Movie Reviews - 2015 postsMonday May 04, 2015
Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
In 1994, I was living with three other people in a house on 77th and Sunnyside in Seattle, writing in my spare time, and schlepping at a bookstore warehouse. One day that spring, I was biking home from work when I turned onto Woodlawn Avenue near Gregg’s Green Lake Cycles and ran into a cloud of exhaust. I quickly saw the cause: a riderless motorcycle putt-putt-putting by the curb next to a café. I’m sure my face screwed up into a kind of “What kind of asshole would leave his bike...?” when in rapid succession: 1) I noticed the tall lanky dude in leathers sitting at the café’s outside table; 2) recognized him as Krist Novoselic of Nirvana; 3) saw how bereft he looked; and 4) knew why. Just a few days earlier, Kurt Cobain had taken his life. That’s about when Novoselic noticed me noticing him. My face must’ve still looked annoyed because his face took on a combative look. It challenged mine to say or do something. I simply nodded and kept biking. Anything else, even a kind word, would’ve felt intrusive.
In Brett Morgen’s powerful documentary, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Novoselic, older and balder, still looks bereft. It’s 25 years later, and he’s still wondering what the hell happened. In a sense, that’s what the doc is about.
There aren’t many talking heads here. Per the title, it’s mostly montages and mash-ups from family photos and 8-milimeter film, plus audio of Kurt’s younger days set to animation, along with illustrations out of Cobain’s numerous notebooks. This last might be the most interesting gateway into his mind. All the things he writes. The things he writes again and again. Sometimes it’s breakthrough stuff, such as the word NIRVANA appearing as he’s listening to punk rock in Aberdeen. Sometimes it’s sadly prophetic. “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind,” for example. Or more explicitly: “The joke’s on you so kill yourself.”
The doc’s title comes from one of Cobain’s audiotape mashups, made in Aberdeen in the 1980s, and when you think about—and I really hadn’t—you realize that almost everything he did was montage. His lyrics are snippets. Sometimes they’re epigrams (“I’m worse at what I do best”); other times, incomprehensible (“Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet”). Even the chorus to his most famous song, the song that sprung us all from the awful ‘80s, is a montage of thoughts that only form cohesiveness through the drive, energy and anger of the music:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
I knew the basics of Cobain: Aberdeen, punk scene, reluctant rock star, stomach troubles, heroin, Courtney Love, boom. “Montage” fills in the blanks.
He was born four years later than I, enjoyed a happy childhood as I did; then his parents divorced as mine did. It’s shocking seeing some of these similarities. We shared pop culture. As a kid he drew H.R. Pufnstuf and as a teen recorded the Brady Bunch singing “Sunshine Day.” This last was surely ironic. At the same time, there is a sense that, having lost his idyllic childhood, he wanted it back. He wanted normalcy.
Instead, after the divorce, he was shunted from parent to parent to grandparent, but nobody could take him for more than a few weeks. There is some suggestion of hyperactivity. There is some suggestion of some form of Ritalin that didn’t take.
I tend to think of angry guys as tough guys, but Cobain was hyper-sensitive. He hated and feared humiliation and couldn’t stand negative reviews or being psychoanalyzed. In high school, he wasn’t just not popular; he was reviled and isolated. There’s a tale told in animation—narrated by him?—of his doofus friends visiting a low-IQ fat woman who lived alone, and mocking her and distracting her while they swiped liquor from her basement. When Cobain realizes what’s happening we expect (thanks in part to Hollywood) that he’ll break free of these idiots, or somehow come to the woman’s aid; instead he returns by himself to have sex with her—his first sexual experience. When word gets out, he’s mocked in school as the “retard fucker.” It’s a small, sad story that leaves a bad taste, but it’s redeemed by its brutal honesty.
Most of the talking heads are members of Kurt’s family—mom, sister, dad, stepmom—and they navigate us through his childhood; but once he’s living with (and off of) his girlfriend, we delve into his mind with the audio/animation and the notebooks springing to life. It’s an effective treatment. We don’t get Novoselic saying, “I met Kurt when ...” or “We decided on the name when ...” It’s Kurt’s thoughts and stories and homemade audio leading to Sub-POP and rock posters and the beautiful burst of Nirvana’s cover of “Molly’s Lips.” The way Morgen tells the story is a little like Nirvana’s music (quiet verse leading to angry chorus), but it also gives us a sense of what it’s like to go from nowhere to everywhere, as Cobain did. One moment Nirvana is doing a promo show at a record store on the Ave, the next they’re playing stadium concerts. The huge crowds, shot from the stage, have never seemed more monstrous.
About a Girl
Cobain’s rise is fascinating—as rises tend to be—but then it becomes the Kurt and Courtney show and gets dull fast. To me, there’s not many people less interesting than 1) happy loving couples, and 2) junkies. I would’ve cut some of this. But the rest is powerful and inventive.
We’re left with questions. The stomach troubles that led to the heroin use—surely he saw a doctor about this once he became rich. Or was he too far gone on heroin by then? Morgen seems to imply that he finally took his life because of hyper-sensitivity over Courtney Love merely thinking about cheating on him—we end with Cobain playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged—but is this a reach, given everything else? The fame, the stomach troubles, the heroin—a word, by the way, he never learned to spell, adding a Quayle-esque “e” to the end every time. Left unmentioned, but jarring to me as I watched, is how much his mom looks like what Courtney Love might look like in 20 years.
There’s a lot that’s disturbing in the doc but a beautiful honesty, too. It’s about as up-close a look as you’ll get of a major cultural figure. It’s almost claustrophobic.
Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)
Muscle dudes + muscle cars + dumb dialogue + ass shots + well-done but impossible action sequences x 7th movie = $1 billion worldwide.
That’s the new math being taught by “Furious 7,” a low-rent car movie mixed with high-rent James Bond/Mission: Impossible action movies. The outlaws of 15 years ago are now in-laws and working for the government to track former British Special Forces soldier Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), whose little brother, former British Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), was bested by the F&F team in the last movie.
As this one opens, Deckard is talking to his comatose brother in the hospital about getting vengies for him, and as he’s leaving we see the havoc he wreaked upon entering: bodies everywhere, smoldering wreckage. Question: Did someone try to prevent him from seeing his brother or is this just his way of saying hello?
No, we know. It’s the villainous intro. We’ll soon get two big action set pieces before the big-bang finale. Then we can all go home a little poorer in wallet and spirit.
But first, some soap.
The middle-aged and the restless
I always thought the WWE was like a soap opera for men, and the Fast/Furious franchise is a little like that, too. See if you can spot the soap opera elements below.
In the early going, our hero, Dom (Vin Diesel), tries to jog the memory of his amnesiac lady love, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), but she’s resisting, and, at her tombstone (she was declared dead in 2009), she leaves him to tinkly, sappy background music. Meanwhile, our only non-bald hero, Brian (Paul Walker), is having trouble adjusting to life as a suburban dad—so much so that his wife, Mia (Jordana Brewster), Dom’s sister, doesn’t tell him that she’s pregnant with his second child. She saves that for the final reel to give him the courage to go on. Because apparently she and the first kid aren’t enough.
So it’s almost a relief when their house is blown up by Deckard. Is that the key to these movies? Make the downtime so excruciating that we crave the action sequences? We’re like Brian in this regard. We need to get away from the domesticity and its greeting-card sentimentality. (Ex., Dom to Brian: “What’s real is family. Your family. Hold onto that, bra.”)
Deckard also kills old friend, and F&F regular, Han (Sung Kang), then shows up at Han’s funeral and is chased through the L.A. streets by Dom. There’s a car confrontation (vroom, vroom), and a head-on collision. Deckard is about to shoot Dom when U.S. Special Forces, led by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, enjoying himself), save Dom but let Deckard escape. Because everyone lets Deckard escape.
That’s how Dom, the bald, undershirt-wearing outlaw with the Groot voice, winds up working for the feds. Sadly, our government, which can normally track a fart on the other side of the universe, has no way of tracking a guy who is forever leaving smoldering wreckage in his wake. But a plan is hatched. A hacker known only as “Ramsey” (question mark in the middle of a blank face) has created a computer program called God’s Eye that can hack into ... well, anything: smartphone, surveillance camera, you name it. It basically uses face-recognition software while turning every smartphone in the world into surveillance cameras. The feds figure this would be a good way to track Deckard. (And us? Not raised. No Edward Snowdens here.) The bigger problem is that Ramsey has been kidnapped by a terrorist named Jakande (Djimon Hounsou, to add to the bald) and no one knows where God’s Eye is. So the F&F team, including Letty, have to get through Jakande to get to Ramsey to track Deckard.
Except they really don’t. Because no matter where they go, Deckard follows. It’s kind of funny, actually. They go through hell—parachuting muscle cars out of transport planes to land in a remote region of Azerbaijan; launching hot rods from one skyscraper through another in Abu Dhabi—so they can get the hacker to get the hacking device to get Deckard. Except he’s always right there. Just shoot him for shit’s sake.
Ramsey, in a shocker, turns out to be a hot-looking chick (Nathalie Emmanuel of “Game of Thrones,”), and joins Angelina Jolie, Hugh Jackman and Chris Hemsworth as your average Hollywood hackers. At one point, Dom and Ramsey are surrounded by bad men on one side and a cliff on the other. His solution? Drive off the cliff. It works. The car breaks apart but they don’t.
That’s the ultimate lesson of this movie: the flesh is willing but the metal is weak. Or mathematically: musclemen > musclecars.
The bald and the beautiful
But don’t take my word for it. The characters themselves point out the absurdity of the movie. Tej and Roman (Ludracris and Tyrese Gibson) check out a bikini-clad Ramsey emerging in slow-mo from the Persian Gulf and say, “She don’t look like no hacker.” In the kitchen-sink finale in the streets of L.A., while Dom and Deckard square off on a rooftop parking garage and Jakande shoots missiles from a military helicopter, Brian and Roman perform a parallel 360 stunt to transfer Ramsey from one car to the other. Tej’s response: “She made it! Can’t believe we pulled that off!”
My favorite absurd moment may be when the hospitalized Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), realizing L.A.’s a war zone, stands and rips the cast off his massively pumped left arm, then tells his sassy daughter, “Daddy’s gotta go to work.” Or maybe it’s when Dom guns his muscle car through the air, barely missing Jakande’s helicopter, but manages to hang a bag of explosives off the end of it, which Hobbs—after driving an ambulance through a bridge barrier to stop a missile in flight—shoots to blow the helicopter up.
Sadly, Jakande killed, Deckard captured when a parking garage falls on him (yes), we’re back to the soap. Dom, who survived the drive off the cliff and through the Etihad Towers with hardly a scratch, is at death’s door after the parabola run at Jakande’s helicopter. Brian pounds on his chest, makes demands (“You breathe!”), until Letty takes over. She cradles Dom’s head, cries, tells him if he dies, she dies. She also tells him her memory is back. “I remember it all,” she says. To which, not nearly at death’s door (can no one on the Furious team take a pulse?), he opens his eyes and croaks in his Groot voice, “About time.” And everyone smiles with tears of relief in their eyes. Or something.
The tagline for “Furious 7” is “One Last Ride.” Promises.
Movie Review: Of Miracles and Men (2015)
“Of Miracles and Men,” an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary about the Soviet hockey team of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with a particular focus on its upset defeat at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY (“USA! USA! USA!”), opens with a quiet walk through Central Park by Soviet hockey great Viacheslav Fetisov. Soon after, we see the end of that most famous hockey game, the “Miracle on Ice,” and we hear Al Michaels’ iconic countdown:
We’ve got 10 seconds! The countdown going on right now. Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!!!!
An hour later, after detailing the rise of the dominant Soviet hockey machine, replete with incredible black-and-white training footage, and getting the “Miracle on Ice” game in detail, we see its end again; but instead of Michaels’ countdown, we hear the Soviet announcer, who says the following in a matter-of-fact tone:
But it seems it is too late. Five seconds before the buzzer. [Game ends: place goes crazy.] Team USA wins over our hockey players and now is leading with three points in the table. With that, we are finishing our commentary. The reporter was Nikolai Ozerov.
The best docs I’ve seen, from “Paris is Burning” to “Restrepo” to “The Act of Killing,” reveal a perspective we haven’t seen before, or maybe even considered before, and that’s what director Jonathan Hock does here. The western voice is all but muted. Al Michaels isn’t interviewed, nor Mike Eruzione or Jim Craig. It’s Fetisov, and Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Myshkin. It’s Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Petrov and Boris Mikhailov. They’re older now, obviously, but generally quiet and unassuming. There is, though, an attempt by some, particularly Seva Kukushkin, a Soviet sportswriter for the Soviet news agency Tass, to dismiss the Miracle on Ice. At one point, Kukushkin is asked what he wrote about the game and its drama. His response:
What’s the drama? [Pause] Look, maybe it’s a problem of Americans. You see, once a crazy kid kissed Sophia Loren, for example. And he’s telling till the rest of his life, “Oh, I kissed Sophia Loren.” Ask Sophia Loren if she remembers. Different point of view.
Now I’m not much of a chest-beater when it comes to patriotism. One of the beautiful things about America is that you can afford not to be jingoistic. But I make an exception with the Miracle on Ice. I think it’s the greatest upset in international sports in the 20th century. A bunch of college kids beating the mighty Soviet machine? Amateurs who played together a couple of months beating professionals who’d played together since they were, what, 10? And practiced and lived together 24/7? In the 1980 medal rounds, the U.S.S.R. won by the following scores: 16-0, 17-4, 8-1, 4-2 and 6-4. Hell, a few weeks earlier, they beat the U.S. in a preliminary game 10-3. They shouldn’t have lost. Yet they did. To college kids.
Plus, it really was a seminal event in American history. It helped make the country safe for patriotism (and, sadly, jingoism) again. I grew up in the 1970s when patriotism was the province of scoundrels and fools—like Maj. Frank Burns on “M*A*S*H.” We went through Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, hostage crisis. As a country, we either seemed impotent bullies or victims of small, petty nations. We had little to be proud of.
I came to this documentary, which is now streaming on Netflix, through Joe Posnanski, who ends his piece this way:
The Sophia Loren story is the greatest cold-water throwing I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly beautiful and brilliant. The Miracle on Ice was our seminal sports moment, the closest thing to Greek myth that we have. And he compares the U.S. to a kid kissing Sophia Loren. It’s beautiful. And it’s probably true too. The U.S. did kiss Sophia Loren. Only thing is: She remembers. She definitely remembers.
This is what makes muting the American voice in the doc so important. We are left to provide that voice. Because I would actually go further than Posnanski. Kukushkin’s line is great but the metaphor is all wrong. It was a battle, not a romantic act. But if you’re going to go there? As Kukushkin does? I would say we didn’t just kiss Sophia Loren; we went a little further than that.
Besides, all you have to do is watch the faces of the Russian players being interviewed. It’s 35 years later, but that loss still stings. It still hurts. It will always hurt.
Fetisov is the closest thing the doc has to a protagonist. We follow him not only into Central Park, but back to his childhood apartment in Moscow, and on a return visit to Lake Plaicd with his (gorgeous) daughter. “In America,” he says, early in the doc, “people always want to talk about the Miracle on Ice. But we made our own miracles.”
The doc gives us some of these. After an impossibly long bureaucratic battle in the 1980s, Fetisov became the first man to leave the Soviet Union for work in the states. He didn’t defect. The Soviet government just let him travel. That’s a kind of miracle, and it presaged the bigger one of walls coming down, governments changing, the world changing.
Another miracle is the rise of Soviet hockey in the first place. Before the Cold War, Russians didn’t play hockey; they played bandy, an ice game with shorter sticks, a ball, and eleven men per side. But bandy wasn’t an Olympic sport, and Stalin wanted dominance in the Olympics to prove to the world dominance in economic/political systems. And so it was ordered. And so it was done.
The Soviets began competing in Olympic hockey in 1956, and won six medals over the next six Olympiads: gold, bronze, gold, gold, gold and gold. But the big breakthrough was competing against, and beating, western professionals in the Canada Cup and against teams of NHL All-Stars.
Watching, we’re reminded that every enemy that seems like a monolith isn’t; it’s always fraught with internal strife. For Soviet hockey, that battle was between Anatolie Tarasov, who essentially invented the Soviet version of the game, and who is seen here with a poet’s spirit and a great love for the sport that he passed on to his players; and Viktor Tikhonov, who took over in 1977, and is called an accountant by his former players. They say he had little love for the game. He was the coach of the 1980 team. Meaning he was the coach who pulled Vladislav Tretiak, generally regarded as the best hockey goalie in the world, after Mark Johnson scored with one second left in the first period to tie the score.
“It was shocking,” Tretiak, now in his 50s, says matter-of-factly. Mikhailov adds, “For the Americans, it was like a life-saving gulp of air.”
There’s a great moment when Hock tries to dig deeper. Did the players object? Did the team captain object? “We’re Soviet people,” Petrov says. “[We] follow all the orders set by those in charge.” Even today, no one points a finger until Tatiana Tarasova, Anatolie’s daughter, and a figure-saking coach at the 1980 games, is prodded again and again by Hock and finally throws up her hands. “Yes, it was a mistake!” she says with almost a laugh. Tretiak, more serious, adds, “The situation never sat easy on my soul.”
Reminder: the Soviet team still went ahead in the second period, 3-2. It was in the third period that the U.S. scored twice in two minutes to go up 4-3. But there were 10 minutes left.
Alexei Kasatonov: “Everyone [on the team] still believed we would win. Nobody panicked or grew desperate.”
Mikhailov: “To the very end, we thought we’d tie the score.”
Tretiak: “It was like an out-of-body experience. Like I wasn’t there.”
Hock gives us the rise of the Soviet hockey machine but not its fall. Too bad; it’s interesting. Canada was the dominant force in Olympic hockey from 1920 to 1952, winning six gold and one silver in seven Olympiads. Then the USSR took over and won gold every year but 1960 and 1980 And now? Now, it’s Canada again. It’s like the Cold War was a housing bubble, or the PED era in baseball. It was a fevered period, but the fever is over, and normal life—Canadian hockey on top—resumes.
“Of Miracles and Men” is a much recommended and much humanizing movie. I remember our jokes in Minnesota after the “Miracle on Ice” victory. Me and my high school friends talked about how the first goalie, or maybe that second goalie, or certainly the coach, would wind up in Siberia. We thought that’s how things worked in the Soviet Union. But that didn’t happen. The coach strengthened his position, the team kept winning. The loss to the U.S. was the banishment; that was Siberia.
With that, we are finishing our commentary. The reporter was Erik Lundegaard.
Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
The disconnect in this film between main character and creator is so wide as to be schizophrenic.
Harry Hart/Galahad (Colin Firth), the protagonist of “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” counsels class: knocking before entering, asking before sitting, dressing appropriately (bespoke suit) before kicking ass. I enjoyed almost every moment Firth was on screen.
The movie, meanwhile, plays in the usual lowest-common-denominator mud: highly-stylized, slow-mo/sped up martial arts sequences with too much gore and too little wit. Worse, writer-director Matthew Vaughn doubles down. He pushes boundaries, as he has a tendency to do (see Chloë Grace Moretz in “Kick Ass”), but what lies on the other side of those boundaries isn’t exactly, well, classy.
Take the Kentucky church massacre. The film’s villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a multibillionaire with a lisp and a penchant for single-colored New York Yankee caps (like Vaughn himself), can’t get politicians to confront global warming. But he has a plan. It’s basically “Moonraker” with a phone app—kill most, leave the best—and he first tries it out in a backwoods Kentucky church full of racists and homophobes. The orgy of highly-stylized violence goes on interminably. To Vaughn, no part of the human body can’t be pierced for a laugh.
Then there’s the Obama factor. For someone who has difficulty getting politicians to pay attention, Valentine oddly recruits many of them to restart the human race. These include the corrupt Swedish prime minister, who looks generically Swedish, and the president of the United States, who looks very specifically like Pres. Obama. Each recruit has a transmitter surgically implanted behind his/her ear, allowing Valentine to blow off their heads if necessary; and at the end, backed by Bizet’s “Carmen,” this happens to all of them, one after the other, like fireworks or fountains. And there goes Pres. Obama’s head. Vaughn kills off the President of the United States after implying he would betray the world.
Then there’s the butt sex. Apparently only one world leader, when contacted, refuses to go along with Valentine’s scheme to kill the rest of us: Princess Tilde of Sweden (Hannah Alström), whom Valentine locks up, transmitter-less, in a dungeon in his mountain hideout. She’s still there when Harry Hart’s protégé, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), arrives in his own bespoke suit to save the day. But first, a quid-pro-quo is agreed upon. This is a takeoff on the double entendres of Bond films (as is the mountain hideout ... as is the scheme ...), but Vaughn pushes boundaries. He blurts where Bond suggested. This can be funny, but not here, not to me anyway. If Eggsy saves the world? Princess Tilde will let him take her anally.
So instead of the final make-out shot on the raft in the middle of the ocean, we get a final close-up of her ass about to be entered.
After this, Vaughn dedicates the movie to his recently deceased mother.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Vaughn says, per “Spinal Tap,” that he’s “trying to find 11 with every scene,” which is maybe part of the problem. Each scene shouldn’t have an 11. In the church scene, I was bored, with the Obama assassination I was insulted. Butt sex, I just rolled my eyes. You can parody Bond well (see “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” starring Jean Dujardin), but Vaughn simply takes the trappings of a Roger Mooreish Bond flick and gets cruder. Imagine the movie if he pushed boundaries toward the witty rather than the scatological.