Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday June 04, 2018
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.
Movie Review: Shabab Sheyab (2018)
Hamad, Hassan and the General. Think Steve Buscemi, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones.
I was drawn to the movie by its description in the film guide for the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival:
After one of them receives a windfall inheritance, a group of fiesty [sic] elderly men escape their assisted living home and hit the streets of Dubai to explore the dreams they had all but forgotten in this tender comedy-adventure that proves you are never too old to discover life's joys.
In Hollywood, I figured, it would be a forgettable, dispiriting film with a few elderly actors romping around, making non-poignant jokes about aging, and, for a scene, dressing up in ridiculous hip-hop fashions and walking in slow-mo toward the camera. But at SIFF? From United Arab Emirates? I had confidence it would be better than that.
Everything wrapped up nicely
“On Borrowed Time” (Arab title “Shabab Sheyab” or “Old Youth”) borrows the clichés of Hollywood movies—including that hip-hop, slow-mo walk toward the camera—without its century of professional storytelling. It’s a bad combo. Thirty minutes in, I silently chastised myself: “Dude, you really have to check out the trailers before you drag your wife to these things.”
It begins well. An old man in voiceover talks about the stars and the moon aligning and making the conditions perfect for writing. And what he’s writing? It's good. I assumed he was a writer, a professional, now living the last years of his life in an assisted-living facility in Dubai. I wanted more of it. But that angle disappears almost immediately.
The voiceover belongs to Abu Hassan (Sad Al-Faraj), who has an expressive face and a twinkle in his eye, and would be played by Morgan Freeman in the Hollywood version. He’s the one continually urging his three assisted-living friends to make the most of the rest of their lives. Basically: Get busy living or get busy dying. The three friends are:
- General Talaat (Salloum Haddad), who still gets up early and shaves every morning, and would be played by Tommy Lee Jones.
- The Pharmacist (Mansoor Alfeeli), a good-natured germaphobe who wears rubber gloves and takes too many pills. (Dick Van Dyke, maybe?)
- Abu Hamad (Marei Halyan), affable and wheelchair-bound, who still dreams of making a recording. (I could see Steve Buscemi playing older.)
When lawyers reveal that the General has inherited 50 million dirham (about $12 million) from a distant relative, the four, plus their youthful caretaker, Khalid (Fouad Ali), go out to claim the money. The law office is closed, but in the parking garage, look, there’s a recording studio. Some subterfuge is necessary to get Hamad to the front of the line, but he makes his recording—which, of course, will be left at the club/disco the Pharmacist always wanted to go to (the one for which they wear the hip-hop clothes), and will then, of course, wind up on the radio, where, of course, it will become a hit. For a minute they celebrate. Then that storyline is dropped.
This happens with all the plot points. There’s a thing that needs to happen, it does, it's dropped. It’s always obvious what needs to happen and it’s always easy to make it so. Hamad should sing, the Pharmacist shouldn’t be such a germaphobe, and Khalid should get together with the pretty doctor, Ruqayyeh (Layla Abdullah). Yes, yes, and yes. Problems solved.
Ed Rooney lives
The biggest such problem is reuniting the General with his estranged son. Indeed, the whole inheritance thing was a fake, a subterfuge concocted by Abu Hassan to bring father and son together. Initially, it fails. When the two meet in a mall, the General curses his son and slaps him. When Hassan tries to intervene, he has a heart attack and dies. Road to hell/good intentions.
But in the aftermath, with the subterfuge revealed, the General’s heart softens, and his son forgives, and the grandson wants nothing more than to sit on grandpa’s lap. Meanwhile, the manager of the assisted care facility, who, for a time, chased after the four as if he were Principal Rooney in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is fired and mocked by the residents on his way out.
“On Borrowed Time” is dreadful. Don’t go expecting any insight into UAE. Expect Hollywood-lite.
Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Remember when they said you couldn’t make a successful superhero movie if you had, like, two supervillains in it? Another piece of conventional wisdom bites the dust. Along with half the Marvel universe.
To be fair, “Avengers: Infinity War” really features just one supervillain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), plus a few of his powerful minions, plus a slathering army of whatchacallms that attack Wakanda. But it also has, what, two dozen superheroes? Three dozen? Just naming them all, and the actors playing them, would take half this review.
And it works. It's fun. They did it. Yes, some characters inevitably get short shrift—see: Captain America (Chris Evans)—but I was enthralled from the get-go. “Avengers: Infinity War” is both galactic in scale and allows space for the usual Mighty Marvel petty bickering (Iron Man vs. Dr. Strange, the battle of our cinematic Sherlocks) and spot-on humor (Ben & Jerry’s, “Rabbit,” “Wait, there’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?” “Why was she up there this whole time?”). Smart people are obviously behind this, including directors Joe and Anthony Russo, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel impresario Kevin Feige. They’re playing the long game. DC should take notice. It should cry at everything it’s already lost.
The movie begins in medias res. Scratch that. It begins in media res even for those who of us who have watched the previous 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now that’s some serious in media res.
Last time we saw Thor, in “Thor: Ragnarok,” the 17th of the MCU movies, he’d lost his hammer, his father, his eye, and Asgard; but he was on a spaceship, wasn’t he, with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and the remnants of Asgard, heading toward Earth. OK, I guess there was some mid-credits sequence when their ship was overtaken by a bigger ship. I’d forgotten that. This movie begins with the smoldering remains of the battle that followed, while a bureaucratic voice, Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), intones how the defeated should rejoice at falling before Thanos; that it’s an honor to lose their meaningless lives in this way. It’s a good bit. Chilling. It will be repeated.
Thanos, our purple-skinned supervillain, is after the infinity stone in Loki’s possession and tortures a defeated Thor to get it—but not before Loki gets to use the line that Tony Stark used on him in the first “Avengers” movie: “We have a Hulk.” Back then we relished it because we knew what it meant. (It meant Loki being slapped around like a rag doll.) For a second, as Hulk pummels Thanos, we think it still means something ... until Ebony Maw holds back Thanos’ other minions, saying, in effect, let Thanos have his fun. And he does. He pummels Hulk into the ground. Hulk. No bigger statement could be made about the menace to come.
And this was Thanos with just one infinity stone in his possession. He soon gets the second from Loki. He’s collecting all six:
- Power (which Thanos has at the outset)
- Space (which he takes from Loki)
- Mind (in Vision’s forehead)
- Reality (with the Collector)
- Time (in Dr. Strange’s amulet)
- Soul (on another planet)
Apparently these stones are what’s left over from the beginning of the universe? Or something? The bigger point is they give the holder immense powers, which means that as the movie progresses, our villain, who has already pummeled Hulk, becomes even more powerful. So how do you stop him? How do the filmmakers come up with a credible rationale for defeating him in the final act (when he's a virtual god) when they couldn't in the first? That mind puzzle intrigued me throughout.
Maybe, I thought, they don’t need to defeat him. Maybe as Thanos acquires these stones, particularly Mind and Time and Soul, he’ll become wise and abandon his plans. He’ll change. Right? How could he not? How could anyone take in the vastness of the universe and not change?
Well, he doesn’t. The filmmakers don’t go that way. The gems don’t affect him that way. I was particularly disappointed in the Soul stone, which is hidden on the planet Vormir, guarded by, whoa, of all people, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), and which demands that Thanos sacrifice something he loves in order to attain it. That annoyed me. Really? A sacrifice? So the Hawaiians were right after all? Worse, Thanos is standing there with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the girl he orphaned and then raised, the daughter who hates him, and she laughs because she assumes Thanos doesn’t love anything, has nothing to sacrifice, and won’t get the stone. Which would’ve been a great twist. But no, they don’t go there, either. They go where we know they’re going. Amid tears, Thanos kills Gamora, whom he loves. She’s the last to realize this. It’s beyond telegraphed, and thus a little disappointing.
Are our heroes a little disappointing? Three of the six stones Thanos acquires in the exact same way—by torturing a sibling/compatriot of the holder:
- Thanos tortures Thor until Loki gives it to him
- Thanos tortures Nebula (Karen Gillan) until Gamora gives it to him
- Thanos is about to kill Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) so Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives it to him*
Our heroes know the horror that awaits if Thanos gets all six stones, and yet they still give it up to save one life. What’s that “Star Trek” quote? The needs of the many outweigh the news of the few—or the one? Well, the Avengers turn it on its head. The lives of a known one outweigh the lives of unknown trillions. Including, potentially, that one. Bad math.
What is the horror that awaits? I actually like this part. Thanos figures the universe is too full, and it’s creating unending misery, so if, say, half of all life were gone in the blink of an eye, the rest of us would get along better and enjoy ourselves more. That's what he plans to do: kill half the universe. It's particularly chilling because it has its logic. Thanos isn’t some cackling, hand-rubbing bad guy. He’s a Malthusian. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, and Brolin, through motion-capture, gives him and his monstrous face and body a kind of weary dignity. He sees himself as burdened with this task. And when it’s over, he tells Dr. Strange, he’ll finally get to rest, “and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”
That’s some fucked-up shit right there.
Even more fucked-up? It happens. Throughout, I kept wondering how our heroes would defeat Thanos, this ever-stronger madman, because that’s how it works in the movies. The good guys win. Well, not here. Thanos wins. He gets the six stones and kills off half the universe, including Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Nick Fury, Spider-Man and all of the Guardians of the Galaxy—billions in worldwide box office, mind you—and then returns to, I guess, his home planet, where, on a kind of cottage in the hills, he sits down on some porch steps, sighs, and watches the sun rise.
You know the Hollywood sunset ending? The hero riding off into it? This is like that—but with the villain. Who’s just killed trillions.
That's pretty audacious. That's showing some fucking stones.
But it leads to an obvious problem.
The obvious problem
How are they going to get all these superheroes back? It’s beyond the billions in revenue. Some of these movies are already in development with the actors attached: “Untitled Spider-Man: Homecoming” sequel with Tom Holland. And can you imagine the uproar if Chadwick Boseman doesn’t come back as Black Panther? #AvengersSoWhite.
One solution is for one of our heroes to steal the glove with all the infinity stones, then reverse everything—either through time, or, you know, just willing it. Poof. Everyone’s back. 好久不见.
There’s also the Dr. Strange factor. When Tony Stark admonishes him for giving up the Time stone to Thanos, and before he turns to dust like half the universe, Strange says, “There was no other way.” Now this could just be a self-justifying line, an idiot line to justify furthering the plot, but I don’t think so. Earlier, Dr. Strange used the Time stone to see 14 million possible outcomes to their battle with Thanos, and in only one were they victorious. So part of me thinks that’s why he did what he did: It’s the one path to victory. Apparently I’m not the only one thinking this.
“Infinity War” had its slow spots. I could’ve done with more Earth time and more Captain America. I didn’t particularly like Tony’s pause on whether to call Steve Rogers with the Earth in peril. Really, dude? You guys had a spat; get over it. And the opportunities to defeat Thanos that were lost, from Peter Quill in particular, left me shaking my head. C‘mon. Who squabbles with allies instead of banding together to fight the enemy? Besides Bernie bros, I mean.
But overall this “Avengers” is what a superhero movie should be: big, powerful, fun, and never forgetting the human equation. It even includes heartbreak. While most of our heroes simply fade and crumble silently before our eyes, Peter Parker, speaking to his mentor, Tony Stark, says these lines apparently ad-libbed by Tom Holland: “I don’t want to go. Please, I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark.” It’s heartbreaking. You realize how young he is. He wanted adventure but he didn’t want to lose everything. He had such plans. We all have such plans.