Movie Reviews - 2018 postsFriday June 08, 2018
Movie Review: Hal (2018)
What did I know about Hal Ashby before I saw this documentary?
That he was an iconoclastic filmmaker whom actors loved working with, and who made his best movies, including “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Bound for Glory” and “Being There,” in the 1970s. He didn’t do much in the 1980s. He might’ve died early in that decade.
And what did I learn about Hal Ashby from this doc by first-time director Amy Scott?
Oh, right, “Shampoo” and “Coming Home.” Can’t believe I forgot those.
And, wow, I guess he did make movies in the ’80s; they were just stinkers. The way that all of his movies in the ’70s were good, all of his movies in the ’80s were not. It’s like a switch had been thrown. “Slugger’s Wife”? That was his? Never even heard of “Second-Hand Hearts” (with Robert Blake) and “Looking to Get Out” (with Jon Voight). The doc implies that “Eight Million Ways to Die” (with Jeff Bridges) was ruined because the studio took it away from him and edited it poorly, but who knows? He’d already directed three stinkers in a row by then. The highest IMDb rating among his ’80s work is “Eight Million,” which garners a 5.7. That’s the highest. His lowest of the ’70s is “Shampoo,” a 6.3—and that underrates it considerably. It’s much better than that.
What was true for Ashby was also true for the movies themselves. The great directors’ decade of the 1970s was over; the era of the blockbuster had begun. But did any great director fall so precipitously?
On the road to find out
Ashby was born and raised in Utah, wasn’t a Mormon, and his father left the family when he was about 6. He worked his way up in Hollywood—although they don’t tell us when he arrived. Like even a decade. I hate that. Give me some chronology, people. Norman Jewison talks up running into him in an editing room where he was helping edit William Wyler’s movies and grabbing him for himself—but not when this was. 1964? 1957?
Ashby wound up editing some of Jewison’s best: “The Cincinnati Kid,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Then Ashby began to direct his own. He and Jewison remained tight all of their lives.
(Among respected directors, Jewison is the real oddity, isn’t he? He flourished in the late ’60s, stumbled in the director's decade of the ’70s (“Rollerball,” “F.I.S.T.”) when everyone else was prospering artistically, and righted himself in the ’80s (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Moonstruck”) when everyone else was stumbling artistically. That arc seems worthy of a doc of its own.)
“Hal” barely touches on the work Ashby did with Wyler. According to IMDb, he helped edit “Big Country,” “Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” What was that like? Watching the studio system disintegrate? And it doesn’t mention this fact at all: In the midst of that A-level Hollywood work, Ashby was also assistant editor for “Captain Sindbad, a cheapie German film from 1963 that my brother and I saw, dubbed, at the Boulevard Theater in re-release some Saturday matinee in the early 1970s. I mostly remember it because Sindbad (the extra “d” was to avoid copyright infringement) stabs the villain in the chest but the blade comes out clean. The villain has no heart! It’s locked at the top of a tower. Sindbad’s goal thus becomes getting to that tower and throwing the beating heart over the parapet. Which he does.
So how did Ashby wind up working on that? Nothing. Crickets.
Miles from nowhere
What else did I learn? Ashby had a lot of girlfriends/wives and he smoked a lot of dope. The great Cat Stevens’ songs in “Harold and Maude” were demos, but Ashby liked them well enough, or was behind deadline enough, that he stuck them in—much to Stevens’ initial chagrin. He’s cool with it now.
Ashby was also set to be the original director for “Tootsie” but had to step out because his post-production work on “Lookin’ to Get Out” wasn’t fulfilled. Too bad. His ’80s oeuvre would’ve looked a little better with that on it. If it came out well.
That’s about all I learned.
“Hal” is well-named: It's pleasing; I’d recommend it for film fans. It's about Hal, your pal. I wanted more on Ashby.
Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is an edgy, topical film that fails miserably. Instead of precision targeting, it throws bombs everywhere. Was that a target? Did he mean to hit it? And did he? The movie becomes anarchic and sloppy. The tone becomes sloppy. Are we supposed to laugh at this scene or be horrified? Maybe more accurate: I’m horrified, but why do I get the feeling it’s being played for laughs?
Certain white critics, I’m sure, will fall all over themselves in praise.
A banana in the tailpipe
Lakeith Stanfield (the “Get out!” guy in “Get Out”) plays Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-on-his-luck black dude living in his uncle’s garage in Oakland in the near future. Well, “down on his luck.” He’s sleeping with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), so it’s not all bad. She’s a performance artist whose day job is twirling a sign on a street corner. She does this at night, too. That confused me. Are there nighttime sign twirlers? She doesn’t seem bugged by her job, either. I guess as long as she’s got her art? But of course we only see 15 seconds of sign twirling. Try that for eight hours and see if you’re as chipper as Tessa Thompson by the end.
There are similar disconnects throughout the film. At one point, Cash is flipping TV channels. He’s got three options:
- An infomercial for WorryFree, a workplace where you work, eat, and sleep. Everything is provided but you have no rights; you’ve signed your life away to survive. Its CEO is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
- A game show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me,” in which contestants get beaten up to win cash and prizes. It’s “Fear Factor” without the wit. It’s for people for whom “Jackass” was too complicated.
- The news.
Three options? To keep the population docile, opiated, don’t you want many, many options? Like the obscene amount we have today? Why down to three? Is it indicative of the limits in this reality or of Riley’s imagination?
Most everything in this reality is limited in scope—particularly available jobs, so Cash goes for one in telemarketing at RegalView. It sucks until an old hand, Langston (Danny Glover), tells him to use his “white voice.” When Cash objects, saying he doesn’t sound particularly “black,“ Langston clarifies: The “white voice” is the one that assumes everything will go your way. And it turns out Cash is a natural! But the effect, dubbed by David Cross, is odd—like dubbing in a Hong Kong kungfu flick. Plus I didn’t buy the concept. That’s the voice of success? Nasal, polite, and enthused in a 1950s prep-school way? It sounds like an Eddie Murphy bit from the ’80s. Chum? Who says chum?
But, using the voice, Cash suddenly cannot not sell. He’s on a roll, and will soon be promoted to “power caller” on the floors above. That’s where the real money is made. At the same time, his colleagues Squeeze and Salvador (Steven Yuen and Jermaine Fowler) begin to unionize, and so he must choose: his friends or the money? OK, it’s actually more complex. If he doesn’t get paid, like a lot, and soon, his uncle (Terry Crews) loses his home. So it’s more like friends + principles vs. family + money. He opts for the latter. His friends condemn him anyway. So does the movie.
It condemns him because he gets lost in the money. He’s got a new place, new furniture, new clothes. He and Detroit fight. She winds up with Squeeze. They become a subplot but every time they were on screen I kept thinking, “Who gives a shit?” Particularly when the real horror goes down.
Going to meet the man
As his success continues, Cash is invited to meet The Man, CEO Steve Lift, at a party at his mansion. In the basement he accidentally stumbles upon Life's scheme: turning his WorryFree workers into half-horse creatures so they can do heavier labor.
It's a horrific reveal, but in the aftermath the movie keeps losing the thread. We get a bit of the Detroit on-again-off-again subplot. Cash then tries to alert the media. Initially I thought the preposterousness of the plot—the world’s richest man is using cocaine to turn his workers into half-horse creatures!—would work against him, but nah. Bigger problem: Nobody cares. Or too few care. They’ve got their three channels, after all. That seems enough in this world.
Moments work. I like how Lift tries to soothe Cash and justify his actions as if they were logical and ethical. That was pitch-perfect. But the movie has huge targets it keeps missing. At one point, now siding with his colleagues, Cash wakes up in a paddy wagon and views the pitched battle through the thin slot in the door. There go the police routing the protestors. Nope, here come the protestors, led by the half-horse creatures. The back-and-forth looks comic but there’s nothing funny about it at all.
Movie Review: 1985 (2018)
In “1985,” a young gay man, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, in that pivotal, titular year, to come out to his conservative parents (Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen). That's the story. But I think writer-director Yen Tan wants to upend our expectations about how all this might play out. The parents, for example, know more than they let on. They’re conservative and everything—Reagan/Bush bumper sticker, nativity scene on the front lawn—but they’re cooler than we expect.
Adrian, meanwhile, is not. He’s duller. He may be dullest gay character I’ve seen on a movie screen. Or anywhere.
Yeah, it kind of ruins the movie.
It might have been ruined anyway. “1985” is another low-budget, black-and-white indie film full of static shots and dull dialogue.
Does the mom say anything of interest? The dad talks up the Vietnam war now and again, but in vague, clichéd ways. He complains that the youngest son, Andrew (Aidan Langford), is pursuing theater rather than sports. He wonders what happened to sports. He defends the way his father beat sense into him. No one talks politics except for the mother at the end, who admits, in secret to her son, that she voted for Mondale. Thanks, mom. He still lost. By a landslide.
As for Adrian, as you watch, you wonder how he’s going to come out; and then you wonder if he’s going to come out; and then you realize, shit, the point is his not coming out. There are a thousand openings and he doesn’t take any of them.
He meets up with an old girlfriend (Jamie Chung), who is trying her hand at stand-up comedy in Dallas, and you think: OK, this will be like his starter kit, the sympathetic girl. Then he can move onto the harder nut to crack—the Reagan-loving dad. Nope. He would rather leave her bitter about being rejected than admit why she was rejected. He only finally fesses up when she returns to make amends—and then he does this off-screen. Later, his father invites him out for a late-night backyard beer, tells him that when he went to Connecticut for his platoon leader’s funeral, he also drove down to New York City to see Adrian. And he saw him. On his stoop. With his arm around another boy.
This should be a good opening, right? To quote Al Pacino in “The Insider,” the cat is now TOTALLY out of the bag. But what does Adrian do? Nothing. If coming out of the closet were a football field, his father had just carried the ball 99 yards, and he’s ready to lateral the ball to his son, Adrian, for the final yard. But Adrian just sits there.
Sympathy for the dullard
I guess this is supposed to make us aware of how difficult it was to come out of the closet back then? And in such a place as Texas?
Unfortunately, it just makes us mad at the main character ... who, by the way, has AIDS. That’s right. He’s been to six funerals that pivotal year, his boyfriend is already dead, and he’s got KS creeping up his chest. It’s December 1985. He’s not long for this world. He knows it. He should be sympathetic. And yet all I had for him was impatience. I was annoyed at him for wasting everyone’s time, and at Yen Tan for wasting ours.
Movie Review: Razzia (2018)
I kept hoping the various storylines of “Razzia” would come together in a way that felt meaningful and resonant and maybe even blew me away.
They came together anyway.
Everybody comes to Joe’s
Here are the main characters. Their stories occur in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2015, during economic unrest and protests:
- Joe (Arieh Worthalter), who drinks too much, fucks too much, cares for his aged father. He’s like the Jewish restaurateur version of Don Draper. The actor, bearded, is even reminiscent of Jon Hamm.
- Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a young gay kid who wants to be a singer, idolizes Freddie Mercury, is idolized by a younger sister, and is totally ignored by the father whose approval he craves.
- Ines (Dounia Binebine), a spoiled 15-year-old, mostly raised by her nanny, who secretly, and then not-so-secretly, loves a 17-year-old neighborhood servant girl.
- Salima (Maryam Touzani, also co-screenwriter, and a va-va-voomy Monica Bellucci lookalike), who discovers she’s pregnant and spends the rest of the movie recklessly weighing her options: marry her stuffy boyfriend; abort the baby; or leave Morocco altogether.
That’s for the present day. There’s actually one more:
- Abdallah (Amine Ennaji), a teacher in a mountainous village in the 1980s. He teaches the kids, who are rapt, in the local language until a powerful religious leader arrives demanding they use Arabic, which the kids don’t know, and fucks up everything. Abdallah tries to comply but eventually flees. In voiceover, he calls himself a coward.
The movie starts out as Abdallah’s. But once he flees, to Casablanca, he more-or-less disappears. His lover, Yto, follows, with her young, stuttering son, Ilyas, but never finds him, and older versions of the two become part of the other characters’ stories. Yto gives no-nonsense advice to Salima, while modern-day Ilyas is the sweet, dimwitted assistant to Joe. As Freddie Mercury is to Hakim, “Casablanca,” the Bogart film, is to Ilyas. He watches it all the time. He has it memorized. He believes his neighbor, who claims he saw Bogart and/or Bergman during its filming, when, c’mon, do the math. Most Hollywood movies of the period were filmed on Hollywood sound stages, and even if this one wasn’t? It was in the middle of World War II. North Africa was a battleground.
Of this group, I think I was most interested in Joe. I was concerned about anti-Semitic violence. He doesn’t suffer that, simply women abandoning him because he’s Jewish. He’s somewhat privileged (money, looks, charm) but not (Jewish in Casablanca). He feels the sting of constant rebuke.
I also liked Hakim, who often lies to his father to impress him. “Dad, my record was played on the radio.” “Dad, I got interviewed.” For a time, I actually bought the lies. Dad probaby didn‘t. Hakim also walks through a dusty town square, where kids taunt him, and police and/or Islamic fundamentalists shave the heads of men who ... I’m not sure. Have long hair? Are gay? They feel like “There before the grace of Allah” moments. It might as well be Hakim.
Here’s not looking at you, kid
So how do these stories intersect? On a night of protests and riots, Ines goes to a rich kid’s birthday party, which Joe and Ilyas cater, and where Hakim plays a musical instrument. The rich kids act douchey to the singer/dancer until Hakim snaps and beats the shit out of the birthday boy, whom Ines, trying to forget the girl she loves, had promised to sleep with. She laughs when the boy is beaten, Joe and Ilyas watch. In the aftermath, Joe tells Ilyas the truth: none of “Casablanca” was filmed in Casablanca.
As for Salima? Her story doesn’t intersect. That night, though, still pregnant, she leaves Casablanca. No Bogart, no Victor, no fog. No romance.
As for Abdallah? We finally see him. He’s still alive, watching the protests, staying indoors. He’s still not a courageous man. It’s Yto who’s out in the streets.
“Razzia” is close. It’s well directed and art-directed and acted. The stories simply don’t come together in a way that resonates.
Movie Review: Love, Gilda (2018)
“Love, Gilda” is a sweet documentary about a sweet comedian, Gilda Radner, one of the break-out stars from the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” who died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 42. It’s probably too sweet. For a doc about someone who spent much of her life making us laugh, I didn’t laugh much. We only get snippets of bits. It’s fair-use clips.
We also get a few WTF moments. First-time director Lisa Dapolito takes us to the launch of “SNL” in the fall of 1975, and behind-the-scenes romances and battles, and the characters Radner and others created, and I’m wondering, “OK. When will it hit that they’re huge? When will she feel the impact of becoming a national icon?” According to Dapolito, it took place when “SNL” did a live show in New Orelans in 1977. That’s when they all saw how popular they were.
1977? A year and a half after it exploded like a bomb onto American pop culture? Months after its first break-out star, Chevy Chase, left the show to star in Hollywood movies? They didn’t know until then?
Or is the point that the Nola adventure was different from mere fame? That it was scary? This is from the Times-Picyaune’s 2017 look back on that episode:
In another sketch, after Gilda Radner did her popular Emily Litella character—complaining about “liverboats” on the Mississippi River—fans stormed the stage. Groping ensued.
I searched for clarification because we don’t get much from Dapolito, who seems to have based a lot of the doc on Radner’s 1989 memoir, “It’s Always Something.” We don’t get clarity on the romances, either. Radner had many boyfriends over the years, even before she became a star, but how they began and ended? Who knows? They just come and go. The only onscreen ex/talking head is Martin Short, who met Gilda during the 1972 Toronto production of “Godspell,” and who is sweet and funny in his remembrances. But overall the doc implies that her many relationships were indicative less of experimentation or fun than low self-esteem. Gilda lost her father at an early age, and, via audio-book voiceover, she makes a reference to maybe trying to compensate for that loss.
I like the various stepping stones to “SNL,” such as “Second City” and “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Not enough is done on that. I’d like a doc on just that. I like the coming together of the team: Now Aykroyd’s on board, now Belushi, there’s Bill Murray in the background. BTW: How did the SCTV guys, who were also part of these shows, not wind up on “SNL”? Did Lorne Michaels, whose first pick for the show was Radner, really reject them? Did he not think John Candy and Joe Flaherty were funny?
Revelations: I didn’t know Gilda was anorexic. (How did I not?) I didn’t know she married G.E. Smith, the future “SNL” guitarist and band leader, whom she met doing her one-woman show on Broadway in 1980. The doc glosses over that relationship to get to the Gene Wilder one, and then kind of glosses over that. It keeps a discreet distance from its subject. It's polite. The doc also glosses over the play “Lunch Hour” that she did with Sam Waterston in 1980, and the movie, “First Family“ with Bob Newhart that also came out in 1980. That was her first big post-”SNL" movie. How was that her first? Belushi was in both “Animal House” and “Goin’ South” in ’78. He and Aykroyd were in “1941” the next year, and “Blues Brothers” the year after. Late arrival Bill Murray starred in “Meatballs” in ’79. Even Jane Curtain starred with Jessica Lange in “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” in 1980. Did Gilda turn down projects? Was she not offered them? Was it Hollywood sexism or her predilection for the theater?
And then it was too late. After “First Family,” she went off on that Gene Wilder string: “Hanky Panky” in 1982 (second-billed), “The Woman in Red” in 1984 (seventh-billed), “Haunted Honeymoon” in 1986 (second-billed). She didn’t click. Whatever clicked before, didn’t here. (The why of the click is worth exploring.) She was riding the wave and then the wave went elsewhere.
I could’ve used more of her contemporaries as talking heads. We get Chevy, Marty, Paul Shaffer, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, and “SNL” writer Alan Zweibel. That’s it. The other talking heads are next-gen comics to whom she’s an icon: Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudoph. There’s a sweet moment when one of them is handed her scrapbook/diary, and says, in awe, “Is this her handwriting?”
But there’s not much insight. It’s mostly feeling. And I left feeling meh.