erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2017 posts

Monday February 05, 2018

Movie Review: Mark Felt (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I get that “Deep Throat” was taken as a title, but surely there’s a less cumbersome subtitle than “The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Not to mention more accurate. The White House still stands, yo. It’s Nixon who was brought down.

Mark Felt was, of course, Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s garage freak, the man on deep background in the Woodward/Bernstein investigation into Watergate, which, yes, brought down the Nixon White House, paving the way for the Ford one, then Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and, yeah, here we are with the Trump White House and its attempts to control and/or malign the FBI. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to be fucking assholes.

Mark Felt reviewSo guess when Bob Woodward rears his pretty head in this movie? An hour in—two-thirds of the way through. He’s a blip. Hell, he’s not even Felt’s main press contact! That would be Sandy Smith of Time magazine (Bruce Greenwood), whom Felt meets in a diner like normal folk, and who, when Felt finally tells him to take out his notepad, warns him: “Mark, are you sure about this?” You know: like any true reporter on top of a world-breaking scoop would.

Smith is also one of the many characters who keep telling us who Felt is:

  • Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore): “Mark Felt: Integrity, bravery, fidelity. Ladies and gentlemen, the G man’s G man!”
  • Mrs. Felt (Diane Lane): “I give you the chief dragon slayer and guardian of the American dream!”

So why does Felt become more opaque the longer the movie goes on? And why does “Mark Felt,” which should bring greater clarity to Watergate—revealing the other side of “All the President’s Men”—bog us down in murkiness?

All we’ve got are pieces
It even begins wrong. On April 11, 1972, Felt goes the White House to meet with the three Johns of the Nixon administration: Dean (Michael C. Hall, a good match), Mitchell (Stephen Michael Ayers, not so good), and Ehrlichman (Wayne Pére, shitty). Referencing the antiwar protesters outside, we get this convo:

Ehrlichman: Goddamn Russian revolution out there. Why aren’t we arresting anybody?
Felt: Because that ... isn’t a crime.

So we’ve set up our dynamic in the most reductive way possible. Thanks, Hollywood.

The Johns are offering Felt a kind of quid pro quo: If J. Edgar Hoover is fired, would he be a friend to the administration? Maybe as director? But Felt is a company man, loyal to the Bureau and to Hoover. He’s so loyal to Hoover, in fact, that after being dismissed, he sticks around to give a long, exacting synopsis of FBI intelligence gathering regarding the peccadillos of Washington politicians—all of which Mr. Hoover keeps safely in his secret files. And if something should happen to Mr. Hoover? Who knows what will happen to them?

It’s a threat. From our hero. Our guy is someone who actually makes us feel sorry for Nixon's men. The fuck?

Most of “Mark Felt” is dimly lit, ominous, airless. We’re forever in closed rooms, forever getting close-ups of faces. Everyone is trying to figure things out. Everyone but Felt, who has them figured out and is trying to keep that knowledge from his face. He’s inscrutable. Do we even know when he decides to leak? Do we understand how he first meets Bob Woodward and why he goes to him? 

The basic conflict is straightforward—not to mention topical. The Nixon administration wants to control the FBI, particularly its investigation into the Watergate affair, and Felt wants to keep the Bureau independent. Halfway through, we get a good scene that exemplifies this conflict. By this point, Hoover has died, and Felt has already determined that Hoover’s replacement, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), is doing Nixon’s bidding rather than the FBI’s. So Felt has begun to leak information about Watergate. John Dean calls him up to investigate and plug the leaks.

Dean: We want you to do something about it, Mr. Felt. Now.
Felt: Fine. But I don’t understand.
Dean: Which part?
Felt: The part about you calling me. The White House has no authority over the FBI.
Dean: Uh, we can—
Felt: At all, Mr. Dean.
Dean: But we can suggest—
Felt: I’m afraid the White House has nothing to suggest to the FBI.

That’s great. It also sets up a great inner conflict: How does Felt investigate leaks that he himself is causing—and that others are beginning to suspect him of—while protecting his men? While not accusing the innocent? The movie doesn’t really have an answer. At one point, doesn’t he let a subordinate twist in the wind? Then doesn’t he clear him? Kinda sorta? It’s never as straightforward as you’d want. It's as if half the movie is on deep background. 

Here’s a clearer answer from the book the movie is based on:

On one report prepared by his team, Felt dramatically circled a paragraph stating that [assistant U.S. attorney Donald E.] Campbell had been approached by Woodward before a leak but denied giving any comment. Felt wrote boldly capital letters, “LAST PAGE OF ATTACHED MEMO—HERE IS ENTIRE ANSWER.” That was not the only time Felt tried to deflect attention from the FBI to other potential leakers.

That’s some nasty business. But so what, right? Campbell was probably one of those Nixon cronies. He probably got what he deserved. Except Campbell turned out to be one of the prosecutors who helped break James McCord (in January ’73), which helped break the Watergate case wide open.

We also get way too many dull subplots. Felt’s daughter has left home, (like in the Beatles song), and the Weather Underground is blowing things up (like in that other Beatles’ song). Are the two related? Does Felt think they are? Does he let the personal get in the way of the professional in pursuing the WU? The movie implies it. And what’s up with his wife? The movie opens with the two of them generically happy, but before long she’s blaming the FBI for ruining her life, and he’s blaming her for ruining their daughter.

Throughout, Felt never loses Neeson’s Irish accent, just as L. Patrick Gray, who is Irish, never loses Csonka’s Eastern European one. It’s like a battle over who is the least likely American.

What the puzzle is supposed to look like
What a mess. Writer-director Peter Landesman, a former New Yorker reporter, directed the underrated “Parkland,” about the JFK assassination, as well as the disappointing “Concussion,” about the collision of science and football starring Will Smith. This is his worst. By far.

This is what it should’ve been. Felt is a man who, in order to save the FBI (from the Nixon administration), betrays the FBI (by leaking its secrets). And he’s successful. He helps reporters connect the dots and bring down a president. Except in saving the FBI (by bringing down Nixon), Felt exposes the FBI (to the Church committee). Its secrets are revealed, too. Its image is tarnished. And he gets caught up in this. He’s indicted before a Grand Jury for violating the civil rights of Americans in pursuit of the Weather Underground. He loses by winning.

A movie that connected those dots would be worth seeing.

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Feb 05, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Monday January 29, 2018

Movie Review: The Post (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

During the movie’s rollout, The New York Times kept saying that they broke the Pentagon Papers story, not the Washington Post, so the movie should be called “The Times” not “The Post.”

Huff.

Except the movie isn’t about that. It’s about this:

  • The struggle to make the Post a national newspaper.
  • The struggle for Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to find her voice.

These things coincide, according to the movie, with the risks the Post took in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The Post movie reviewThe movie gives full credit to Neil Sheehan and the Times for breaking that story. Hell, the Times is not just present here but omnipresent. It’s the big brother whose shadow you can’t overcome. To Ben Bradlee, it’s as much an enemy as the Nixon White House. More so, in some sense.

That’s actually one thing that I loved about it. While lionizing liberal icons Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who are in the midst of a battle with a corrupt Republican administration, the movie lays bear the lie of “the liberal media.” True journalists like Bradlee don’t have political agendas; they have professional ones. Their goal is to beat the other guy to the story. 

This isn't a Hollywoodization, by the way. In Bradlee’s memoir, “A Good Life,” from 1995, he writes about the moment the Nixon Justice Dept. got an injunction to keep the Times from publishing more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers—restraining an American newspaper in this manner, he writes, “for the first time in the history of the republic.” Dark days. Was he frustrated? Angry? Nope. More like relieved and energized. “At least the New York Times had been silenced,” he writes, “never mind how.”

Never mind how?

That stunned me when I first read it. But Bradley’s agenda isn't political but professional—ruthlessly so. Same with today’s Post and Times and Wall Street Journal. As opposed to, say, Fox News, where the agenda is wholly political. And completely unprofessional.

Zero to 60
That said, I was a little disappointed with “The Post.” It should totally be in my wheelhouse—a historical procedural about historic journalism that’s smart, true, and cares about the details—but I never felt engaged. There was always distance. The movie started on the wrong track and never quite righted itself.

I wouldn’t have begun in 1966 in Vietnam. Or if I did, I would’ve worked in that Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) wasn’t just an intellectual; he had been a first lieutenant in the Marines in the 1950s. I did like the dynamic on McNamara’s plane. Ellsberg is called back to give his assessment, says the war isn’t improving, and Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), rather than discount him, agrees. Angrily agrees. Yet on the tarmac, before the press, he still gives LBJ’s and the Pentagon’s upbeat assessment. That helps sour Ellsberg, which helps explain his later decision to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Here’s something the movie doesn’t wonder over that both Bradlee and Graham, in their respective memoirs, do. From Graham’s “Personal History”:

It’s hard to understand why Nixon and his people were so upset by the publication of these Papers, which were essentially a history of decisions made before they were in power. Nothing in them was a reflection on Nixon. I believe the administration’s reaction was an example of its extreme paranoia about national security and secrecy in general.

Overall, the journalistic side of the story ain’t bad. I like Bradlee wondering what Neil Sheehan is up to—“Haven’t seen his byline in a while”—and the amateur spy games to try to suss it out. I like everyone reading the Times the day the story breaks. It’s assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who tags Ellsberg as the leak, and who contacts him from the usual public pay phones, and who travels to Boston to get a copy. The sorting of the papers in Bradlee’s living room is good—with the daughter selling lemonade outside—but does it have the zip it should? I associate Bradlee with energy, with that ballsy, freewheelingness of WWII vets who moved through life as if stunned they were still alive and decided to make the most of it. The movie doesn’t have that verve. Bradlee and Graham were the upstarts, the unknowns, trying to prove something at ages 49 and 53 respectively, and director Steven Spielberg cast the grand dames of American cinema, Hanks and Streep, ages 61 and 68 respectively, and maybe that was a mistake. There needed to be a greater hunger there. 

The second half of the story is Graham’s, who is often the only woman in a room full of accountants and lawyers, and who, according to the film, is virtually mute at the start. She’s smart, a good study, but can’t perform. Then she finds her voice.

The pivotal moment occurs after the reporters do their work and the Post’s lawyers warn about publishing it. From Graham’s memoir:

I was extremely torn by Fritz’s saying that he wouldn’t publish. I knew him so well, and we had never differed on any important issue; and, after all, he was the lawyer, not I. But I also heard how he said it: he didn’t hammer at me, he didn’t stress the issues related to going public, and he didn’t say the obvious thing—that I would be risking the whole company on this decision. He simply said he guessed he wouldn’t. I felt that, despite his stated opinion, he had somehow left the door open for me to decide on a different course. Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, “Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” And I hung up.

The movie, to its credit, captures all of this—particularly the silent interaction between her and Fritz Beebe, a legend at the Post, played by playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”). It’s nearly the same role he plays in “Lady Bird,” isn’t it? The wise, patient man next to the leading lady. Just as Bradley Whitford (“Get Out”) gets to play another asshole.

Anyway, it’s a great moment, and Streep nails it. Graham’s arc is the arc of the film—from figurehead to actor—but it feels overdone. It’s too obvious what she’s lacking, and then, boom, all of a sudden she gets it. How nice. And this is even before Spielberg—forever underlining points—films Graham, after the SCOTUS decision, making her way through the crowd, which suddenly turns into only admiring women. I don't buy it—the trajectory. Pretending she only found it at the 11th hour does a disservice to her and to the movie.  

27 for 30
“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s 30th feature film and I’ve seen 27 of them. He and I have spent a lot of time together in the dark. Here's a question: As he’s aged, as his future has receded and his past has grown, have his futuristic sci-fi movies become more dystopian (the idealism of “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” giving way to “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One”), while the historical movies have become more nostalgic?

The nostalgia is certainly thick in this one. I learned more about how newspapers were printed than ever before—and I'm the son of a newspaper man. And those newspapers were read—from beginning to end. People didn’t just see a headline, or a tweet or a meme, and share it. Those were the days.

I’m with him. I just find it ironic that Spielberg, the former wunderkind, has such love for what no longer is—for what’s been replaced by the very thing that used to make his eyes light up: the whiz-bang of it all.

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Posted at 08:07 AM on Jan 29, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Thursday January 18, 2018

Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Can anyone watch this movie and not be reminded of their first overwhelming love? For me it was in college with a girl named Kristin; and just as Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) dance around each other for weeks here, repelling and attracting, repelling and attracting, so I did the same with Kristin—but for years. There was always an excuse—she with someone, I with someone—but mostly I felt unworthy. I couldn’t imagine it. Then I couldn’t imagine not letting her know, so I told her the spring of my senior year. And then suddenly, magically, we were seeing each other, in the few weeks before I graduated and she left for a summer job on the coast of Maine.

Another parallel: Near the end of the movie, and near the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy, the two are walking and kissing at night in the nearly deserted cobblestone streets of Bergamo, a northern Italian/Germanic town, and they come across some locals listening to music (“Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs); and Oliver, overcome by it all, and with his usual boundless enthusiasm, dances with the girl, while Elio, overcome by other things, stumbles to a nearby trashcan and throws up.

I doubt it was the drink; I think it was the love. I think that because that was me. When I realized my case with Kristin wasn’t hopeless, what did I do? Dance? Shout with joy? Sure. I also returned home and threw up. For a time, it made me think our anatomical symbol for love was all wrong. It shouldn’t be the heart, I decided, but the stomach. We should send each other cards with stomachs on them. Our love notes should read “I (stomach) you” and “You make me nauseous.”

Keeping the lovers apart
Call Me By Your Name reviewCan anyone imagine a more languorous film? That’s the word that kept coming to me: languid. It’s a movie that feels like a summer day with nothing much to do.

It’s a slow dance. It’s circular. There’s the doors that open and close—literally and metaphorically. In this impossibly beautiful Italian country home in Lombardy, Italy, Oliver is using Elio’s room, and Elio is forced into the smaller room on the other side of a shared bathroom, and the doors are like invitations or refusals. Generally when one is opening the other is closing. It’s red light, green light, keep away. There are little verbal attacks, snarky little bites that confuse the other, and probably the biter. The two men show off and compete with each other, and, for a time, each sublimates his desire with a pretty Italian girl. (As sublimation goes, that's not a bad way.) The point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart, and dramatists often bend over backwards to find ways, but “Call Me By Your Name” reminds us that we do a pretty fine job of it on our own.

You keep the lovers apart because once they get together it’s fairly dull business for the viewer. Here, too, a bit. We’re no longer building toward something, we’re just at something. I found my attention wavering.

But screenwriter James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory) and director Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”) still keep it interesting. Maybe because we know it’s ending shortly? Because they go there with the fruit? Because there’s always the specter of possible gay bashing—that it’ll end in violence and pain? Thank god, it doesn’t. It ends traditionally, at a train station. No violence, just pain.

I was confused by the title before I saw the film but not after: “Call me by your name,” one says, “and I’ll call you by mine.” The wish to subsume yourself in the other, to be the other. Is it stronger in homosexual relationships? Where it’s easier to be the other? Oliver and Elio trade names and clothes and secrets. Then again, Kristin and I traded shirts. Or maybe she just wore mine.

Yes, the privilege here is immense. The Perlman family has cooks and gardeners and (the greatest privilege of all) lives with meaning. The father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archeology professor, Oliver is his graduate student, they are living lives of the mind. They have the dining table outdoors, and the meals served without fuss, and volleyball on the grass. Friends drop by. I envied the place, and the privilege, but mostly I envied the intelligence. Most movies make me feel too smart; this made me feel the opposite. Like I hadn’t studied enough. Like, at 54, I really needed to hit the books again.

L’interloper
In that final phone conversation, in winter during Hanukah, when Oliver tells Elio he’s getting married, he also tells him how lucky he is that he has parents who are so understanding—so open—about his homosexuality. “My father would’ve carted me off to a correctional facility,” he says. And Elio is lucky. To be who he is and where he is with the people he’s with. He's particularly lucky to have a father who gives him “the talk," the real talk, that every sensitive son needs to hear. I certainly needed to hear it in the summer of 1987. I still need to hear it. I want the speech on an MP3 file. I'd listen to it weekly:

We rip out so much of ourselves, to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. 

And this:

Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.

Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.

Staying open is so tough. Most things in life push us in the opposite direction. Most movies, too. “Call Me By Your Name” opened me up in a way I have not felt in a long time. It’s the best movie of the year.

At the start of the movie, as Elio first watches Oliver arrive, he jokingly calls him an interloper. So he is. For life.

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Posted at 09:15 AM on Jan 18, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Tuesday January 16, 2018

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Despite the thrilling ending, that whole “Every word you just said was wrong” triptych ticked off by Luke Skywalker, which not only upends Kylo Ren’s worldview but our subtitle, since the last of the three is “And I will not be the last Jedi”—which, let’s face it, we all knew it going in, Rey being the ray of hope and the Jedi idea worth billions—despite all that, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” disappointed me. Mostly for this reason:

They had 35 years to figure out what happened to Luke Skywalker, and this is what they came up with? I vant to be alone? Sulking for a long time, at the edge of a galaxy far, far away?

Luke was my guy. And look what they did to him. Look what they did to my boy.

Most likely to succeed
Star Wars: The Last Jedi reviewIn the summer of 1977, when I was 14, I must have seen “Star Wars” half a dozen times. I had “May the Force Be With You” and “Darth Vader Lives” iron-on T-shirts. And if I knew anything I knew this: Luke was going to wind up with the girl. The other dude? Han? A jerk. A hot-rodder. Besides, it wasn’t his story. It was Luke’s. He had the true heart. I knew that. Everyone knew that.

But that was before a car accident disfigured Mark Hamill’s pretty face, and before George Lucas—who had already invented something that binds his universe together—decided to tie it all up in a way-too-neat bow by making the villain, Darth Vader, Luke’s father, and the girl, Princess Leia, Luke’s sister, which created all kinds of complications for the original—the least of which is the kiss. I mean, Darth tortures his own daughter? He tries to kill his own son? Without knowing it? What good is the Force if it can’t fathom that?

But at least we got Luke’s heroic journey: rise and savior in the first movie; training and setback in the second; rescue and ... OK, so he doesn’t exactly stop the Emperor in the third. Daddy does that. He surrenders, hoping he can bring Darth back from the Dark Side, and he does, in the most-telegraphed, worst-edited change-of-heart in movie history. So Luke kinda-sorta gets credit for stopping the Empire. And by the end he’s a Jedi master. Also secondary to Han/Harrison Ford, who became the bigger star by far, and whose bad-ass ways were apparently more appealing to both men and women. Talk about your upended worldviews! “Wait, women want the jerk? All women want the jerk? Damn, this is going to be a long life."

Really, what heroic thing did Luke do after blowing up the Death Star in the first movie? He gets clocked by a wampa, whines with Yoda, loses a hand to Darth, gets trapped by Jabba, and is zapped by the Emperor. Still he’s treated as a legend, rather than someone who never lived up to his promise, so he sets up a Jedi camp to train the next generation, including his nephew, Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. And he screws that up, too. And he screws it up in the exact same way Obi-wan did.

Obi-wan took a kid, Anakin, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then lied about it to his next pupil, Luke: “A young Jedi named Darth Vader...betrayed and murdered your father.”

Luke took a kid, Ben Solo, trained him in the Jedi ways, lost him to the Dark Side, then he too lies about it to his next pupil, Rey, leaving out the part about thinking of killing him. Which woke up Ben/Kylo and completely turned him.

And what about that anyway? How exactly does Kylo, the student, best Luke, the Master? All we see is Luke looking horrified, falling backward, “Noooo!,” then waking up to flaming ruins. Is it that Luke was off balance by his earlier murderous thoughts, while Kylo was enraged? But OK, since it happens, here’s another one: Why doesn’t Kylo take the opportunity to kill Luke here? He killed everyone else—why not Luke? He certainly hated him enough.

That’s not even the worst of it. Imagine you’re Luke amid the wreckage and the bodies. You’re a legend, a Jedi Master, and now your nephew is the disciple of Snoke, who is rebuilding the Empire as the First Order. What do you do?

You flee to the edge of the galaxy, live like a hermit, and cut yourself off from the Force. Of course.

Faux feminism
Admittedly there’s a kind of symmetry to it. Luke begins the saga desperate to leave the desert planet, Tatooine, and join the rebellion, and he ends it on the water planet, Ahch-To, refusing to join the rebellion. Except the latter part isn’t exactly heroic. And if he didn’t become heroic, what was that hero’s journey all about? What was my childhood all about?

Dude isn’t even wise or resigned in his hermitage. He’s bitter. He went from whining to bitterness. The wisdom we get comes from ghostly Yoda, appearing in cackling, crackling form, talking about failure. Luke can’t even burn the ancient Jedi texts; ghost Yoda has to do that for him.

Wait, isn’t this true: Yoda is to Young Luke in “Empire” as Old Luke is to Rey in “Last Jedi”? So why is Rey’s mission to recruit old Luke to battle while young Luke’s mission was to just get trained by Yoda? How come Obi-wan didn’t instruct him, “Luke, go to the Dagobah system and find Yoda and bring him back to lead the rebellion because that dude can seriously kick ass”? Why weren’t the Emperor and Darth worried about Yoda returning the way Snoke/Kylo Ren are worried about Luke? Because Yoda was super old? Because his powers were weak, old man? Maybe. But at the time, his powers were still greater than young Luke’s.

Are Star Wars’ powers getting weak, old man? We keep seeing the same movie. Once again we watch our young hero (Luke/Rey) tossed about by the wizened Sith Lord (The Emperor/Snoke), while the Dark Side disciple (Darth/Kylo) stands to one side deciding whose side he’s on. At least the editing was better this time around. At least victory was a matter of intellect—hiding your true intentions. And at least Kylo did what he did for dark reasons: power. Still, I’m curious: Didn’t Snoke know the story of the Emperor’s fall? And doesn’t this galaxy have its version of George Santayana? Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Ditto those who have lousy screenwriters.

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis? Where’s the pleasure in a big red empty? And what is Snoke doing while waiting for his 1:1s? Does he have hobbies? Has he tried moisturizer? Visine? 

The movie does go off in some new directions—notably with Rey’s lineage, which isn’t related at all to the Skywalker/Kenobi clan. Thank god. She’s a nothing from nowhere. She’s the exceptional borne from the unexceptional. In this way, the Force is being democratized. Cf., the kid before the end credits who uses the Force to grab his broom.

“Last Jedi” also trots out the subversive—in the sense of subverting usual tropes—with its newfound feminism: Rose Tico schooling Finn; Leia and Holdo schooling Poe Dameron. But it feels like faux feminism to me.

Let me get this out of the way first: Leia slaps Poe Dameron for losing lives while destroying a dreadnought? I get the demotion, or worse, for not following orders; but a slap?

Besides, the whole “hot-dog flyboys wrong/calm women right” dynamic feels forced; it feels like the movie stacked the decks to make its “gotcha!” point. First they cast Laura Dern (never a good sign) as Vice Admiral Holdo; then they doll her up with purple hair and an odd turtlenecky dress so she looks like a cross between a “Hunger Games” socialite and an “Alice in Wonderland” sketch. Military rep aside, she seems like the unlikeliest admiral in the world. Which is why Poe leads others in a mutiny when they discover she’s abandoning ship. Actually that’s not why they mutiny. They mutiny because she doesn’t explain why they’re abandoning ship. To anyone. It would’ve been so easy, too. “Hey, let’s take these undetected transports to the rebel base on Crait so we can fight another day. Who’s with me?” But nah. And the movie doesn’t own up to this. The movie thinks Poe is a hothead, and wrong, and she’s a leader, and wise.

Doesn’t Poe also get the (dis)credit for the idiot Canto Bight subplot? But that’s a Rose Tico/Finn/Maz Kanata operation from the get-go. And how stupid is Finn in all this? The place is Vegas, full of rich, drunk, gambling fools, and he’s luxuriating in it. He needs RT to tell him look beneath the surface to find the exploitation. I wanted to smack my head—or his. That whole subplot is a longshot that never pays off. Worse, the partner in crime they pick up, DJ (Benicio del Toro, the best thing in the movie, btw), gives away Holdo’s plan and the transports get zapped like so much popcorn. Which leads to Holdo’s big sacrifice.

How come this hasn’t been tried before? Hyperspace the shit out of a giant Imperial/First Order ship? Kamikaze it. Cut it in two. Of course, for all the destruction, no main characters buy it. Fancy that. Finn and Rose are over there, as is, I believe, Rey. Not to mention Kylo Ren and Gen. Hux—the perpetual Abel to Kylo’s Cain. All survive. They don't even lose a hand. 

On Crait, Finn attempts his own sacrifice. He’s going to ram his speeder down the throat of the First Order, but at the last minute Rose’s speeder comes from the side to clip his and take him out of harm’s way. A few objections:

  • Attempting to rescue someone by ramming your vehicle into theirs at full speed? In the real world, the odds are pretty high both of you will die.
  • How is this logistically possible?

She veers off but he keeps racing in a straight line. But somehow, taking a circuitous route, she beats his straight line and gets ahead of him? That only works if: 1) her speeder is speedier; 2) she’s a better pilot. And if it’s 2) add that to the list of things Finn can’t do. One wonders, between this, and the Vegas infatuation, and constantly trying to run away, why we care about him at all.

But at least Luke gets to go out with a bang.

Old tech
I’m not the only one who had a problem with Luke’s outcome, by the way. Luke himself wasn’t thrilled. From a Vanity Fair piece on Mark Hamill:

“I at one point had to say to Rian [Johnson, director], ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”

That said, that final battle, with its twist, is pretty good. He gets to fight, or “fight,” but remain true to his last-act “plague on both your houses” persona. He gives the rebels the time to escape in the Millennium Falcon, which he called “a piece of junk” a long time ago, and which just keeps going. Chewie just keeps going. But he’s a bit player now, as is C3PO and R2D2. They come on, play their greatest hits—“Help me Obi-wan”; “The odds against our survival are...”—then are shown the door. They’re old tech and no longer supported by the machinery.

Anyone know why Luke buys it? Is it the strain of projecting his form across the galaxy? Or was it just time to die? For all my problem with his hermitage, they give him a good end. He gets to stare at the setting sun one last time—as a young Luke once stared at the setting suns of Tatooine, longing for adventure. He certainly found it. He’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Luke Skywalker staring at the sunset on Tatooine

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Posted at 06:18 AM on Jan 16, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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Wednesday January 10, 2018

Movie Review: Youth (2017)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In “Youth,” Feng Xiaogang’s sweeping tale of a cultural troupe in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, one of our main characters is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao), a young dancer from the provinces with a sad backstory. Her father was reeducated during the Cultural Revolution, and her mother remarried; Xiaoping has since taken her step-father’s name, but he ignores her, and village peers bully her. She’s hoping for better now that she’s in the PLA.

She doesn’t get it. Is it simply first impressions? Mean girls? When she arrives, her clothes smell (it costs to shower where she lived), and she sweats more than the other girls, and, despite her cheery demeanor, she can’t live this down. It doesn’t help that she borrows the military uniform of Dingding (Yang Caiyu) to take a picture to send back home—specifically to her father, to whom she’s loyal, and who isn’t long for this world—nor that she doesn’t own up to it when confronted. There’s also an incident with a padded bra, which is apparently scandalous. Bottom line: She’s “other” in this troupe. She’s mistreated, a punchline.

Review of Feng Xiaogang's YouthBut boy can she dance. And when the group is readying to perform before cavalry officers in the mountains, the lead dancer, as in a classic Hollywood melodrama, injures herself. It’s Xiaoping, the understudy, who is called upon to save the day.

Except by this point she’s done with the troupe—less for the way they’ve treated her than the way they treated Liu Feng (Huang Xuan), a selfless, almost saintly figure, who is kicked out for indescretions. Specifically: He spent years doing good deeds for Dingding because he was hopelessly in love with her; and when he finally confesses this to her, and tries to embrace her, he’s caught (“caught”) and condemned.

So Xiaoping, done with it all, feigns illness to get out of dancing the lead role. Ah, but the political commissar realizes she’s faking, and, in his wisdom, decides to see where she’s going with it. He takes her on stage before the cavalry officers, tells them that she’s sick but has agreed to perform for them anyway. The troops chant her name: “Learn from Comrade Xiaoping!” they cry. The music wells up, and the camera closes in on her, saluting the troops, overcome with emotion.

And then she shows them what she can do. 

Except that doesn’t happen. Instead we cut away, and the next time we see Xiaoping she’s working as a nurse on the front lines of the Sino-Vietnamese War. We never get the big dance number the movie seems to be building toward.

It’s even weirder than that. Because the big dance number was actually filmed. It was in the movie when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. It’s even on YouTube. You can see it here. But it’s not in the movie I saw in downtown Seattle last weekend. And apparently it’s not in the film released in China on Dec. 15.

And what about that release? For a film from Feng Xiaogang, the Steven Spielberg of China, “Youth” had a really rocky time getting before the public. It was supposed to be released in late September, just prior to “National Day,” October 1, but was pulled by the Chinese government at the last minute. There’s an extremely informative article on the background to all of this by Richard Yu on the Cinema Escapist site, but even he doesn’t know why the film was pulled. He simply thinks the politics of the film, such as they are, had nothing to do with it.

So did something happen between when it was pulled and when it was released? Did Feng take some extra scissors to his project? Did someone else?

It’s the real thing
“Youth” is based upon a popular novel by Yan Geling, who was herself a dancer in a PLA troop in the 1970s, then became a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese War. Essentially she’s Suizi (Elane Zhong), who narrates the film, and who’s part of the troup’s two unrequited love stories. Just as Liu Feng does everything for the shallow Dingding (for naught), so she does everything for the callow Chen Can (Wang TianChen) for naught. The Chinese do love their weepies. They love the scent of bitter almonds.

Me, I love this period in Chinese history. In 10 years, China went from the Cultural Revolution, when a whiff of westernism, let alone capitalism, was enough to be reeducated; to “to get rich is glorious,” when the machinery of capitalism was put into place and began to roar. The movie reflects that leap. The first thing we see is a giant mural of Mao Zedong; one of the last, a giant ad for Coca-Cola.

I admit that when the war started I went, “Wait, what? A Sino-Vietnamese war? In the ’70s?” Turns out it wasn’t much to brag about. The Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and when Vietnam desposed them, China took offense and attacked. (Most wars have suspect provenances, but starting one to keep Pol Pot in power has to be at the bottom.) The war lasted a month and cost China between 9,000 to 62,000 lives, depending on who you believe. Here, it costs the ever-helpful Xiaoping her sanity (temporarily) and the ever-selfless Liu Feng his arm (permanently). We do get a lovely scene where Xiaoping’s old troupe performs for the war’s wounded, and she, startled into recognition by the music, winds up outside, dancing on the grass under the stars.

Shortly after, amid tears, the troupe is disbanded. Economic reforms are on the way. Capitalism is on its way. 

To get rich may be glorious but it’s not portrayed so here. The people who get rich are the Chan Cans of the world—the opportunists. The Xiaopings and Lei Fengs get screwed again. The last time we see them, they’re huddled together on a train station bench in the mid-90s. Suizi’s voiceover lets us know they remain together, unmarried and without children, and show up at a reunion in 2016. But she says she won’t show us those scenes. She says it’s better to remember everyone as they were when they were young.

These days are ours
This is the second international film in the last three years to use “Youth” for its English language title—after Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film—and there's some interesting differences between the two. Most obviously, the western film focuses on the aged (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel), while the Eastern film on the young (to the point of casting unfamous actors in the leads, and not showing us how they aged). It’s the opposite of how we perceive each culture: the west discards its aged, the east reveres its elders. I hope China doesn’t give up on that as it moves to the center of the world stage.

Overall, I enjoyed “Youth”—I was certainly swept up by it—but there’s a big disconnect that isn’t addressed. On some level, we’re all nostalgic for our youth, as is our narrator, Suizi, as is the film itself. Which means she/it yearns for this troupe, full of mean people, and this period, the Cultural Revolution, a time when society was upended, education reviled, priceless artifacts destroyed, and millions of lives ruined. Not exactly “Happy Days.” Not even “That ’70s Show.”

The movie also should've given us Xiaoping’s triumphant dance scene. I mean, c’mon.

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Posted at 08:02 AM on Jan 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2017
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