Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday February 11, 2019
Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)
At some point, I asked my wife what she thought was going to happen. Jared (Lucas Hedges) will obviously escape the “Love in Action” gay conversion therapy group, I said, and be out and proud. But what about his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe)? How will they react? Who will support him?
She: I think his mom will be OK with it; I think his dad will have a harder time.
At some point, I also said: I think this Cameron kid is going to die. He’ll probably kill himself.
And is that really Flea? Yes. Yes, it is.
Sometimes when you know what’s going to happen in a movie you still enjoy it. Not here. “Boy Erased” is an odd, careful little movie. Way too careful.
I admire Joel Edgerton for adapting, directing, and casting himself in this movie—about a subject wholly worth dramatizing—from a true-life memoir. It just doesn’t resonate.
BTW: If “Boy Erased” is an accurate representation of gay conversion therapy, then, ethical issues aside, simply in practical terms, gay conversion therapy is pretty fucking stupid.
How do Christian parents who don’t want their sons to be gay stop them from being gay? They remove them from their normal routines and put them in close quarters with a bunch of similarly aged boys who are also repressing every sexual urge they have. Then they make sure they don’t jack off so there’s no sexual release. There’s just sexual tension—day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.
I don’t get the batting cage, either. I get it for the boys. It’s the dipshit version of gay conversion therapy—if there’s another kind—since it’s supposed to be about making them manly. So why bring the girls? Why mock the one girl who can’t swing the bat? By your lights, isn’t that a good thing?
The movie opens on the day Jared starts his therapy. It’s supposed to be for 12 days but he later finds out he might wind up there as long as a year. Because it might take that long or because they want the money? Does he get to decide or do his parents? Or neither?
In there with him is the girl who can’t swing a bat and gets hit by a baseball. Her father soon picks her up, threatening legal action. There’s also the handsome kid with a cut over his nose, and, later, a black eye. No one asks where his injuries came from—not even Jared. My favorite is Gary (Aussie pop star Troye Sivan), who gives Jared the following advice:
Play the part. Show ’em it’s working. You’re getting better. [Pause] Fake it until you make it, right? You don’t want to end up in one of those houses for any length of time. I’ve heard the stories and they’re not good.
Who’s saying this? A kid with dyed blonde hair, curls on top, for whom gaydar meters ring off the charts. Shouldn’t Jared have been honest? “Wait, you think you’re fooling them? At least I can swing a bat, dude.”
Also: “You don’t want to wind up in one of those houses” seems to indicate the real drama is there; but we never get there. Instead, a lot of the movie is flashback to Jared’s two gay encounters: the first, which is near rape; the second, which is sweet. Then the accusation that reaches his parents, and the admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry.” His father, a Baptist minister who runs a successful car dealership, is so shocked by this his left eyelid twitches. Twice. You can see it in the trailer. It’s my favorite part of the movie. I don’t how Russell Crowe can do that—act that. An eye twitch? It’s on another level.
Besides the batting cages, what does the therapy actually consist of? Well, the head man, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), tells the kids all the answers are in the Bible. They also do the usual gather-the-chairs-into-a-circle confessional. Then there’s role playing: You’re supposed to pretend an empty chair is your dad and say why you hate him. Jared doesn’t hate his dad, so, with the help of mom, he breaks free, but he never tells his dad why he breaks free. “Dad, they wanted me to hate you.” He never says that. He never helps his case.
Then it’s four years later, he’s living up north, and, during a visit, he finally has it out with dad: “I’m gay and I’m your son, and neither of those things are going to change,” etc. We get real-life photos of the family, learn Jared has a husband, then learn Victor Sykes also has a husband. So the warden escaped the prison, too. Next gay conversion therapy movie should probably be a comedy.
Last summer, this had awards buzz; then everyone saw it and the buzz died. It did manage to get 81% on Rotten Tomatoes—I assume, on the strength of the subject matter. It’s a movie you’re supposed to like. I wanted to like it, too.
Movie Review: Cold War (2018)
There’s a moment in this movie, about 15 minutes in maybe, that connected me in all of my American comfort with people under the yoke of Soviet domination in the early years of the Cold War.
The movie begins in rural Poland. Two musicians, Wiktor and Irena (Tomasz Kot and Agata Kulesza), and their handler, a Polish apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), seek out and record folk songs from the people in the hinterlands—stuff most likely passed down from generation to generation. Then they find young singers, also from the countryside, and bring them to a school to train them in song and dance. They are putting on a show. It’s one of those endemic folk festivals we’ve all seen at some point, with colorful costumes and choreographed movements; but since it’s backed by the power of the government, which wants to celebrate “the people’s music,” and, more important, since it’s being birthed by music professionals, it doesn’t come off as kitschy. The opposite. It soars. It’s beautiful. On opening night, shocked by how good it is, Kaczmarek is busy backslapping while Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph.
Then they have a meeting with Kaczmarek’s superiors in which a few suggestions are made. The show was great, they’re told. But aren’t they ways to improve it? Might they not include, say, a song about land reform? Or in praise of Stalin?
There’s a pause. And Irena fills it by pointing out the obvious: Farmers don’t sing songs about land reform or Stalin; the songs wouldn’t be authentic; it goes against the program. Wiktor says nothing. He probably understands the program has already changed.
Irena winds up leaving the meeting—and the movie. Just like that she’s out of the picture. Shame. Agata Kulesza, who starred in Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, “Ida,” brings such intelligent intensity to her roles.
But that’s the scene. I’ve never lived under totalitarianism; I’ve never been involved in a meeting of such import. Yet when the bad idea is floated by powerful people, and there’s that pause, because everyone knows it’s a bad idea but no one can say that, I thought, “Oh yeah. I’ve been in that room before.”
What Cold War?
I left out something in the above. After the first performance, in which Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph, she’s feeling amorous and is looking to celebrate. She’s looking at him. He’s handsome, after all, rail thin, with a stoic, mysterious demeanor that suggests past suffering, and a few strands of black hair that perpetually fall over his forehead. Good news: he’s feeling amorous, too. Bad news: he’s looking at Zula (Joanna Kulig), one of the students. A moment later, he and Zula fucking. It’s a bit of a shock—the zero-to-60 of it. No time to waste under Soviet domination. Nor in this film. Pawlikowski keeps the story moving.
Was fucking Zula Wiktor’s plan all along? She was the only student obviously not from the hinterlands. She snuck her way in and glommed onto another girl’s folk song; then, when asked to sing one of her own, she sang a song she’d learned from a movie. She doesn’t fit with the program but he gets her in.
Their troupe is such a success, they’re soon playing bigger and bigger venues, and cities, and wind up in Berlin—recently divided between east and west, but before the wall went up in ’62. There, Wiktor plans to escape; and he wants Zula to escape with him. What is her reluctance? That they’ll be caught? That they’ll make it and she won’t know who she is in the West? We expect complications and suspense and drama in the way of movies but there really isn’t any. He waits for her, she never shows, so he just walks across the divide and into a new life for himself as a musician in Paris.
That’s another shocking thing about the movie—the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe again, and mostly her, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? Put him in a prison for 30 years? Make him love Big Brother? No. They put him on a train back to the West. You chose your side, Wiktor, they seem to be saying. Stay there.
I forget how she’s able to join him. But suddenly she’s there, too, and you wonder where the drama is. Wasn’t this about the Cold War? He works on film soundtracks during the day and plays in a jazz band at night; and one night she joins him onstage and sings this beautiful, plaintive Polish song (oh yo yo), and they’re working on a French language version, and, I mean, how could life be better? They’re Polish émigrés in a loft apartment in 1950s Paris who live creative lives—in gorgeous black and white, no less—and yet she’s miserable. She drinks, she carps, she’s mad with jealousy. There’s a great moment when in we hear Bill Haley & the Comets on the jukebox, and it’s like a comet—American rock ‘n’ roll!—and she gets up, drunk, and dances, and you sense the age difference or aesthetic difference between them.
Anyway, they ruin themselves. She provokes, he responds; she’s jealous, then he is. Then she’s gone again—back to Poland. The Cold War is them. The battle between east and west hardly factors in. Until it does.
This Cold War
That’s another great twist. At the moment we’re done expecting the great powers to crush this relationship—to be the barrier keeping the lovers apart—we see her walking in winter in Poland next to ... is it a prison camp? She goes into a cabin and finds him there, head shaved, gaunt, all ’50s romanticism gone—more reminiscent of the Holocaust than Paris. He’d tried to sneak back into the country to be with her, and they got him. But it opens her up again. The Iron Curtain isn’t what keeps the lovers apart but what drives them back together. There’s too much freedom on the other side.
Is this a fault with the film? It’s as if it’s saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad.
“Cold War” is beautifully photographed and melancholic and still moves quickly. It’s only 90 minutes long and keeps surprising us. It’s nearly perfect but for that fault.
Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Based on the trailers we had to watch before “On the Basis of Sex,” I assumed I was in for a long haul. Trailers are usually matched to film—arthouse trailers for arthouse films, etc.—and the seven or eight trailers we suffered through prior to this were some of the godawfulest things I’ve ever seen.
We got that dog reincarnation flick with Dennis Quaid—sorry, the sequel to that. We got a horror flick with Isabelle Hupert as basically Jason. We got another “teens with terminal illness in love” thing. And we got not one but two pedantic Christian movies—“Overcomer” and “Breakthrough”—which is a bit odd considering our biopic subject isn’t, you know, Christian. Imagine if they’d played a trailer for a different Christian movie coming out in 2019: “Roe v. Wade,” a pro-life take on the SCOTUS decision starring every right-wing nut in Hollywood. Don’t imagine the RBG crowd would’ve been too docile for that one.
“On the Basis of Sex” turned out to be better than these trailers—or its trailer—suggested. But RBG still deserves a better biopic.
On the basis of gender
For starters, how about someone Jewish? Or at least someone who can nail a Brooklyn accent? Was Felicity Jones England’s retribution for Kevin Costner? Her accent was mostly nonexistent, and then every half hour it would come in over-the-top: loi-yah.
But that’s not the egregious part. The egregious part is that for the sake of imagined drama, they make their protagonist, one of the great legal minds of my lifetime, a shitty lawyer. They make her someone who is in constant need of pep talks: from her husband, from colleagues, even from her 15-year-old daughter. It would be like a biopic of Willie Mays in which he’s striking out and falling on his ass all the time but manages to get it together to make that catch in the ‘54 Series. You maybe want to remind people that Willie Mays was a little better than that. He was Willie Fucking Mays.
There’s so many false notes here; and they seem false as you‘re watching. Did RBG really run into a brick wall with the ACLU’s legal director Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) in trying to promote gender equality? Of course not. Is Melvin Wulf Jewish? Of course he is. Is Theroux? Of course not.
I suppose I should also complain that Armie Hammer, as Martin Ginsburg, isn’t Jewish, either, but I like Hammer in this film. Although, good god, try to be a little less gorgeous, buddy. This is the movie where he completely won over my wife. Afterwards, she talked up the look of vulnerability and helplessness in his eyes when he’s stricken with testicular cancer at Harvard Law. When he’s trying to talk RBG down after another 1950s sexist moment, as he's lying across the bed resting his head on his hand, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I have to get you pajamas like that.” “I still won’t look like that in them,” I whispered back.
Anyone else uncomfortable during the boudoir scene? When he takes off her top, and they kiss, and she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him? I’m like: Dudes, it’s RBG. Yes, your grandparents had sex; you don’t necessarily want to see it dramatized.
One thing that was true? Ginsburg’s secretary suggesting they remove the word “sex” from much of the original brief for Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and replace it with the less provocative word “gender.” Which is a great factoid but kind of undercuts the title, doesn’t it? Since Hollywood went with “sex”? For a change?
I did like that we got a half-hour scene before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. I was so excited when that was going down. Plus I don’t know who cast the three judges but kudos. They looked like judges.
But so much else is so wrong. RBG didn’t have to convince Moritz in a face-to-face trip to Denver to let her take his case pro bono; he agreed by phone. There wasn’t a moot court—and a moot court isn’t a punishment anyway, as the film suggests, but a privilege any attorney trying a big case would leap at. Moreover, if there had been a moot court, she wouldn’t have acted like a deer in headlights, necessitating getting hubby on board for half the oral argument. No, he was already on board for half the oral argument; that was the plan from the start. And I doubt when they were sitting there at the 10th Circuit, trading off like tag-team partners, they wasted long, precious seconds exchanging meaningful glances as argument time ticked down.
Oh, and when she finally finds her voice at the 11th hour and tears well up in her eyes? Remember earlier in the film when all those chauvinists said women were too emotional to be attorneys? So you have RBG tearing up in court? RBG? Who wrote this thing anyway?
Would you believe—her nephew?
Yes. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”), has one writing credit: Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He admits having RBG freeze in moot court and before the 10th Circuit was Hollywood dramatization. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” he says. What goes unanswered is why they, or he, thought her flubbing it for most of the movie was a dramatic necessity. Why not make it like Loki vs. the Hulk? Loki taunts for two seconds and then ... whammo!
According to Stiepleman, when he proposed the screenplay idea to Ginsburg, she had two requests: get the law right and get Marty right. Shame she didn’t add: Get me right, too.
Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
This movie so wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Several people, pretending to be who they aren’t, arrive in an out-of-the-way locale for different reasons, get into conversations involving long monologues, and all of this is punctuated by sudden violence and bloodshed. Oh, and writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) also messes with the chronology. We see Person A shot, and 10 minutes later we get it from Person D’s perspective.
Even the title: “El Royale.” With cheese?
Just doesn’t work.
I have my issues with QT but he doesn’t bore me. This bored me a little. When the movie’s main villain, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), hits the stage, holds the others hostage and plays games with their lives, all while keeping up a patter of pseudo-philosophy, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) tells him he’s boring. She’s right: He is. Imagine saying that, or thinking that, about the monologues of Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.” You can’t.
Billy Lee, by the way, is a version of Charles Manson, Darlene Sweet is a version of Darlene Love, and the El Royale is a version of the Cal Neva Resort and Casino, which was co-owned by Frank Sinatra, and which (per the name) straddled the border of California and Nevada. It’s also a version of purgatory. For most it becomes a hell. Two escape.
Want one more? The El Royale is also a version of Gerald Foos’ Manor House Hotel, which Gay Talese wrote about for The New Yorkera few years back, but which (I believe) has since been debunked. Foos claimed to have created observation areas behind ventilation slats, through which he watched and wrote about his guests for decades.
Here, it’s a hallway, accessible through the manager’s office, where you can see each room via one-way mirror. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), pretending to be a loquacious vacuum-cleaner salesman, but in reality FBI agent Dwight Broadbeck, stumbles upon it. It’s 1969, and he’s been sent by Hoover to retrieve FBI bugs from the honeymoon suite, but discovers eight times as many as the agency left. Investigating, he finds the seemingly clean-cut concierge, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), high on drugs and asleep in his office. Then he discovers the passageway.
What are each of the guests doing?
- Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has dug up the floorboard of his room in a futile search for money he and his brother stole 10 years ago, for which his brother was killed. He’s not really a priest. (“No shit,” as Darlene says.) He’s been in prison for the last 10 years.
- Darlene is practicing for a singing gig in Reno.
- Emily (Dakota Johnson) has bound and gagged a young girl to a chair.
Broadbeck is ordered by Hoover to ignore the kidnapping but sabotage everyone’s cars. Don’t quite get this last order. Is it part of the purgatory metaphor? No one leaves? Or is another FBI team on the way? Either way, they never arrive, and Broadbeck tries to do the right thing by knocking out Emily and rescuing the girl. Two problems: Emily isn’t knocked out and kills him with a shotgun; and the girl, Emily’s sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), is the real problem. She’s part of a cult. Basically, she’s Squeaky Fromme, her sister was trying to get her clean, but, freed, she phones Billy Lee, who, when he arrives with armed backups, begins his dull, dancy torture games in the lobby. Like Madsen in “Reservoir Dogs”? Either way, like Darlene, I was bored.
I shouldn’t have been. Toss in the tape of a prominent but dead leader having sex in the honeymoon suite (most likely RFK or MLK), not to mention the hotel’s unseen owners (most likely the mob), as well as the late reveal that Miles isn’t just an aw-shucks kid but a former Vietnam War sharpshooter with 123 kills to his credit, and it’s a good mix of fucked-up Americana. It should be way more interesting than it is.
I did like one line. After Father Flynn discovers the passageway, and the videotape, Miles is trying to confess to him. At this point, we think the kid is just a kid who’s carried water for the mob, or whomever, and that’s what he wants to confess. Either way, the Father isn’t a Father, but Miles doesn’t know that. He’s killed 123 but has kept his innocence or naiveté—sort of like a Vietnam-era Alvin York. And we get this exchange.
Miles: I’ve done horrible things.
Father Flynn (after long look): So has everybody. You’ll be fine.
Maybe with 30 minutes cut from its 141-minute runtime, and more lines like the above, we might’ve had something.
Movie Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)
I saw “Death of Stalin” in movie theaters last spring, didn’t laugh much but liked it well enough. I knew smart people were behind it, such as writer-director Armando Iannucci, who has given us “VEEP,” “In the Loop,” and “The Thick of It”—scorching political satires that produce shock and discomfort as much as laughter. Plus, look at the cast. My god.
So when I saw it on some Top 10/honorable mention lists at the end of the year, I thought I’d give it another go. Maybe I missed something.
There’s some truth to the equation: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Would “We lost 19 of our best guys” have been funny on 9/12? At the same time, the Bush era war comedy “In the Loop” was funny during the Bush era. We didn’t need time to turn that tragedy into comedy. Similarly, maybe in some cases time never helps. Some tragedies are just never funny.
A lot of the humor in “In the Loop,” for example, comes out of the word “unforeseeable.” As England is following the U.S. into a Mideast war, a bland government minister on a bland British radio show says the phrase “I think war is unforeseeable” and all hell breaks loose. In general, he’s right: War is unforeseeable, since so many factors go into its creation. On the other hand, this particular war is totally foreseeable, since an unnamed U.S. administration is hell-bent on having it. But you can’t say that. So you’re left with nothing. You’re left with lies and prevarication, which is where the humor is.
We get something similar athe beginning of “Death of Stalin.” A Moscow radio station is broadcasting a Mozart concerto when the national director receives a phone call. From Stalin. Who wants a recording. Except they’re not recording the concerto. So they have to play it again and record it before Stalin’s men arrive. Except the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses. She lost brother and father to Stalin, despises him, won’t do anything that might give him pleasure. The others scramble. What about a new pianist? The conductor shakes his head: “Even Stalin,” he says, “would be able to tell the difference.” The others jump on this line—even Stalin?—and he scrambles to correct himself to the recording devices that might be listening until he faints outright. Now they need a new conductor, too.
In both situations, language is used to disguise truth. The ineffectual Brit official tries to backtrack on “unforeseeable” so he won’t fall from power, while the Russian conductor tries to erase “even” so he won’t be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The former's funnier.
Being imprisoned, tortured or killed is on everyone’s mind in the U.S.S.R. in 1953. We first see Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) perusing the latest list with Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret service:
Beria: Oh, I put Shteyman on the list, the writer. I know you like his work, but...
Stalin: No, leave him on.
Beria: And, uh ... Shteyman 2, his wife?
Stalin: On. [Eyes twinkling] They're a couple, ain’t they?
When Beria gives the list to his men, he add this: “Shoot her before him. Make sure he sees it.”
Not exactly a laugh line.
Some of the situations are funny. Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, for example, because everyone is terrified of him. The guards are too afraid to investigate the thump in his room so he lies on the carpet all night; the new chairman, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is too wishy-washy to call a doctor because he has no backbone; and the doctors themselves are old, young or third-rate, because Stalin has eliminated the best: they’re dead or in gulags. And even then the doctors can hardly deliver the bad news. They do what Malenkov did: rely on the group to disperse potential blame: “Following a, uh, group assessment of Comrade Stalin, we’ve arrived at the unanimous conclusion, based on a collective finding...” Etc.
I will say, with a bit of pride, that the actors who elicited the most laughs from me were American: Tambor as Malenkov, and particularly Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. When Malenkov dithers on calling the doctor until the Politburo convenes, saying they should wait until they’re quorate, Khrushchev responds, in that exasperated tone Buscemi has used throughout his career, “Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious!”
Another LOL line: Beria, already making his move, comforts Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with a hug and these words: “Courage, little bird. We’re here for you.” Not to be outdone, Khrushchev steps forward. Awkwardly. “Most of all, we cry for you, little ... bird.” That pause. That slight disgust on Buscemi’s face that he has to say it. Killed me.
The scramble for power after Stalin’s death quickly becomes a scramble between Beria and Khrushchev. Everyone else is just too incompetent. But Beria is a horror show—a serial murderer, torturer and rapist—which means we root for Khrushchev. Yes. In “The Death of Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev is the hero.
There is no one else, by the way; the people are awful, too. Sons give up fathers, friends deny friends, everyone is looking to blame someone else. Plus the propaganda worked: People still mourn for Stalin. He terrorized them and they arrive by the tens of thousands to mourn him. They say whatever needs to be said to survive. Or not survive:
Prisoner: Long Live Stalin!
Guard: Stalin’s Dead. Malenkov’s in charge.
Prisoner: Long live Malenk...
[shot in the head]
It’s worth seeing but don’t expect to laugh too much. Imagine a comedy out of “Animal Farm.” Like that.