Movie Reviews - 2016 postsMonday January 09, 2017
Movie Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
I’ve been hearing end-of-the-year buzz that “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a way underrated movie; that it’s actually, you know, good. Some go further: Some suggest it’s this generation’s “This Is Spinal Tap.”
If so, pity this generation.
I know it’s unfair to compare a contemporary with a classic. But since others raised the issue...
Why ‘joke’ is less funny
“Spinal Tap”’s humor grew out of the conventions of real music documentaries, while “Pop” feels as if it’s riffing on copies of copies of copies of copies. “Tap” is grounded. Its cities on the tour are real. Its main characters may be idiots but there’s something human about them. They’re half caricature/half character, while “Pop”’s Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is all caricature. There’s no there there. Conner is just a joke, and the movie treats him as a joke. When you do this, ironically, you remove a lot of the funny.
There’s a trajectory to Tap’s downfall, and it follows their American concert tour—east coast to west coast. Their humiliations start small but grow: a canceled date in Boston (“I wouldn’t worry about it, though, it’s not a big college town”), a misplaced hotel reservation in Memphis, flak over the album cover. For a time, Tap seems oblivious to it all; they still think they’re on top of the world. Then the humilations deepen: second billing at a Holiday Inn, a no-show album signing, playing an Air Force Base. Their onstage humiliations are human-sized and serve to prick their pomposity: Nigel can’t stand back up again after bending back in classic rock-out pose; Derek’s “pod” doesn’t open; they get lost beneath the arena in Cleveland and the Stonehenge props are tiny rather than towering.
Conner’s humiliations are outsized and less funny. To jazz up his act, he goes for a quick-change bit, but has to hide his junk to make it work, and a wardrobe malfunction reveals him to be seemingly dickless. (I like that, backstage, his handlers try to assure him that no one noticed.) To bury that story—as if it wouldn’t be a meme forever—his publicist (Sarah Silverman) suggests he propose to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots), which he does, with Seal singing her favorite song and her favorite animals (wolves) nearby. But the singing upsets the wolves, who attack the guests and turn the garden party into bloody chaos.
Meanwhile, his opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), eclipses him in popularity, not to mention vindictiveness. But when Conner asks his manager, Harry (Tim Meadows), to kick him off the tour, he discovers Hunter is Harry’s client, too. It’s Conner who goes back home, the tour a failure, his career seemingly over.
So what happens? He becomes a better person, of course. He once fronted a boy band, The Style Boyz, and he reconciles with the estranged members he screwed over: DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone), and lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). All along, we’ve been following the latter, who, after a stab at a solo career, has been farming and woodcarving in Colorado. Both are treated as jokes—as if anyone could enjoy such things, so far away from the limelight—with the former having a typical comedy punchline: he’s been farming weed, yo. All three reunite on the “Poppy” awards, and are back on top. Added bonus: Hunter is a dick to Mariah Carey onstage, so no one likes him anymore. Because it’s never enough for you to succeed; your enemies have to fail.
‘I feel young again! I feel ... 38!’
It’s interesting to note the need for a villain. Does “Tap” have a villain? You could argue the Yoko-Ono-ish Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), who controls David, and causes the riff with Nigel, and who takes over from their seemingly incompetent manager, Ian Faith. She has a bit of a comeuppance as well: Ian returns, and in Japan, where Spinal Tap is resurrected, the two eye each other warily. But all of it is much subtler than “Popstar”'s disimissal of Hunter.
You know what’s amazing to me? Andy Samberg is actually older in “Popstar” than Michael McKean and Christopher Guest were in “Spinal Tap”: 38 years vs. 37 and 36. I still think of Samberg as the next generation but “Lazy Sunday” was more than 10 years ago.
The Lonely Island guys give us a few good parody songs: “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” along with Conner’s would-be testimonial to gay marriage, “Equal Rights,” in which he continually insists, “I’m not gay.” But there’s nothing as clever as marrying the bombast of gangster rap with a very ordinary, very white Sunday afternoon.
One of the biggest problems for me is that “Popstar” doubles down on the very thing it should be satirizing: celebrity culture. 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood and Simon Cowell, as the mockumentary’s talking heads, act like they’re in the on the joke, when, to me, they’re part of the problem. But the movie sees them as part of the solution.
A few years ago, Samberg co-starred as the son of Adam Sandler in the dreary comedy, “That’s My Boy.” Not yet, but he’s becoming dangerously close.
Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)
Am I the only one who sees a metaphor for the 2016 election in this movie? Hear me out.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, doomed to play brilliant but pompous) plays a brilliant but pompous neurosurgeon who gets into a car accident and damages the nerves of his steady hands, rendering him useless and purposeless. But after hearing of a paraplegic who learned to walk again, he travels to Katmandu and trains at Kamar-Taj under the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton), with the idea of eventually curing himself and returning to practice. Instead, he becomes “Master of the Mystic Arts”; and instead of saving one person, or several people, he saves the whole damn universe.
But he makes an enemy in the process: his friend, and one-time mentor, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Why?
OK, back up a bit, because it’s actually fairly clever what Strange does.
The movie opens with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his team of bad guys/one hot girl stealing pages from an ancient book that allow them to tap into the power of Dormammu, the dark dimension. For some reason, these guys also invite Dormammu into our universe, and that’s destroying everything, particularly Hong Kong. So Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto (don’t ask) to turn back time; then he travels to the dark dimension, where he creates an infinite time loop so that every time Dormammu kills him, he returns to battle again. It’s sort of like “Groundhog Day” or “End of Tomorrow” but in miniature. I like this bit. He knows he can’t beat Dormammu so he lets it get bored until it agrees to leave the Earth alone. He outsmarts it.
So why does Mordo have a problem with this? Because bending time is forbidden.
Mordo, you see, is a stickler, a puritan. He’d rather have the world end than break the rules to save it. He was earlier incensed that the Ancient One tapped into Dormammu’s dark power to keep living, even though, in the long run, she was doing good.
And that’s the metaphor:
- Ancient One = Hillary
- Dormammu = Trump
- Tapping into Dormammu's power = Paid speech to Goldman Sachs
- Mordo = Bernie, or a Bernie Bro
Things worked out better in their universe.
Overall, “Doctor Strange” is efficient and fun but it’s hardly breaking new ground. On the contrary, it’s going over much of the same ground that “Iron Man” did eight years ago: The vainglorious man with Ronald Colman moustache (now goatee) brought low, then raised higher with greater powers and greater purpose. I guess Stan and Jack liked that storyline.
Once Strange arrives in Katmandu, the various concerns/tensions are all resolved with such facility as to seem facile:
- Will the Ancient One accept him? Yes.
- Is he too egotistical to learn the mystic arts? He is ... but he does anyway.
- Will he just cure himself and go back to his pompous ways, lording it over second-raters like Michael Stuhlbarg? Nope.
- Will he be seduced by “the Dark Side” like Kaecilius? Nope.
Oddly, once the battles begin, Mordo begins to worry not that Strange will be seduced by the dark side but that he doesn’t have the will to fight the dark side. It’s a concern introduced at the 11th hour and dismissed at 11: 10, and was never a concern of ours. If there’s one thing Strange isn’t, it’s a quitter.
Collecting comics in the 1970s, Doctor Strange was never one of my favorite superheroes. I didn’t understand his powers, I don’t like alternative dimensions that look like a sketchy part of outer space, and I’m generally not a fan of vainglorious men with Ronald Colman moustaches. But somehow Marvel Entertainment makes this movie work.
Think of that. Marvel can take one of its lamest characters, run him through three screenwriters, hand him off to a director mostly known for shitty horror flicks (“Devil’s Knot,” “Sinister 2”), and wah-lah: a fun flick that mixes elements of “Kung Fu,” “Groundhog Day,” and the mindbending landscapes of MC Escher. Hell, they even throw in a bit of “The Greatest American Hero”: a man doing comic battle with his superpowered clothes.
Cf., DC, which can’t even put the two most popular superheroes in the world together without making a crap salad.
Movie Review: Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” unfolds slowly and naturally. It’s like life in that we make assumptions about the people we’re watching. It’s not like life in that we get to stick around to see how our assumptions are wrong.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman/super for four apartment buildings in Quincy, Mass., near Boston. He does his work calmly, competently, but with something missing, some spark. Early on, he seems to have the patience of Job. He shovels the sidewalks, fixes the drips, unclogs the toilets without complaint. At one point he overhears a tenant say she’s attracted to him, and she gives him a tip, but he doesn’t respond. Because he just unclogged her toilet and that’s no way to begin a relationship? Later, at a bar with a beer, he doesn’t respond to another woman’s flirtations. Then it’s near closing, he eyes two guys across the bar, and you think: Of course. He’s gay.
Then he picks a fight with the two guys. Turns out he’s not gay, not calm, doesn’t have the patience of Job.
Slowly, as he heads north to the titular town to deal with the sudden heart attack/death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), we find out how he got this way.
At the local high school, he’s twice referred to as the Lee Chandler, and we wonder if he was a star athlete. Nope. When his brother’s will is read and he discovers he’s the guardian of 15-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he almost flips out. “I’m just a backup,” he says. Later, in flashback, we see him with a wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and one ... two ... three kids? Really? So he doesn’t seem like a backup there. And hey, what happened to those kids anyway?
That, of course, turns out to be the answer to everything: Why Lee is living in a small, cramped basement apartment in Quincy, why he’s full of rage, why something is missing from him, why he can’t return to Manchester-By-the-Sea.
A few years ago I read a great piece by David Grann in The New Yorker about Cameron Todd Williams, a Texas man who was put to death for setting a fire that killed his wife and three girls—except he probably didn’t set that fire. The state of Texas probably executed an innocent man. I kept flashing to it, watching this movie, since Lee’s tragedy is similar. Drunk one night in a cold house, Lee starts a fire in the fireplace to warm up his girls, then walks down to the nearest convenience store to get more beer. When he returns his house is ablaze. His wife makes it out, his kids don’t.
The difference is that Lee isn’t charged with murder but wants to be. When the cops tell him he’s free to go, he tries to blow his brains out in the station. That’s why the basement apartment in Quincy. It’s his punishment, his prison. He’s doing life without parole. It’s also why he doesn’t want to leave—particularly for Manchester By the Sea, which just dredges everything up.
Thus the movie’s main conflict is set up: Lee, the new guardian, doesn’t want to stay in Manchester, but Patrick, with friends and girlfriends and school, and a father’s boat he wants to return to, doesn’t want to leave. Patrick has the better up-front argument, Lee the better buried argument. But even as this argument gets unburied, we see Lee making a go at it. We see him asking for work. We see him running into his ex. This is a powerful scene, and it also upends our assumptions. We expect that he’ll want forgiveness from Randi and she won’t give it. Instead, she has more than forgiveness; she has love. And he finds this unbearable. “No, you don’t understand,” he says, breaking away from her. “There’s nothing there.” Williams is so good in this one scene she might win an Oscar for it.
I still remember Roger Ebert’s review of “The World According to Garp.” Watching, he kept thinking, “This is nice ... this is nice ... this is nice,” but for all of those nice scenes the movie never added up to anything meaningful. I think a lot of indie movies are like that. “Manchester” isn’t. All of its small scenes add up. The movie doesn’t give us a happy ending (as with studio films) or tragic ending (as with indies), but balances on that razor-thin line of honesty and understanding; of things that aren’t said and things that don’t need to be said. Its redemption is small, but more poignant for its smallness. For Christ’s sake, go see it.
Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)
The older I get, the less I want to see this kind of shit.
“Nocturnal Animals,” written and directed by Tom Ford, from a novel by Austin Wright, spends two hours veering between the dull and horrific.
On the dull side, we watch Susan Morrow, a beautiful modern-art gallery director, with long red hair forever cascading down one side of her face, trapped inside her beautiful glass house. Her marriage to her beautiful husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), is falling apart and the girl just doesn’t know what to do with herself. So she reads an early galley of a novel, “Nocturnal Animals,” that her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), not only sent to her but dedicated to her.
The novel is the horrific part. In it, a husband and father, Tony (whom Susan imagines as Edward), and his attractive red-haired wife and daughter (whom Susan imagines as Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are run off the road in the middle of the night in Bumfuck, West Texas by three yahoos, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Feigning to help, the yahoos slowly terrorize the family until two of them kidnap the wife and daughter in Tony’s car. The third drives Tony into the middle of the West Texas desert and dumps him. Near death, Tony makes his way back to the road and gets a ride to the police station, where he meets the local sheriff, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who investigates. And outside of an abandoned shack in the middle of the desert, they find the wife and daughter: naked, raped, murdered, and provocatively (one might say artistically) posed.
For some reason, Susan keeps reading.
Me, I would’ve thrown the book across the room. I would’ve walked out of the movie but I was at the theater with a friend. The movie plays off my worst fears—not being strong enough to protect those who need protecting—and gives nothing back for the trauma: no art, no insight. The Sheriff eventually tracks the yahoos but Ray is released for ... lack of evidence? Or does he make a plea deal? Either way, Andes, who’s dying of cancer, and Tony plot to kidnap and kill him but he gets away. Then Tony tracks him to the abandoned shack, has a gun on him, lets him yap. About raping and murdering his wife and daughter. And still Tony doesn’t act. He actually waits until Ray attacks him with a poker before shooting. Both men die. The end.
Well, the end of the novel anyway. The movie keeps going. Back to the boring part.
To be honest, it ends OK. After reading this awfulness, Susan gets it in her head to meet up with Tony at a romantic restaurant. She’s obviously thinking that she shouldn’t have left him in the first place—that her rich, bitchy mother (Laura Linney), seen in flashback, got into her head, and Susan began to see Edward through her mother’s eyes as a failure. Oh right: the abortion, too. Back in the day, just as she began a fling with Hutton, she finds she’s pregnant with Edward’s child but decides to abort the baby. Afterwards, she’s crying in a car in Hutton’s big consoling arms when she spots Edward watching them with cold, betrayed eyes.
So is the novel revenge of a kind? For the abortion or the affair? And if she had the abortion, who’s the red-headed, college-age daughter she rings up shortly after starting the novel? Hutton’s? How old is Amy Adams supposed to be here?
Regardless, she gets dolled up to meet Edward at a swanky restaurant, arrives first, has a drink, and slowly realizes that he’s not coming; he’s standing her up. That’s the end of the movie.
And is that Edward’s final revenge? If so, how does he know she’d react the way she reacted to the novel? Here’s a story about a woman similar to you being raped and murdered; I totally know you’ll fall for me again after reading it. And THEN I’ll stand you up. Ha ha.
Me, I’m done with this kind of thing. I can’t imagine why Tom Ford of all people chose something so pointless and depraved for his second feature.
Movie Review: Loving (2016)
What are the odds that in the federal case striking down state laws banning interracial marriage, the plaintiff’s name would be “Loving”?
I thought about that a lot as the Obergefell case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. I mean, no offense James Obergefell, but Loving v. Virginia? That’s stark. It’s as if the case were called Love v. Racism. One wonders if that wasn’t part of the appeal for U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the ACLU. They had the right name.
“Loving,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Midnight Special”), is good history but so-so drama. It’s as spare and quiet as its protagonists. Too much so.
The first half works. We watch as the day-to-day love, and then pregnancy, and then marriage, between Richard and Mildred Loving (James Edgerton and Ruth Negga) of Caroline County Virginia, comes to the attention of the authorities. One of the most powerful scenes is when they plead guilty to, you know, marriage, and bend to the weight of an oppressive system. Standing in U.S. District Court before Judge Bazile (David Jensen), you see Richard’s eyes searching for an answer and not finding it. Some part of him knows he’s right to love as he loves. But he also knows he’s not smart—not book smart, like his lawyer Frank Beazly (Bill Camp, always a pleasure)—and he can’t find a way out. There’s almost something like Huck Finn in this scene. Huck acted on a greater inner morality to help free Nigger Jim, but felt immoral doing so because he was going against society’s norms. Richard is a step up. He knows society is wrong; he just can’t articulate it.
White, black, yellow, malay and red
He can’t articulate much. He does his talking with his hands—building rather than fighting. He works construction during the week and tinkers with cars on the weekend. He’s a maestro with both. Otherwise, he’s quiet, simple. At her family’s dinner table in 1958, one of her brothers, whom Richard helps with drag racing, asks him how many races he’s won over the years, and you see Richard tabulating in his mind. Then he comes back with: “A lot.” To dinner-table laughter, including his own. Another nice scene.
Richard is actually one of my favorite kinds of people—the quietly efficient man—and Edgerton, in an Oscar-nomination-worth performance, embodies him. He’s a man caught between love of wife and love of home, and he does what he can to try to make it work.
As a character, though, Richard disappoints in the second half, which is maybe why I found the second half disappointing. Inspired by the March on Washington, Ruth writes U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who forwards her letter to the ACLU, whose representative, a young lawyer named Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), contacts her at their home in D.C. He’ll take the case, no charge, but Richard is suspicious from the get-go. He never gets behind, never trusts, his legal team—which eventually includes Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass)—and one wonders if it’s because they’re both Jewish, educated, or because he’s had enough of the criminal justice system. Or is it because they’re outsiders? Different? From Brooklyn? Richard still trusts the local. He thinks it’s enough to go before Judge Bazile again. He trusts Bazile more than he trusts the federal government. Plus ca change.
He shouldn’t. This is Bazile’s judgment on interracial marriage once the ACLU gets involved:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
(One wonders about that “Malay”; what color was “Malay”? Answer here. Not pretty. )
I could’ve used more of the legal arguments and precedents, to be honest. That’s a lot to ask from a movie, I know, but its point of view is ours: that the anti-miscegenation law is immoral. Yet it was still law for decades, and it still used the U.S. Constitution as a rationale for its injustice.
What was that rationale? It actually came up in this case. In 1965, Cohen and Hirschkop appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, where the Virginia law was upheld, and among its arguments was one first put forth in 1883 in Pace v. Alabama: that what the state did to the Lovings was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment “because both the white and the non-white spouse were punished equally for the crime of miscegenation.” That’s some twisted logic right there; yet that logic stayed on the books for nearly a century. We need that reminder; we need to know the future isn’t secure.
Nor did the Loving case even end it. The South, being the South, kept rising up. From Wikipedia:
Local judges in Alabama continued to enforce that state's anti-miscegenation statute until the Nixon administration obtained a ruling from a U.S. District Court in United States v. Brittain in 1970. In 2000, Alabama became the last state to adapt its laws to the Supreme Court's decision, when 60% of voters endorsed a ballot initiative that removed anti-miscegenation language from the state constitution.
Sparrows and robins
Watching “Loving,” I kept thinking of my grandmother, who grew up in Carroll County, Maryland, about 150 miles from Caroline County, Virginia.
I remember visiting her in 1989 after I’d been away in Taiwan for a year, and at one point she asked me if I’d had a Chinese girlfriend. I said yes. She absorbed this, and then with a head nod, added, “They make good wives: meet at the door, take off your shoes, rub your feet.” This devolved into a conversation about interracial relationships. She was still against the black/white variety, and, more, still made the same 1950s arguments they make in this movie. Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas), trying to be kind, tells Richard about God’s law, “sparrow with a sparrow, robin with a robin,” and my grandmother, in 1989, said something similar: “A big black bird don’t mate with a little yella sparrow,” she said. Then she smiled as if she were playing the trump card; as if that argument ended it.
The outrage of the first half of the movie almost demands something like the Ron Motley deposition scene in “The Insider” (“You do not get to instruct anything around here!”), but Nichols withholds it. Maybe it was undramatic but he certainly under-dramatizes it. Ruth stays quiet but polite but interested in the case; Richard stays reticent and distant and wary. The lawyers never really connect with him (nor Nichols with the lawyers), and neither Ruth nor Richard show up at the U.S. Supreme Court when their case is argued. The argument before the court isn’t fiery. Maybe it wasn’t. The best line is Richard’s, spoken on his front porch, after Cohen asks him if there’s anything he’d like to say to the justices. His response comes out more confused than determined: “Tell them I love my wife,” he says.