.

Though I’ve been anticipating the film for a while, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be partially an adaptation of Richard Polt’s seminal The Typewriter Revolution and partially a meditation by figures famous and otherwise on the machine’s enduring value in the midst of its obsolescence. All together a collection of vignettes revolving around their common theme, the film works as a primer for the uninitiated as well as an adoring homage for the converted.

There are three main stories weaving throughout the film: the collector Martin Howard on a pilgrimage to snag an original 19th-century Sholes and Glidden, the California Typewriter shop struggling to survive in a defunct industry, and the artist Jeremy Mayer reusing parts from decommissioned typers to create some pretty incredible sculptures:

Together they neatly represent the past, present, and future of typewriters, but the shop narrative is the lynchpin. Owned by an African-American family for over 35 years, it’s now the most prominent representative of a dying breed. Even with the recent resurgence of interest, the decades of experience repairman Ken Alexander and his cohort have is a finite supply. And without high-quality typewriters being manufactured, that supply will only dwindle from here.

Still, notable typists have their reasons for sticking with typewriters. Tom Hanks has over 200 of them, many of which he gives away. (He names his favorites, two of which I own and share his opinion on.) David McCullough has been using the same hulking Royal Standard for over 50 years now in his drool-worthy writing cabin. (Against the conventional wisdom of modern gadgets, he says, “I don’t want to faster. I want to go slower.”) John Mayer got one in a bid for more permanence with his work and started writing lyrics with it. The late great Sam Shepard waxes eloquent about his Hermes 3000 and speaks to the benefits of its rituals, like how rolling in a new page is akin to saddling a horse for a job or journey.

The film is beautifully shot and edited by Nichol, whose eye as a commercial and music video cinematographer finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes. A junkyard pile of cars that mirror the piles of discarded typers in Mayer’s studio. A reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto contrasted with footage of Apple fanatics lining up for the latest iDevice. But Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.

One collector mentions the typewriter subculture is almost exclusively men. Though technically inaccurate (for starters, typewriter poet-for-hire Silvi Alcivar is featured in the film, and there are the good people of Poems While You Wait) the film does insinuate a majority male enterprise given the people represented. This is a shame because many women are involved in the online community and at type-ins; and more broadly, the beautiful thing about the Revolution is that it’s a fully inclusive movement.

Typewriters are for everyone. Anyone can take up typing and for so many purposes, free from abstruse Terms & Conditions and free from the surveillance and proprietary influence that are built into digital technology. It’s a machine that is subservient to human will and not the other way around, whose sole function is to imprint letters on paper at the creative direction of the user.

In that way the typewriter truly is the People’s Machine. It’s your birthright, and it’s waiting for you. All you need is paper and ink—both of which are cheap and abundant—and desire to get started.

Obit

Obit is an eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover.

One of the writers says writing obits isn’t sad because they are writing mostly about a person’s life rather than their death. I can see why that would be the case, but in spotlighting their subjects from over the years—including well-known ones like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams and ones unknown to me like William Wilson and Elinor Smith—the film made me as a viewer grieve all over again. It felt a lot like a memorial service: celebratory, but with an undercurrent of grief. I think of the Japanese concept of mono no aware: the awareness of the transience of things. Or as Wikipedia puts it, “a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”

But it’s the writers themselves who are the subjects of the film, and they are as articulate, quirky, and wry as you’d expect NYT veteran writers to be. Kudos to them for their work, which I ought to seek out more. The literal deadlines they are faced with seem like a case of “take your time, hurry up”. One minute they could be working on an advance obit for someone who could die at any time (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind), and the next minute word of Michael Jackson’s death arrives and they are 4 hours from print deadline. What a job!

There’s also Jeff Roth, the lone caretaker of the “morgue”, the Times‘s underground archive of historical news clippings, photographs, and other archival material, all stored in rows and rows of filing cabinets and bankers boxes. It’s an historian’s dream: oodles of material to look through, organized enough but not too much to allow for serendipity to strike. He and the Morgue are probably a documentary in themselves.

Gould’s cameras eavesdrop among the warren of cubicles in the Obit section, with longer than expected takes just watching the writers type at their computers and capturing their asides and narrated thoughts about where they are in the process. The slick editing certainly has something to do with it, but it’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself.

Obit pairs well with Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, which is itself a kind of advance obituary on Ebert. Through his writing Ebert captured the lives of those on screen with a combination of strength and tenderness. The writers in Obit aren’t nearly as famous as he was, but their work is just as salutary to the soul.

Wonder Woman

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I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.

The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.

Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.

And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.

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On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within the bleak Zach Synder DC Universe.

(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)

That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-poster-header-700x300.jpgJosh Larsen posted my response to his middling-to-negative review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in his Why I’m Wrong feature. I wanted to post it here as well, along with follow-up thoughts about how the movie reminded me of his great new book Movies Are Prayers.

My defense of GOTG2

What I won’t defend: the glorified carnage, yet another “blow up the glowing thing in order to save the universe” superhero movie ending, or the strange casting of Sylvester Stallone.

What I will defend: Chris Pratt’s ongoing ability to surprise with his acting; how they maintained a healthy mix of irreverent humor, action, and obligatory MCU service; and how these maladjusted Guardian misfits learn to love each other and themselves in a surprisingly uncheesy way. The subplots of Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis hardly drag the focus away from the Guardians. On the contrary, they enhance each of them by calling attention to the compelling parts (or defects) in the Guardians’ personalities, and propelling them toward the reconciliation and peace (however temporary) they crave. The Yondu and Nebula storylines were especially affecting, both on their own and how they affected Quill and Gamora respectively.

How can the antagonism between Quill and Rocket be “forced” given their very believable insecurities and irrepressible need to be the wittiest, most tough-guy fighter of the group? And did you fall asleep during the scenes between Rocket and Baby Groot? They contained the same delightful rapport from the first film, altered for the new, infantilized version of Groot. You must have missed those and the other “grace notes” that peppered the entire film, including the best Zune joke of all time.

No doubt the plot goes a little haywire once Kurt Russell enters the picture. (What was up with his castle and all those porcelain dioramas? Demigod hobby I guess.) It pretty quickly didn’t smell right, so I spent most of the second act waiting for The Turn. But since I’ve lowered my expectations considerably for Marvel villains, my larger concern was enjoying the laughs and unexpected poignant moments along the way.

You insist it’s a small movie trying on big-boy blockbuster pants, but I saw it as putting on one of those clear, gelled spacesuits that Quill wears at one point: the spectacle fits snugly around the human core. I’ll put up with an explosion or 17 for that.

Further thoughts on reconciliation

I wanted to follow-up about how it acts as a prayer of reconciliation. Starting in Vol. 1, each of the Guardians (sans Groot) had crippling insecurities and self-esteem issues that they masked with sarcasm (Quill), steeliness (Gamora), pugnacity (Rocket), or a vengeful spirit (Drax). Insecurities make for great cinema: they compel characters to act for or against things. And when they are paired with comedy and great cast chemistry, you get movies like this, which are fun to watch because the characters aren’t as noble and upright as the Avengers.

But insecurity also signals a hole wanting to be filled, which is where reconciliation comes in. It became clear in Vol. 1 that Quill ached for the love of a real family. He thought he had it in Vol. 2 when Ego came along, but then realized it was counterfeit and downright deadly, causing him to see his relationship with Yondu in a different and profound way. (How beautiful was that line “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy”?) Yondu was able to redeem himself in the end, sacrificing his life for his son and bringing people together for his funeral. (Yes, it was saccharine; no, I don’t care.)

Gamora wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it nevertheless came for her in a fury. Nebula’s rage, we found out, was yet another cloak to hide deep childhood trauma and pain of not having a sister to love and confide in. When we find this out after their Sister Fight to End All Sister Fights, Gamora is shocked. But later, humbled, she initiates the process of reconciliation, however uneasy, in another small but beautiful moment toward restoration.

Yondu has another great moment with Rocket, telling him who Rocket is and therefore who Yondu is by extension. Deep down, Rocket wants to be seen and accepted for who he is beneath his hardened yet furry exterior. This bit of reconciliation isn’t between Rocket and Yonda, though, but within Rocket, who struggles with the notion that you have to believe you deserve love if you’re ever going to be able to love someone else. You mentioned the chemistry between Rocket and Groot was lacking. It was certainly different, but remember: Groot technically died in the first movie. Rocket lost his best friend and guardian. Thus I assume his character in Vol. 2 is simply grieving.

For Drax, companionship has been a key desire after losing his family. He achieved some peace about it at the end of Vol. 1, but now his budding relationship with Mantis taps into that lost aspect of his life. A man who doesn’t understand emotions paired with someone who only understands them? That’s the basis of a sitcom. Drax & Mantis, coming to Netflix tomorrow.

And Groot just wants to dance, man.

It seems kinda silly to devote this much attention to a movie that would probably just laugh at any suggestion of deep thought. And you’re right that the grace the Guardians extend to each other did not extend to the hordes of henchmen killed without a second’s thought, an unfortunately typical feature of many American action movies. But I’m a sucker for moments like these in any kind of movie, let alone in one you wouldn’t expect.

Movies Are Prayers

Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.

As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.

“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.

But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:

In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.

I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.

Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.

Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearning in In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:

As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.

So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.

Win It All

I watched The Verdict recently. Paul Newman’s lawyer character bluffs his way into a high-stakes case, but repeatedly fails on his way to the climax, when a Deus Ex Machina saves the day.

I thought about that while watching Joe Swanberg’s latest film Win It All. Getting past the minor thrill of seeing my current city of residence featured on screen so lovingly by Swanberg & Co, has any movie featuring gambling ever ended with the gambler losing? Every one I can think of ends with a dramatic “win it all” moment, no matter how improbable.

I guess in games of chance it’s always possible. But in a movie like this, where Johnson’s no-luck gambler Eddie is established to be a hapless addict lacking self-control but nevertheless fully aware of all he could lose if the worst happens, his Deus Ex Machina seems like a copout, even if it does give him the ending we all want for him.

Despite that lingering uneasiness, I liked this movie. Johnson and his supporting cast of Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, and Keegan-Michael Key complete another typical Swanberg joint: raw, loose, endearing, and at times emotionally harrowing. I’d rate it on par with his previous film Digging for Fire and above 2013’s Drinking Buddies.

Now that I think of it, perhaps Eddie’s sudden conclusion is simply grace.

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