erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2019 posts

Monday November 11, 2019

Movie Review: Yesterday (2019)


Has any pop music act represented its times as much as the Beatles and yet remained as timeless as the Beatles? They were the biggest act of the 1960s; they defined it and altered it. They altered us—the way we dressed, wore our hair, what we smoked and thought; what we thought of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. They helped change the name; they took out the roll and left the rock.

At the same time: “Yesterday,” “Let It Be” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” all feel fresh 50 years later.  

I was born in January 1963, and when I was about 5 years old I was staying with family friends in Michigan. One day the mother was working in the kitchen and overheard me and her son, B.G., in the bedroom arguing. “Mine’s longer,” I said. “No, mine’s longer,” B.G. said. We kept going back and forth in this manner, and she kept growing increasingly worried, until one of us declared, “Well, if I pull mine, mine’s longer.” That’s when she decided enough was enough, and she stormed into the bedroom ... to find B.G. and me kneeling in front of the mirror and pulling our hair down toward our eyes. The Beatles brought that. Long hair stayed the cool thing for decades after they brought it over.

At the same time: “Help!,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

A shadow hanging over me
“Yesterday,” a magic-realism movie written by Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), is better than I thought it would be. Some of the relationships feel real enough. It’s got enough Boyle to make up for the Curtis.

Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician playing nowhere gigs around Lowestoft in Suffolk County, England. He's managed by longtime friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who is obviously in love with him. He just as obviously doesn’t seem to notice. Or maybe he thinks shagging his manager is too #MeToo. Or maybe he’s just got his eyes on the prize—singing his songs and playing his music. Trouble? His songs aren't that good. “Summer Song,” his standby, is good enough to make you pause for a second but then it just dissipates around you. It’s actually the perfect song for his status. You get why it’s his standby and you get why he’s going nowhere.

Indeed, he’s about to give up—just declared so to Ellie—when there’s a worldwide power outage. It’s like the world is rebooting, and in the sudden dark, biking home, Jack is hit by a bus and flies through the air. I assume it’s the flying through the air that saves him, or unalters him, because when he wakes up in the hospital, sans two front teeth, the world is altered. Slightly. I like the slightly. So British. A Hollywood movie would have him waking up in a world in which the NAZIS won World War II, but here it’s just little things. Well, not really “little.” It’s that life is the same, but there’s no cigarettes, Coca-Cola, or the Beatles.

The Beatles thing he realizes first. In the hospital, he makes a lame “When I’m 64” joke but Ellie doesn’t get it. Why 64? she asks. He doesn’t get why she doesn’t get it. Later, with their friends, she presents him with a new guitar—his got smashed in the bike accident—and while his joshing friends request “Summer Song,” he decides that a beautiful guitar deserves a beautiful song and plays “Yesterday.” Ellie tears up. Where did THAT come from? she asks. He’s confused all over again. He tells them—Paul McCartney, Beatles—but they don’t know it or them. In fact, they think he’s bragging about the song he wrote:

Carol: Well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not “Fix You.”
Jack: It’s not bloody “Fix You,” Carol, it’s a great, great work of art.
Carol: Wow, somebody suddenly got very cocky.

The movie’s tag line is about how Jack is the only one who remembers the Beatles but it’s more than that; they never existed. His Beatle albums are all gone—Bowie’s there, but not them—and there’s nothing on Google, just the bug with the double e. Poof. Did they just play some gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg and that was it? Did they never get to Hamburg? Did John and Paul never meet? We don’t know. Just that. Poof. Gone.

All this creates what Jack calls “a dilemma.” Should he pretend he wrote all these songs, or ... Or nothing, it turns out. The “or” is never explored. Instead, he writes down as many of their songs as he can remember and begins playing them and taking credit for them.

I love the indulgence of family and friends here, who think they’re getting the next “Summer Song.” My favorite scene may be when he tries to play “Let It Be” for his parents and keeps getting interrupted—friends come over, phones ring—and they keep messing up the title: “Leave it Be”; “Let Him Be.” He’s trying to get them to hear greatness and they’re not hearing it.

That’s actually one of the unspokens in the film: How most people don’t recognize greatness. It’s not just family and friends. An Ipswich TV host is mostly amused by Jack, who works in a warehouse; and so even as Jack plays “In My Life,” beautifully, the host doesn’t hear the beauty and keeps joking about the day job. It’s up to the few who hear, and know, to push Jack up and out: first, a local producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold, who could play Stephen Merchant’s handsomer son); then Ed Sheeran, who taps Jack to open for him on a worldwide concert tour. They go to Russia, where Jack plays—seemingly out of nowhere—“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which goes viral, and which nobody really questions. There’s a toss-off about the anachronistic use of “U.S.S.R.” but nothing further. Like: Is it an anti-Putin message? Suggesting Russia under Putin is the same as the old Soviet regime? That might’ve been fun to go there. But the movie doesn’t.

Instead, Jack winds up under the wing of Sheeran’s nefarious manager, the too-aptly named Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), who wants him to put out a double album. Despite being the talent, Jack is led along, stunned. His output is finite, after all—not even the entire Beatles’ oeuvre, just the stuff he remembers—so he should parcel it out, a few songs a year, rather than all at once. But he’s passive. He even lets Ed Sheeran change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Admittedly a funny scene, but c’mon. Stand up for Paul here. Or Jules.

The further Jack rises, the more guilt-ridden he becomes. He also loses Ellie. Because he’s shagging women all over the world? Nah. She just kinda drifts away. She feels like she’s not needed and winds up with someone who needs/wants her: Gavin. Meanwhile, we see two people—a man in Russia and a woman in Liverpool—who keep eyeing Jack suspiciously, as if they know where this music came from. They do. And together they visit Jack backstage—they present a yellow submarine as a calling card—and confront him about it. (How do these two find each other, by the way? The movie never answers that.) What I like is they’re not villains. They’re not even angry; they’re grateful that he’s brought the Beatles music back. They missed it so. They also present him with a scrap of paper with an address on it. I knew immediately what it was. It’s shocking Jack hadn’t pursued it.

It’s John Lennon’s address. John (Robert Carlyle), 78 now, lives by the ocean and does his artwork and seems completely cool with how his life turned out. There was no Mark David Chapman shooting, of course, because there were no Beatles. It’s quite poignant. This John is less rebel John, not to mention hoodlum John, than peacenik John. He’s wise. He doesn’t know who Jack is but he gives him life advice:

You want a good life? It's not complicated. Tell the girl you love that you love her. And tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.

Great advice ... which just happens to speak to the movie’s immediate dilemmas: Jack’s been lying to the world while never telling the girl he loves that he loves her. So he does both at the 11th hour. Before a huge concert crowd, he admits he didn’t write the songs he’s been singing—that four guys named John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr wrote them. Everyone boos. (You know crowds.) But then he says he’s going to upload his album to the internet so everyone can listen to it for free. Everyone cheers. (You know crowds.) And in front of this huge crowd, with her beautiful face up on the big screen, he tells Ellie that he loves her. Everyone cheers again. Even Gavin. Sap. 

But what dreck. Does it have to be before a huge crowd? Does love not matter unless millions see it? Besides, does he really love her? We do—it’s Lily James, she’s fuckingn adorable—but he’s been blinkered throughout. I don’t really trust his 11th-hour conversation.

That said, Patel is great as Jack. He sings beautifully and seems lost, humorously lost, for much of the movie. Lily James is lovely as ever but given little to do. I liked Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend who becomes his roadie. Sheeran was both good and a good sport. McKinnon was over the top.

Looks as though they’re here to stay
So it's not bad but it's not enough. It's better than “Summer Song” but not nearly “Let It Be.”

Example: When Jack owns up and mentions the four Beatles by name, I'm curious what happens next. Does the media descend upon John, Paul, George and Ringo? Are they all alive? If so, what do they say? What could they say? “He’s a bit daft, really. John was me mate 60 years ago, and we palled about in a skiffle group and wrote some thingees, but that’s it. I’m a retired teacher now. Never even heard of Ringo. Sounds like a cowboy.” The movie gives us John, but it doesn’t even ask about Paul, George or Ringo.

And shouldn't you tell the rest of the world that data went missing? Shouldn't you gather the historians? “For some reason, you have Pepsi, but the original thing that’s based on, Coca-Cola, is gone. You have the Rolling Stones, but the original thing that’s based on, the Beatles, they’re gone.” It’s like a knockoff world. Original content doesn’t seem to matter. It's like Google’s algorithm

Shit, I haven’t even gotten to causality yet. That's the part I figured would bug me most and it did. The Rolling Stones were a band from London who didn’t even think about writing their own songs until they saw John and Paul, already famous, go into the corner of a restaurant and knock out one in 30 minutes. That’s when they went “We can do that,” and did. So in this alt-universe, what caused the Stones to wake up? What caused them to wear their hair in the Beatles/Astrid fashion, or to make it in the U.S. when no British rock band had the temerity to do so? How are the Stones still the Stones? How is Bowie still Bowie? How do you have all the things that followed the Beatles without the Beatles?

You know the butterfly wings that cause the hurricane on the other side of the world? Losing the Beatles is losing the hurricane. The ramifications would be endless.

Oh, and the world never is righted again. The movie just leaves us with a few of their songs. It leaves us with Jack playing “Obla-di Obla-da” before a group of kids, who sing along. That's our happy ending. Life goes on, bra.

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Posted at 08:39 AM on Nov 11, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Monday September 30, 2019

Movie Review: Dark Phoenix (2019)


This thing pissed me off right away. It pushed my buttons.

We begin in 1975, with little Jean Grey in the back of the family car. On the radio we hear a country song, Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which is an unnecessary bit of foreshadowing. Dad says it’s a classic, but little Jean doesn’t want to listen to it. So with her mind she switches stations and we hear Warren Zevon belting out, “Aw-wooooooo, werewolves of London.”

Me: Wait a minute, that didn’t come out in ’75. It was later. Right?

Right. 1978.

So why did they use it? For the “Aw-woooooo!” part?



I’m not two minutes in.

The movie nearly won me back. Unable to control her powers, Jean causes the car to veer into the opposing lane, into a truck, and both parents are killed. For Jean, not a scratch. A young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) shows up at the hospital and invites her to his academy for gifted students. She’d doubtful, he’s kind.

Jean: You think you can fix me.
X: No. Because you’re not broken.

It's a nice scene. But then they blow it again. God, do they blow it. 

Last Stand 2
Have to say: It was ballsy of them to return to the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline since that’s the plot of “X-Men: Last Stand” and “Last Stand” basically ruined everything in the X-Men universe. It killed off Prof. X, Scott and Jean, stripped Magneto of his powers, and left the filmmakers nowhere to go. So they went backward and rebooted the series as a 1960s prequel: “X-Men: First Class.” Then in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (the best of the bunch), they created an alternate timeline in which mutants were outed in the 1970s—a brilliant maneuver since it allowed them to bypass the mess of “Last Stand” and do whatever they wanted with the characters again.

And what do they do? Return to the mess of “Last Stand.” Cue face palm.

Worse, who do they tap to write and direct it? Simon Kinberg, the guy who wrote “Last Stand.” It’s his first feature-film directing credit. Maybe his last, given the box office.

It is interesting comparing the two movies. In “Last Stand,” Prof. X is not at all regretful that he created psychic barriers in order to save young Jean from the immensity of her own power. “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” he sneers at Wolverine. It’s a line so out of character I assumed it wasn’t Prof. X speaking but Mystique or someone. Nope: him. He says he had to choose the lesser of two evils and went with that one and he’s not regretful.

In “Dark Phoenix,” Prof. X is continually regretful. He apologizes like a zillion times. Plus what he does isn’t nearly as bad. In “Stand” he created psychic barriers to control Jean because she was too powerful. In “Phoenix” he creates psychic “walls” to protect her from unending trauma: the fact that she caused the death of her mother and in the aftermath her father (who survived) didn’t want her. That’s why Prof. X raised her himself. And he gets no end of shit for it.

Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is particularly bad. She’s a nag. Did no one see this? Were they all so blinded by #MeToo and the need for strong female characters that they let J-Law become a harridan? 

In this timeline, it’s 1992, the X-Men are celebrated rather than feared, and Prof. X has a direct line to the president. Manned space flights are still happening, so maybe the Challenger disaster didn’t, but either way the latest space flight encounters a solar flare and the X-Men are shot into space to save them. But Jean (Sophie Turner of “Game of Thrones”) gets caught in the flare, kinda dies, then comes back to life. Back home, the other mutant kids begin to call her Phoenix. She begins to drink a lot of wine. A sure danger sign.

Even before the wine drinking, Raven questions Prof. X (invariably pouring himself a bourbon—another danger sign) on what they’re doing: the bigger risks they’re taking. “Please, tell me it’s not your ego,” she says. “Being on the cover of magazines, getting a medal from the president. You like it, don’t you?” Maybe he is drinking too much, because he can’t answer these charges. Me, I’d go, “Bigger risks than what—taking on Apocalypse? And I don’t create the disasters. They’re there, and we do what we can, and nobody has to go if they don’t want to. You can opt out.” Instead he says it’s better than being hunted, which it is, but otherwise he’s kinda mute. 

And it’s not enough for Raven. “It’s not our life, it’s his,” she tells Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). “What do you think the X in X-Men stands for?” And when she finds out about the psychic walls? Hoo boy. 

Raven: What did you do to her, Charles?
X: I ... saved her.

And later:

Raven: What did you do?
X: I protected her.
Raven: From the truth. There’s another word for that.

I’m not sure what that word is. Lying? Either way, Jean goes off, finds her father, discovers that he didn’t want her, gets angry. And in a confrontation with some of the X-Men, she kills Raven, who, with her dying breath, tells Hank that she loved him. It’s almost like the torch is being passed to a new generation of X-Men with grudges against Prof. X:

Hank: This is your fault, Charles. It’s your fault that she’s dead. ... She saw what the rest of us didn’t.
X: And what was that?
Hank: This whole time, we’ve been trying to protect these kids from the world, when really we should’ve been protecting them from you.

Really, Brainiac? Because he tried to shield a little girl from tragedy?

Anyway, a distraught Jean, with Raven’s blood on her shirt like she’s Lady Macbeth, seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender, looking gorgeous), who’s running a commune. She wants to know how he turned to good. He wants to know whose blood that it is. (He, too, loved Raven, you see.) When he finds out, he’s Magneto again.

Eventually, he and his team, including Hank, assemble to kill Jean, while Prof. X and his team assemble to save her. Meanwhile, aliens, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), try to entice her to their side. But really they want the power the solar flare gave her. “It’s the spark that gave life to the universe,” Vuk says. “It destroyed everything it ever came into contact with. Until you.”

The battle includes an absolutely horrific scene where a smiling Jean uses her powers to make Prof. X walk, puppet-like, up the stairs to her and Vuk. Then we get the apology parade. From him. “I was trying to protect you—I was trying to keep the pain away,” he says. It’s only when Jean enters his mind that she sees all the good, realizes the X-Men are her family, and fights Vuk and the aliens to protect her family. She disappears in an explosion in the form of a Phoenix. In the aftermath, Hank takes over the Xavier Academy, it’s renamed in honor of Jean (not Raven?), and the movie ends, as “Last Stand” ended, with Magneto playing chess. At least this time he’s doing it with Prof. X at a café in Paris. If you’re going to do it, that’s the way to go. 

50th of 58
The movie was a disaster—with both critics (23% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences. There have been 12 X-Men movies, and the worst any of them did at the domestic box office was 2013’s “The Wolverine,” which, trying to overcome the absolute disaster of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” managed to gross only $132 million. This one? Half that: $65 million. That’s shocking for a modern superhero movie. Currently, “Dark Phoenix” ranks 50th among 58 Marvel movies. The only movies that did worse at the box office include: the 2015 “Fantastic Four,” the second “Ghost Rider,” the third “Blade,” the two “Punisher”s, “Elektra” and “Howard the Duck.”

So are we just tired of it? Do we have, if not superhero fatigue, X-Men fatigue? (Probably.) Is Sophie Turner not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is? (She’s not the box-office draw Hollywood thinks she is.) Was it a mistake to return to this story so soon? (Oh yeah.) Was it a mistake to hire the screenwriter for “Last Stand” to write and direct it? (Fuck yeah.) 

The movie even writes its own epitaph. Before the big battle, Magneto tells Prof. X the following:

You’re always sorry, Charles, and there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.

Truer words.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Sep 30, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Monday September 23, 2019

Movie Review: It Chapter Two (2019)


Not to spoil everyone’s fun but the homophobic bullies from the beginning of the movie get away with it. It’s a horrific scene and nothing happens to them. They’re still out there. I mean, I’m glad most of the Losers are OK, but .... the fuck?

Same with the girl beneath the bleachers. That happens and nothing. Poof. No crying mother on TV. No demands from the town council to investigate. “Kids are missing again. Why does this seem to happen every 27 years?” Silence.

I actually got pissed off at the town of Derry, Maine, in this thing. Bullies roaming free, a murderous clown showing up every 27 years, and where are they? The only one who’s doing anything is the township’s lone black guy living in its library attic. Is he conferring with law enforcement? Would you? And not just in a #BlackLivesMatter way. Sheriffs aren't exactly bright spots in Stephen King's work. Years ago, for MSN, I ranked the top 5/worst 5 Stephen King adaptations, meaning I had to watch all of them, which is pain enough for anyone, and I noticed so many incompetent sheriffs and evil trucks that it became a question for each of the ranked movies: Evil truck or incompetent sheriff? No evil trucks here, but the Derry sheriff is so incompetent he doesn’t even exist. We never see him. Kids are being killed again and where is he?

Fucking Derry. 

Well, at least it’s got a Chinese restaurant now. That’s progress. But mostly for the fortune cookie bit, I imagine.

Sans Batman, Robin, Starlord, Mysterio and Black Panther
In my review of “It” I wrote that every parent in town was worth zero: “Less than zero. There are no adults in the room. The kids have to be the adults in the room.” Now the kids are the adults in the room.

Great casting, by the way. They all look like older versions of the younger actors.

So it should’ve been Amy Adams. I mean, Sophia Lillis is a dead ringer. The press/marketing says the kids got to request who they wanted to play them, and Sophia said Jessica Chastain and Chastain said yes. First, I don’t buy the press reports. Warner Bros./New Line is going to entrust casting for their billion-dollar property to teenagers? Besides, everyone’s going to want the movie-star version of themselves and it’s not going to be sustainable. Apparently that happened. According to IMDb, here’s who the kids requested and who they got:

  • Sophia (Beverly) wanted Jessica Chastain and got ... Jessica Chastain
  • Finn Wolfhard (Richie) wanted Bill Hader and got ... Bill Hader
  • Chosen Jacobs (Mike) wanted Chadwick Boseman and got ... Isaiah Mustafa
  • Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie) wanted Jake Gyllenhaal and got ... James Ransone (Ziggy of “The Wire,” season 2)
  • Wyatt Oleff (Stanley) said Joseph Gordon-Levitt and got ... Andy Bean
  • Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben) wanted Chris Pratt and got ... Jay Ryan
  • Jaeden Martell (Bill) wanted Christian Bale and got ... James McAvoy

BTW, and assuming they had influence: Thank you, Finn Wolfhard. Hader is one of my favorite actors. I think he’s going to win an acting Oscar someday if he doesn’t give it up. He’s also perfect for a grown-up Richie. Now if only he could’ve been Jewish.

As the movie opens, it’s 2016, and most of the Losers have left Derry. The further away they got, the more the horrors of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) dimmed, until they basically forgot him. Impossible, right? Well, it’s not normal forgetting. “Something happens to you when you leave this town,” Mike tells them. “The farther away, the hazier it all gets.” He’s the only one who remembers since he’s the only one who stayed. He’s been researching the evil ever since.

Once Pennywise returns, Mike alerts them, and they all return, somewhat confused. The only one who doesn’t come back is Stanley. He’s just too scared. But he knows, somehow, they all have to be together to make it work. So, as he says in a letter near the end of the movie, he removes his piece from the gameboard. He kills himself.

I like that their first reaction to remembering and encountering Pennywise again is to get the fuck out of Dodge. But Mike convinces Bill to stay, and Bill convinces some of the others. And what has Mike learned after 27 years of research? Apparently an ancient Native American ceremony might kill the evil. Why didn’t it kill Pennywise before? The final answer is that, oops, it doesn’t really work, but that’s third-act stuff. In the meantime, each Loser has to find a personal item (on their own) for the ritual (that doesn’t work). But it leads to some good, scary scenes—particularly Beverly visiting her old apartment and encountering a kind old lady (Joan Gregson), who, we see, is Pennywise, skittering insectlike behind Beverly’s back. So creepy. Felt very “Twin Peaks.” These personal journeys also create flashbacks that allow us to see the kid versions of the Losers again.

In the meantime, the school bully from the first movie, Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), who’d been pushed to his apparent death, is actually alive and living and in a mental asylum. He’s also grown to seed. When he sees a red balloon signaling the return of Pennywise, he teams up with his now-zombie toadies to wreak revenge upon the Losers. Why is he in thrall to Pennywise who killed his friends? Who knows? Bullies will bully. He actually stabs Eddie in the cheek—the cheek the creepy pharmacist had recently pinched—then shows up at the library and is about to kill Mike when Richie splices his head open with an axe. Or something. To me, Bowers is a subplot we didn’t need. The movie’s long enough already. 

Question for people who read the novel: Did the little boy die in the Hall of Mirrors or is that another Pennywise illusion to fuck with Bill? That’s the thing: When is the horror an illusion (fortune cookies morphing into monsters, a giant Pennywise terrorizing a carnival) and when does it have real-world repercussions? At time, it almost felt like the Losers were invulnerable to Pennywise. He would fuck with their minds but leave no physical wounds. Anyone know why? Other than they’re the stars?

All of this leads us back to the abandoned Neibolt house, which was dilapidated in 1988-89, and now looks like ash, but is somehow still standing there on the corner next to nice homes with manicured lawns. (The Derry township can’t even condemn a fucking property right.) They go down the well, through the sewers, and into the creepy spot from the finale of the last film (a pile of circus props and kids toys). But that’s not enough. From there, they keep descending: down a sewer, crawling and scraping to get to a specific subterranean locale for the incantation that doesn’t work. They’ve basically arrived defenseless into Pennywise’s lair. It’s a wonder only one of them dies. Bye, Eddie. See ya, Zig. 

There’s a running gag throughout the film in which fans of Bill say they liked this or that book of his but never the ending. Apparently it’s a criticism Stephen King heard a lot. He even gets to say it here, to Bill, in a great cameo as the most unimpressed of Maine shopkeepers. And while the ending to this film isn’t great (it goes on too long), I liked the ending to Pennywise. Since he has to abide by the rules of the shape he’s in, they decide to make him small by escaping through a narrow aperture. But he doesn’t bite. Then they realize there are other ways to make someone feel small. They’ve felt it all their lives. So they taunt him and insult him until he becomes small enough that they can rip his heart from his chest and crush it.

OK, so it’s not great. I mean, Pennywise can have his feelings hurt? But at least it’s using brains rather than fists.

Sans Eddie and Stanley
Other complaints. In the novel, the kids’ portion was set in the 1950s, and the adult portion in the 1980s. In the movie, it’s 1980s and 2010s, but they didn’t always update properly. The flashbacks to 1980s Derry look very 1950s, while Bill’s childhood bike is a Schwinn? Why not a BMX like in “E.T.”? Plus when he repurchases it from Stephen King’s grousy Maine shopkeeper, what does he say as he rides it down the street? Right: “Hi-yo, Silver!” That’s a ’50s kid, watching Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger, not an ’80s kid. Certainly not after the Klinton Spilsbury version.

“It Chapter Two” is scary enough—I watched much of it through splayed fingers—just not as scary as the first. Which makes sense. They’re adults now. The world, and clowns, are much scarier when you’re a kid. Plus we don’t see Pennywise much. Plus they keep giving us the horror in the sigh after the horror doesn’t appear. Like that’s supposed to still shock.

Here’s a question: Will the township of Derry become nicer without the evil nearby? Or is the evil we see the townspeople commit—from horrific bullying to sex abuse—unrelated to Pennywise? I assume the latter. There’s a real sense here of things we can’t escape. Our heroes all leave the horrors of Derry and wind up in similar situations. Momma’s boy Eddie winds up married to a woman just like his mom—and played by the same actress. Beverly, abused by her father, winds up abused by her husband. Even Ben, chubby and brutalized in Derry, who manages to turn himself into a trim, hugely successful architect, is creating open-spaced buildings in reaction to the claustrophobia he felt in Derry. As for Bill? He becomes Stephen King, and relives the horror all the time. With, one imagines, evil trucks and incompetent sheriffs.

At least the movie gives them all (sans Eddie and Stanley) a happy ending. Beverly winds up with Ben, who’s now gorgeous and rich. Richie had his standup, Bill his writing, and Mike finally gets to leave Derry. Good for him. And good riddance. Has there been a more worthless town in movie history?

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Posted at 07:35 AM on Sep 23, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Monday September 16, 2019

Movie Review: Late Night (2019)


What a disappointment.

I get why screenwriter/star Mindy Kaling created up-and-comer Molly Patel (Kaling), who gets a dream job writing for iconic female late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), since Kaling was an intern for Conan O’Brien and the sole woman and person of color on the writing staff of “The Office” back in 2005. She knows this stuff.

I just don’t get why the female late-night host. If Kaling was a rarity in writing rooms, Newbury didn’t exist. Not in the early ’90s, when her show supposedly started, and not today, when all the late-night slots are taken by Stephen, Seth, two Jimmys and a James. If you’re riffing on the sexism of the industry, as this movie does, why create a character that makes the industry seem progressive in comparison?

And why make her British? And starchy and out-of-touch? Yes, apparently off-camera Johnny Carson was abrupt and unavailable, but on-camera he was the epitome of sly charm—and we don’t see that from Newbury. Yes, Carson got famously out-of-touch near the end of his 30-year reign, leading to Dana Carvey’s blistering “I did not know that ... Wild, weird stuff...” imitation, so I guess that’s a good avenue to explore, but you need the other elements. You need someone who seems funny. Was Ellen DeGeneres too busy for the role? Lily Tomlin? How about Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Tina Fey—aged 10 years? Thompson’s a pro but I saw nothing about her character that would make me think she’d been a national comic treasure for almost 30 years.

Not very PC
I must’ve seen the trailer a zillion times during the Seattle International Film Festival. It was playing the Centerpiece Gala, a prestigious slot, but the more I saw the trailer the more I worried. That’s the best they’ve got? What’s in this not-very-funny trailer?

Yep. “Late Night” is supposed to be about funny people and it’s not very funny.

Newbury gets off some zingers but overall she’s entitled and out-of-touch. She thinks she doesn’t have to keep up-to-date to keep an audience. New writers are told: Nothing happened after 1995, not the internet, and certainly not social media, so don’t mention any of that. Plus she’s sexist. Her writing staff consists of eight Yalie white men. Her personal assistant, Brad (Denis O’Hare), tells her, “I think you have a problem with living female writers on your staff,” and when it becomes an issue, he’s ordered to find her one. And there, across his desk, is Molly Patel, who works at a chemical plant, and has never done standup or comedy writing of any kind; she’s just a fan of the show. But she gets the gig. Because she’s a woman.

Also because she gets off this line.

Brad: A TV writer’s room is ... It’s not very PC. It can be a pretty masculine environment.
Molly: Oh, I saw most of the writers. I’m not overly worried about masculinity.

It’s one of the movie’s last funny lines.

That sets it all up. Molly is young, non-white, kinda hip; Newbury is old, very white, and decidedly unhip; and the movie’s trajectory is for Newbury to open up enough to Molly’s ideas to save both of their careers.

Except the stuff Molly comes up with? The worst. We get a recurring on-the-street bit called “Katherine Newbury: White Savoir,” where she helps two black dudes hail a cab, a fat woman buy clothes (I think), and some other dude get fries by complaining on social media. This is what turns the show from soporific into “a viral sensation.” I remember my father used to complain about movies in which some fictional Broadway show would get a standing ovation opening night when it was so bad it would probably close in a week, and this is the modern version of that. Even if people got the joke, and there isn't much of one, Newbury would be skewered more than celebrated for “White Savoir.”

As for that politically incorrect writers room? I wish. These guys are sweethearts. There’s a cute monologue writer (Reid Scott of “VEEP”), an older, empathetic, I’ll-be-fired-any-day-now dude (Max Casella), a lothario (Hugh Dancy), a fat guy (Paul Walter Hauser), and some non-descripts. At one point, they wonder over this “diversity hire” but they kind of whisper it. Mostly they’re there to support Molly. When a story breaks that Katherine slept with the lothario, cheating on her Parkinson’s-ridden husband Walter (John Lithgow), they all seem shocked. They soul search. “I thought she really loved Walter,” says the “VEEP” dude, betrayed. It comes off more like a consciousness-raising session.

You like us again; you really like us again
The story about the affair sets up our third act. Katherine takes a sabbatical, then says she’ll return to hand over the show over to the douchey standup the network wants (Ike Barinholtz); Molly says no, she should acknowledge the affair and fight for her show. They argue. Molly’s fired. “VEEP” dude shows up at her house to buck her up. Then Katherine does what Molly suggested, wins back the crowd, wins over the network president (Amy Ryan), keeps the job, and shows up at Molly’s new apartment to woo her back. A year later, everything’s hunky dory.

I didn’t like anybody in it. No, not true. I mostly didn’t like our female leads. It’s basically another example of female storytellers (Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra) giving us flawed, unsympathetic female characters and sympathetic, supportive male ones. Which is fine, but the flaws should be interesting. “Late Night” sets up the usual false dichotomy of Hollywood films: High culture is snooty so let’s wallow in the YouTube muck. These are our only two options.

O’Hare, who’s been in everything, is good, as is Casella. I particularly liked Lithgow’s Walter. There’s a scene when Molly attends a party at Katherine’s and finds Walter upstairs alone playing the piano. She listens. They talk. It’s nice. I didn’t want to leave that room.

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Posted at 08:32 AM on Sep 16, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Tuesday September 10, 2019

Movie Review: Ne Zha (2019)


I keep wondering when a Chinese movie will break out and do well in other markets. They’re killing it in China, with six homegrown movies in the last four years that have grossed north of half a billion dollars; but these things don’t travel well.

2017 Wolf Warrior 2 $854 $15
2019 The Wandering Earth $691 $9
2019 Ne Zha $659 $4
2018 Operation Red Sea $576 $4
2018 Detective Chinatown 2 $541 $3
2016 The Mermaid $527 $24

Why does the world come to Hollywood movies and not Chinese movies? Because they’re in English, which much of the world speaks? Because they offer a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that feels universal? Because the U.S. is a microcosm of the world and that’s reflected in our movies, while China isn’t, and that’s reflected in theirs?

Last February, I saw “The Wandering Earth,” China’s entry into the big-budget sci-fi blockbuster realm, and was thinking, “They still haven’t nailed special effects, but they’re closer. But oy, the story.” I mean, how many people besides scientists have to be insulted in this thing? From my review:

There’s a million-to-one shot to save the Earth and our Chinese heroes are in favor of rolling those dice. Every other country? They just want to return to their underground homes to spend their last precious hours wallowing in grief. The Brits wallow in drink while the Japanese contemplate hara-kiri. As for the U.S.? We don’t seem to exist. We’ve been expunged.

With “Ne Zha,” an animated movie based on a classic Chinese character, they’ve nailed the special-effects part. I was thinking, “Wow, the animation looks great. As good anything Pixar or DreamWorks does.” 

But oy, the story.

Nurture over nature
I lived in Taiwan for two years but I still can’t begin to wrap my head around Chinese mythology. This one basically begins in the clouds, where a pig man and a jaguar man battle against ... I don’t even remember. But the battle results in two pearls—a spirit and a demon—being loosed upon the earth. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I can’t, but basically the underwater dragons convince jaguar-man to get pig-man drunk so they can get steal the spirit pearl, and either through happenstance or by design, the demon pearl winds up in Ne Zha, the newborn of Li Jing and Madam Yin. The distraught parents are informed that this means he’ll only live to his third birthday.

It also means he’s a demon, but the parents do what they can to raise him right anyway. In the village, though, he’s feared. That makes sense—he has a demon’s power and sensibility—but they assume the worst, too, blaming him for things he doesn’t do. He’s a misunderstood demon.

There’s a good scene where village boys conspire against him. One suggests setting up a Rube Goldbergesque series of traps, involving a rotten wood bridge, a beehive, etc., where the only avenue of escapes leads to another trap, which leads to another trap, and so on, until the hapless Ne Zha is forced to flop into a rancid mudpit. The boys are totally game for this and decide the only improvement is to add burrs and their own pee into the mudpit. At which point the planner reveals himself to be Ne Zha and we see the village boys go through the Rube Goldberg machine and wind up in the nasty mudpit of their own making.

That’s the sorta demon part. The misunderstood part is when he’s accused of kidnapping a little girl to eat her. That was actually a different demon, a water demon, whom Ne Zha battles in the village and on the beach, where he’s joined by the tall, graceful, horned Ao Bing. The two play hacky-sack on the beach as well. Ao Bing is Ne Zha’s first friend.

He’s also the son of the Dragon King, and infused with the power of the stolen spirit pearl. It’s his father’s wish for him to use his powers to raise the dragons from their underwater prison. To do so would mean the end of the village. Or something.

All of this comes to a head on Ne Zha’s third birthday, when Li Jing tries to sacrifice himself for his son. Ne Zha refuses to let him, and in accepting his destiny (early death) becomes more than his destiny (a demon). He becomes the hero no one thought he would be.

A bowlful of snot
That’s the part of the movie that could travel well: nurture over nature; controlling your own destiny. Everyone in the world digs that. But to get there you have to go through a dizzying array of Chinese folks legends, none of which are really explained for the neophyte or 外国人。 

My wife had a problem, too, with how one-note it all is: relentlessly loud with few pauses. I was more turned off by the frequent scatological humor—although the Chinese kids who sat in front of us for a Sunday matinee at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle certainly enjoyed the fart jokes. That was cute—the kids more than the fart jokes. I missed how they took the scene where Ne Zha is forced to swallow a bowlful of the water demon’s snot; I was too busy shielding my eyes.

There’s also a running gag with a brawny villager who has a fearful girlish cry. It’s funny the first time; by the 10th, it feels a lot more homophobic.

But they’re closer.

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Posted at 07:19 AM on Sep 10, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
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