In Transit

InTransit

This is a documentary by Albert Maysles (and others), covering people traveling on the Amtrak train Empire Builder (which travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, OR). It’s really good. Like, emotionally stirring, inspiring-as-a-piece-of-art-and-otherwise good.

Some of my appreciation for it comes from being a writer and knowing the struggle to create believably human people in media with limited resources. In Transit feels like an effortless skim across the surface of many people’s lives, but each one feels real, deep, often emotionally compelling, and always very human. Which in turn means that the editing was spectacular, because they turned disparate piecemeal vignettes into something that feels whole, and they did such a good job that it feels *natural.*

It’s a textbook example of character construction done right. But the team that made this did so many other story construction things right too, and the emotional impact was incredible and… In Transit is overwhelming, but in a good way.

When I say that the film is overwhelming, I mean that there are so many brief moments of intensely believable humanity that feel honest and wonderful and often bittersweet… so many of these moments that it’s difficult to know what to think as you leave the theater. I felt almost stunned as I walked home, and I still feel awe when I think about the movie.

In the skillful ways in which it reveals humanity with such economy of time and focus, In Transit feels like what a storyteller ought to aspire to. I would strongly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the practice of creating characters that you want to feel like real people.

If you are not in the practice of creating characters, I would strongly recommend that you watch it anyway. This movie is marvelous and moving in many unexpected ways.

The film’s site can be found here: http://www.intransitfilm.com/.

Sadly, it seems that Albert Maysles died before this was released. More details on that (and the uncertain future of the film due to rights disputes) here.

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Atomic Blonde

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Convoluted, paranoia-inspiring, and extremely violent, Atomic Blonde feels like what a Bond film would be if the brutality of 2006’s Casino Royale met the conflicted and complicated world of *actual* spy fiction.

Actually, that’s a better description of the movie than I’d thought it would be. Atomic Blonde is full of gorgeously choreographed and grimly performed fight scenes (as one might expect from David Leitch, director of John Wick), and it is definitely not a film intended for a passive or unthinking audience. The underlying story is twisty, and nearly every person’s loyalty is deeply questionable, enough so that I spent a good portion of the movie not sure who was on which side; perfect, really, for this sort of spy movie. Not so good if you’re watching this thinking that you’ll have a neatly packaged Bond-esque film, but quite possibly more fun because of that.

I kind of wish that there’d been a little more in the way of clues for me to catch throughout the movie, or that I’d put together the ones that were there faster. If I had, I wouldn’t have been quite as confused in the end. But when I reflect on it, everything holds together, and I only have a deeper appreciation for what’s there.

I won’t give you any spoilers (apart from saying that if you can’t handle visceral uncomfortable violence, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie), but I will say that I rather liked Atomic Blonde. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m glad that it wasn’t. While I’d happily watch Charlize Theron play Bond in some sly, neatly packaged, thoroughly sanitized version of what current American moviegoers have come to think of as “a spy-action movie,” the gnawing distrust and complicated loyalties of Atomic Blonde deliver an excellent spy movie experience, and a better one than I’d thought I’d find.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman

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This movie manages to embody the tone of the central character, AND make me believe that the central character really is the Spiderman that I know and love. It’s not grim-dark, or silly (well, I mean, it *is* silly but it’s *Spiderman* silly). I really enjoyed it, and would happily watch it again. And while nothing is perfect, I felt like this movie did a wonderful job of portraying a Spiderman with hope and integrity, and without the angst that seems like such a big component of so many other Marvel movies.

I’m not saying I don’t love the angst, but there’s something refreshing about seeing Spiderman so relatively free of it. Maybe Peter will grow into it in the future, but that can take its own time.

Also, while I still want to see a Spiderman movie about Miles Morales (which the internets tell me has been teased by an easter egg I missed), I was impressed by the fact that this movie managed to feel inclusive in a way that other Marvel movies have not. Maybe I shouldn’t be that impressed. The other Marvel movies, after all, haven’t exactly been bastions of inclusion. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the movie’s high schoolers. Honestly, anything else would have been jarring, so it’s good they didn’t screw it up.

LEGO Batman: Yup, Still Good

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I can’t tell you how kids will feel about this movie, though based on what my brother has told me about my nephew I suspect they’d be pretty excited. Personally, I thought it was hilarious. Perhaps more impressive, Lego Batman somehow managed to reprise the meta-level commentary and self-awareness of The LEGO Movie without simply copying the same shtick. This is a Batman movie that makes Batman (and Batman movies) a part of the punchline as well as the setup, and revels in that the entire way through without feeling mean-spirited about it at any point. It helps that they’re using basically the same Batman character from The Lego Movie, appropriately heroic and usually annoying as hell at the same time. It gives him plenty of opportunities for character growth. It’s a good movie.

This movie also does something that I admire in any story that takes place in a series, or as part of an ongoing story-world: I don’t think there’s any need for the viewer to be familiar with the rest of the Batman mythos in order to enjoy this. For one thing, the movie makes most of its other setting references explicit. For another, all of the issues at hand are so well established that there’s no need for outside sources. You might benefit from knowing more about other Batman stories, but they’re not strictly necessary.

And as I implied at the top, this movie is constructed like most good children’s entertainment; the comedy and drama are constructed in variably accessible layers, with some things clearly geared towards the adult audience which will almost certainly be forced to watch the movie over and over again. It’s a good quality to have in a kids’ movie, especially since the people who actually have the money (and perhaps thus the true consumer) are the adults paying for the children’s tickets.

Overall, I don’t think I’d line this up with the best Pixar movies. I think Pixar somehow manages (managed?) to have excellent comedy alongside really good emotional content and drama, and despite feeling *good* in all those categories, this doesn’t match the emotional poignancy of a really outstanding Pixar film. But while it didn’t hit those emotional depths for me, I’d give Lego Batman solid marks. It’s fun, funny, genre savvy, and eminently self-aware. Definitely worth watching.

Go watch I Am Not Your Negro

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The truth is, I will not do a better job telling you about this movie than did A.O. Scott. I strongly recommend watching the movie, and I think that Scott’s review is also worth reading (though considerably less important than the film itself).

But there are elements which I want to share with you, thoughts that I have had in reaction to the movie which seem compelling. Baldwin is astute, observant, painfully accurate in his descriptions, eloquent in his description of the monstrosity involved in thinking that it is acceptable to murder or subjugate another human being and feel good about yourself. And he pulls up an uncanny moment experienced in two very different ways by those who are black and those who are white. He describes the empty sensation of a young black person discovering that the country they call their home and to which they belong has no place for them, and certainly no place amongst its heroes; and calls on white people to recognize that their country, as they have likely experienced it and been told of it, does not exist for blacks. It is, on both sides, a realization that the vision of ‘home’ is a lie. But it is often forced upon non-whites, while whites are permitted to carry on dreaming until some other confrontation occurs.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me struggle with my own desire to write and tell stories.

I feel irresponsible to not take broader action, to not expose these issues. Writing seems inadequate. I admit that these issues in some way inspire me, by encouraging me to tell stories which deal with these realities. But I also fear that any attempt I make may do greater damage than good, or that whatever I do will be insufficient. And I worry that my decision to write fantastical stories, stories about alternate realities which do not immediately impinge upon ours, is in some way unhelpful escapism. Or I consider myself to be a distraction from others whose voices deserve to be heard.

And sometimes I remind myself that not every story can be that particular form of activism. Some stories need to be fun. But I hope that, in some of those things I write which you find fun, I can offer a vision of a world that doesn’t cling to our own world’s prejudices. And when I do draw those elements in, I hope that I can include them in ways which simultaneously allow us to enjoy the story and to see (perhaps for the first time, if I’m so lucky as to have an uninformed reader) the parallels between the problems I include and the world in which we live.

Okay. Enough of me blathering my thoughts. Go watch the damn movie. It’s painful and still remarkably topical, and somehow I found it inspired hope. It’s really good.

p.s. Here’s another good link to someone’s experience of being exposed to James Baldwin’s work.

Hidden Figures

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Damn this is a good movie. I saw it last week, and neglected to tell you because I was busy getting ready for Arisia. This movie made me furious, it made me happy, it made me cry… and it is a story that deserves to be told. I strongly recommend not only watching it, but also staying through the end credits to see the further stories of the people this movie is all about.

I’m sure that there’s some conflation and massaging of truth going on here, with composite characters and such, if only because this holds together so well as a movie and life doesn’t really work that way. But from everything that I understand, this movie hews closely to the real stories of these people’s lives. It also is a truly excellent movie.

With that in mind, do yourself a favor. Go watch Hidden Figures. Enjoy.

Moana, a new and improved Disney

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I saw a number of things at the theater when I went there on Wednesday: there was a trailer for a Beauty and the Beast remake (which looked about as uncomfortable and undesirable as possible), a trailer for Hidden Figures (which looks spectacular), and there was Moana.

Holy shit I really liked Moana. It somehow feels old (in a good way) despite the fact that I don’t think Disney has done anything like it anytime recently. In some ways, they’ve never done anything like it at all; a female main character who goes on a mythic quest and succeeds without being disempowered, sidelined, or told that she must be a man.

I also felt like the movie’s depictions of human beings was simply far better than many previous Disney movies’ had been. The characters felt believably human, honest to themselves and their own desires from the audience’s perspective (even if they weren’t really emotionally honest with themselves if you know what I mean). I have a hard time thinking of which other Disney movies are operating on the same level. If you like watching animated kids movies now, this one should be at the top of your list. If you have fond memories of animated kids movies but aren’t sure whether you’d still like them, watch this one. It’s worth it. Yeah, some of it seems like it’s an obvious product of modern sensibilities, but is that always so bad?

Speaking of which, why the hell are they remaking Beauty and the Beast? The trailer made it look like they were reprising basically everything from their 1991 version… but doing it in live action with huge heaps of CGI. Blatantly cashing in on nostalgia is hardly an admirable starting point, and doing that with a story that portrays creepy manipulative abusive behavior as not only normal but romantic without doing anything to comment on that is extremely objectionable. How about them modern sensibilities.

Oh, and as for Hidden Figures, it tells the story of three women of color working for NASA leading up to John Glenn’s orbit in 1962, with Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji Henson. Yes, that Janelle Monae. I’m very excited.

Ghostbusters (no, the 2016 one)

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My first title for this was “Deconbusting Ghoststructures,” but I’m setting my sights a bit lower than that.

New Ghostbusters and Old Ghostbusters are not the same movie. Thank goodness. I can watch both of these movies, enjoy both of them, and not have to worry that I’m stuck watching the same thing twice. There are plenty of moments that are obvious homages to the original, and they pretty obviously had to tie the new movie to the old one given the subject material and premise, but I feel like they’re different enough that the connection is almost more baggage and drag than it’s worth. The name and premise are enough to make this a target of nostalgia-hazed criticism, when it really ought to be viewed (and reviewed) as it’s own thing.

The fact is, New Ghostbusters is an enjoyable movie. It fits into the summer blockbuster mould. It made me laugh, it scared me a bit, it was fun. I have some problems with it, but on the whole I’d say it’s worth watching.

Now, with that out of the way, I’ll engage in hypocrisy and do more to compare the two.

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The Nice Guys

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The tag line really shouldn’t surprise you. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the fact that the same director (Shane Black) did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I wasn’t surprised because The Nice Guys is a fundamentally similar movie: grim and irreverent, full of dark humor, with heroes who just aren’t that heroic. The intrigue our protagonists investigate is convoluted and seedy, they wind up in trouble way above their pay grade, and nobody comes up smelling like roses. Like I said, they’re very similar movies. Whatever its faults may have been, I liked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I can say the same thing about The Nice Guys.

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Kinky Boots

Goodness that movie was fun. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d heartily recommend it. There’s a lot to like.

I’m not even sure where to start. How about “heartwarming British comedy about saving a shoe factory by producing boots for drag queens”? I think that hits all the requisite notes without divulging any relevant details. There’s a good deal of gendered pressure and expectations in here that rings especially true of the 2000’s to me… which is funny because I know that it’s still around and still real. I guess it seems like there’s more awareness of other options these days than it felt like there was at that time? Or maybe I’m more aware of other options now than I was then. I don’t feel like I’m being especially clear with my words, and I’m just going to move on.

One of the things that I think I liked most about the movie is that, while the movie tries to be about Charlie Price, straight white guy, it really feels easy to me to read it as being about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s drag queen Lola — a focus that I think is made especially clear with the dance sequence on the boardwalk during the opening credits. I quite like Ejiofor in general, and I’m very happy with him in this movie.

After spending so much time last semester reading Truby’s book on the anatomy of stories (and specifically movies) I had fun looking at the film for the elements of structure he describes. It was a pleasant change from his obsession with Sunset Boulevard, which I’m now both curious about and very reluctant to watch.

Finally, yes, I’m still semi-feverish: I veer into fever at the drop of a hat, even if I don’t spend all of my time there now. And the random onset of fatigue is exciting and annoying. Nothing quite like knowing that you could hit a wall at any given moment to make you reluctant to go anywhere. I’ll do my best to keep up with posts, but I expect that my schedule will continue to be slippery while I’m sorting out my mono symptoms.