Movie Reviews - 2019 postsWednesday May 22, 2019
Movie Review: Sword of Trust (2019)
Marc Maron is the best part of Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust.” Maybe because his exasperation with people and the times mirrors mine. He’s past the point of caring but not quite. “The fuck is this?” he says at one point, unable to believe idiots believe in the things they do. He spoke for me.
The idiot things people believe in 2019 gets us back to the Philip Roth dilemma: How do you make credible American culture when the culture always outdoes the best efforts of our imaginations? When the culture itself is a satire? Roth complained that no novelist, for example could’ve dreamed up Richard Nixon, and he complained about this ... in 1962. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead a dozen years. Imagine if he could’ve seen ahead to Reagan and Rush and W. and Alex Jones. And of course President Donald.
So how do you do it? How do you create an American reality that seems both absurd and credible?
Shelton and co-writer Michael Patrick O’Brien (SNL”) do it by saying there’s a fringe group that believes the South actually won the Civil War.
You think about that for a second and go, “Yeah, that feels about right.” It feels so right that when you get home you go online to check that it’s not actually a thing.
The story is pretty simple. Maron plays Mel, who runs a two-bit pawnshop in a lazy stretch of Birmingham, Ala., with a conspiracy-minded assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass of unfortunately “Baywatch”), helping, or mostly not, by his side.
Meanwhile, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) has just lost her father and assumes she’ll get his house, but, oops, the bank is taking that. The only thing for her is an old Civil War sword, which she and her partner, Mary (Michaela Watkins), try to sell at Mel’s pawnshop.
This particular sword plays heavy in the conspiracy theory that the South actually won the Civil War. The sword was there at the surrender of the North, or something, in 1881, and so suddenly there’s a bunch of loons descending on Mel’s pawnshop.
Just writing that makes me think the movie should’ve been funnier. Maybe with a bigger budget? As is, the loonish descent is just two lousy stickup men, and the guy who played “The Wiz” on that episode of “Seinfeld” (Toby Huss). Here, he’s Hog Jaws, repping an interested buyer.
The movie goes wrong in a couple of ways:
- How much was improv? Parts felt that way, and those parts weren’t funny. Nathaniel’s whole “Flat Earth” society bit was just ... nothing
- I didn’t buy that anyone in it lived in Alabama. Not Maron from Jersey, Not Bass from Texas, not Watkins from NY or Bell from Vegas. It was filmed in Birmingham but I didn’t feel Alabama at all. (Caveat: I’ve never been to Alabama.)
- Hog Jaws says his buyer won’t visit their pawn shop; they have to get in the back of a van, like an unmarked police van, and meet him at his estate. And they go.
One, it’s a horrible negotiating move: You travel all that way, you kinda want to make the deal. More important: He’s nuts. He believes the South won the Civil War. You could die. Who’s taking that risk? These people.
Anyway, it turns out that the buyer, Kingpin (Dan Bakkedahl of “VEEP”) doesn’t believe in alt South history anyway. Hog Jaws does, and when he overhears he pulls a gun on Kingpin. But others get the drop on him and he’s taken to the “Toy Room,” which is a supercreepy name straight out of “Pulp Fiction.” We never see it; thank god. Our heroes get out alive and with $40k.
There’s a subplot, too, about Mel being in love with an addict, played by Shelton. The movie ends on a grace note.
In the end, it feels too improv, too indie. But if you like Maron, go. He’s the show.
Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)
I MEAN IT: SPOILERS
First the good news: Spider-Man, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Nick Fury, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t dead.
Now the bad: Both Iron Man and Black Widow are. Captain America is an old man, Hulk is diminished, and Thor is fat. Marvel giveth, Marvel taketh and Marvel girtheth. And they did it with a snap of their CGI fingers.
We all knew the others weren’t dead, of course. The question after “Infinity War” was never “Will they come back?” but “How will they come back?” How will Marvel do this without making it seem like a cheat? Like, you know, an entire season of “Dallas” being a dream?
Everyone had theories. From my review of “Infinity War”:
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.
And that's what they do. After Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) rescues a CGI-emaciated Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from his powerless spaceship, and he berates Captain America (Chris Evans) for no good reason, the Avengers fly to Planet Thanos, find him scarred and limping, and cut off his gloved hand with the infinity stones in it. Ha! Except there are no infinity stones in it. He’s destroyed them. He brags about fate—that he is inevitable. Which is when Thor cuts off his head.
We’re about 20 minutes into the three-hour movie.
I like what the writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) and the directors (Anthony and Joe Russo), do next. We get a shot of New York City and the beginning of a title graphic: It says “FIVE” and it just hangs on the left side of the screen and we wonder; Days? Months? They let it linger for a beat or two, and we’re thinking, no, not that.
FIVE YEARS LATER
I was immediately intrigued. Wow, what now? How do they fix this? How do they bring everyone back from the dead without making it seem like a cheat? Like, you know, Superman turning back time to bring Lois back from the dead?
Um yeah. About that.
The dispirited ‘20s
So what happens if you lose half of all living things in the universe? I imagine there’d be some job openings. Also the stock market would drop and companies wouldn’t make their quarterly earnings reports. I doubt Thanos took any of this into consideration.
But would the world turn into a kind of dispirited, global ghost town as the movie suggests? We get a camera pan over CitiField; it’s crumbling from disuse. Because? Right now there are about 7.5 billion in the world and if you halved that it would be 3.75 billion, which would take us to 1972 population levels. Kids might not believe this, but we had Major League Baseball in 1972.
(Hey, not for nothing, but did Derek Jeter crumble into ash? Or Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell? What if the Avengers had worked with Thanos rather than against him? “The first thousand names on the list are deal breakers, Thanos; those dudes have to go.” “OK.”)
As for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in dispirited 2023?
- Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has taken over Nick Fury’s role and has various supers reporting in from policing the world—in this case, Mexico’s drug cartels (everything old is new again).
- Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who lost his wife and three kids, poof, has become an assassin—killing bad guys for the revenge of it.
- Steve Rogers/Cap is the opposite—a gentle guidance counselor for the bereft, urging people to look forward, using his recovery from 70 years in ice as an example.
- Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has figured out a way to become both himself and Hulk: He’s now giant, green and cerebral.
- Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the opposite—he’s gotten stupid. He’s drowning his pain in booze in an Asgardian village in Norway and has totally gone to pot: big beard, big gut. At one point Tony calls him “Lebowski.” He’s comic relief.
- And Tony? He and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) have a kid—a girl. His scenes with her are charming, and make me want Robert Downey Jr. to take on more serious roles. No offense, true believers.
Life might’ve continued like that, without any “Spider-Man: Far from Home” or “Black Panther 2,” if not for a rat.
One business that has done well in the post-Thanos era is the storage business. Apparently everyone’s hoping everyone will come back. In one such storage locker in San Francisco, a rat steps onto a panel of the machine Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyke (Evangeline Lilly) used to make Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) “go quantum,” or whatever the hell it was, in the final scenes of “Ant-Man & The Wasp”—before they, too, were Thanosed out of existence, leaving him stuck there. The rat inadvertently sets him free. He returns to a world in which he’s among the missing—assumed to be dead. He finds his daughter. She’s now like 17. He looks the same, which is so Paul Rudd.
Indeed, because he was in the quantum realm, those five years to him were like five hours. And he thinks that’s the key to trying to reverse all this: bending/going back in time via “Pym particles.” The writers have fun pulling out the “time machine” pop-cultural references—from “Star Trek” to “Back to the Future” to “Hot Tub Time Machine”—but no one mentions “Superman: The Movie,” which is a shame. That’s basically what they’re doing but on a bigger scale, and with this caveat: They want to bring all six infinity stones to their time, put them in a Tony Stark-created glove, bring everyone back to life with a snap of the fingers, and then return the stones to their original spot so time can continue unimpeded to the moment when they in fact do this. Otherwise they won’t do this because the continuum will be disrupted.
This basically allows our MCU heroes to revisit MCU movies:
- Cap, Iron Man and Hulk visit the end of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” where Cap battles Cap (shades of Captain Americas #153-156!) and Hulk battles The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) from “Doctor Strange”
- Thor and Rocket (voice: Bradley Cooper) return to “Thor: The Dark World”
- Black Widow and Hawkeye travel to the planet where you have to sacrifice something you love to get the stone. Like Thanos sacrificed Gamora in “Infinity War”; here, Black Widow sacrifices herself
- War Machine and Nebula (Don Cheadle and Karen Gillan) go to the beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy” with Starlord dancing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”
We get a smart reboot of the elevator scene from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (one of my fave MCU movies), and some fun stuff with 2012 Hulk and the elevator, but Cap and Iron Man lose one the stones to Loki; so they use their remaining Pym particles to get back to a 1970 army base, which is secretly S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, where they hope to steal: 1) the infinity stone they know is there, and 2) more Pym particles with which to return to 2023.
There, Tony runs into his dad (a CGI-youthenized John Slattery), which continues the movie’s theme: lineage; parentage. That’s throughout the time travel. Thor has a heart-to-heart with his mom (Rene Russo) on the day she dies, as Tony does with his dad on the day Tony is born, as does, I suppose, Nebula, whose 2014 incarnation can access the memories of her 2023 self—meaning Thanos is able to see his dreams realized, and plots to stop them being undone. So instead of 2023 Nebula returning with War Machine, it’s the 2014 version, who is still loyal to her father. And after Hulk puts on the Stark-created infinity gauntlet and brings everyone back to life (the ones Thanos thanosed out of existence), 2014 Nebula uses the time portal to transport 2014 Thanos, and his ship, and his army of slithering minions, into the present to fight the remaining Avengers—initially, Thor, Cap and Iron Man—Hulk being incapacitated from using the infinity gauntlet.
Cap was always a favorite of mine from 1970s comic-collecting days, and he gets some great moments here. At one point, he wields both his shield and Mjolnir. (How? A nearby nerd told me after the movie it was implied he was worthy in “Ultron” when he budges it a bit.) He gives Thanos his best battle, nearly finishing him, but instead winds up busted, bruised, bloodied and carrying a shattered shield. Which leads to his greatest moment: rising slowly, ready to continue the hopeless fight—which becomes less hopeless when Doctor Strange teleports the rest of the Avengers—alive!—to their location. Let the battle royale begin!
Or to use the ’70s Marvel comic-cover locution: Let begin the battle royale!
Except the true battle is for the infinity gauntlet, which becomes like a hot potato or fumbled football—forever kicked forward and back. Bad Nebula has it, then Ant-Man, then ... I lost track. Nobody puts it on. Maybe they saw what it did to Hulk? Besides, it had served its purpose. What else could it do?
It could finally end the battle with Thanos by ending Thanos. And who better to end it than the guy who began it all for us back in 2008? Iron Man, the superhero whose true power is being quicker and wittier than everyone around him. Remember “Avengers”?
Loki: I have an army.
Tony: We have a Hulk.
We get similar wordplay here. Thanos puts the gauntlet on, declares “I am ... inevitable” and snaps his fingers triumphantly. Except nothing. Because Tony reveals he’s got the gems on his gauntlet; and he declares—in a callback to the famous last line of “Iron Man”—“I am ... Iron Man,” and snaps his fingers. And there goes Thanos’ army and his subordinates—into dust. The last to go is Thanos himself. Inevitably.
How Marvel Studios is like Tony Stark
Then it’s a taste of ashes for us, too: It was all too much, and Tony dies. Back in April 2008, the month “Iron Man” premiered, I did a piece for MSNBC called “Top 5: Superhero Casting” and went with Christopher Reeve, Toby Maguire, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Douglas Fairbanks. Not bad. But another era. It’s a much tougher list to make now but even with all the extra competition Downey Jr. might top it. No one is quicker verbally. It’s why Tony gets away with so much. By the time you unpack everything he’s said he’s somewhere else.
There’s a need for the MCU to move on, so I guess this is the right call. But some part of me feels we didn’t get enough Iron Man vs. Captain America. It’s not just the clash of personalities; they represent the two halves of America: its ideal (democracy/Cap) and its messy reality (capitalism/Iron Man). It felt like more could be said with this dichotomy—things that might help explain us to us.
We also lose Cap. He returns the infinity stones to their previous locations (to not disrupt the timeline), then stays in the past to be with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). To disrupt the timeline? Seems like a weird call. So instead of Steve Rogers returning via the “time machine” he does it the old-fashioned way—as an old man sitting on a nearby bench. He’s got his shield with him and gives it to Sam/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who will, one hopes, become the new Captain America in a new Captain America movie. Hopefully they have the balls to do it right. Don't ignore race and racism: reflect the outrage of a segment of the country that Captain America is now black. Should be easy. Just read all the alt-right vitriolic comments on the MCU’s various social media feeds. Turn those guys into the villains they are.
More resolutions: Thor lets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) become ruler of Asgard, Norway, then joins the Guardians of the Galaxy—or the Asgardians of the Galaxy, as he calls them. At Tony’s funeral, there’s a sweet scene with Tony's daughter, Morgan (Alexandra Rabe), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man”), talking cheeseburgers, another call-back to “Iron Man.” Man, they do this stuff so well.
But did they pull it off? Here’s the thing: If you’d told me beforehand the resolution, involving time travel and sci-fi bullshit, I would’ve been disappointed. But Marvel Studios is like Tony Stark: They get away with a lot because they’re quick-witted, charming, and ultimately heartwarming. By the time you unpack everything they’re doing (wait, shouldn’t Cap, Iron Man and Thor be able to take down an ungloved Thanos?), they’re doing something else.
I was occasionally bored. Dividing the Avengers into teams meant there were teams I was inevitably less interested in. Black Widow and Hawkeye? Plus why send them to that far-off planet that always reminds me of the Bridgekeeper scene from “Monty Python & the Holy Grail”? How did they get stuck with that one? Wouldn’t one super/one skilled be a better model? Instead, three supers get NYC 2012 and two skilleds are sent to a far-off planet. Not smart.
Other questions remain. Like: What year is it? 2023? If so, why are all of Spidey’s high school friends the same age they were in 2018? Did they all wind up being thanosed? And why didn’t Captain Marvel just put on the infinity glove? Isn’t she part infinity stone herself? And, hey, did we ever get 2023 Nebula back?
Overall, though, for three hours I was entertained and even moved. Afterwards, for much of the day, I felt a little sad, like I’d lost something. I don’t know if this means Tony, Steve and Natasha, or if it means this part of the MCU, which is forever done. I don’t know where they go from here; I just hope the continuity continues.
Movie Review: Shazam! (2019)
A great idea doesn’t necessarily make a great movie. David S. Goyer realized that if someone with Superman’s powers suddenly showed up on earth, people would freak and governments and militaries would marshal their forces. Then Zack Snyder turned it into “Man of Steel,” and “Batman v. Superman.” Damn.
The great idea here is that when Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel, he may change appearance, voice, powers, but he doesn’t change personality or knowledge; he stays who he is: a 14 year-old boy. So it’s like Superman + the Tom Hanks movie “Big.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how they pitched it. Best part? They didn’t blow it. They kept Zack Snyder away.
The “Big”/“Superman” thing was obvious from the first trailer, so I expected it, and expected to be entertained by it; and I was, mostly. It’s a little dumber than I thought, but it’s fun enough.
What I didn’t expect? The metaphor about the Democratic Party.
Worst job recruiter ever
Initially I was confused. We’re on a car ride to grandma’s house in 1974? With Lex Luthor’s dad (John Glover)? And the kid playing with a Magic 8 ball in the backseat being bullied by his father and older brother—is that supposed to be our Captain Marvel/Shazam? So is this thing set in ’74—around the same time as the Saturday morning live-action TV show—or is that our villain? Except with that timeline, Mark Strong would have to be my age—born in 1963—and ... oh, he is. Kudos, Mark. You look great for our age.
When the fortunes in the Magic 8 ball turn into squiggly symbols, the car crackles with energy, ice forms on the windows, and the kid, Thaddeus (Ethan Pugiotto), is transported alone to “the Rock of Eternity,” which is like an interdimensional cavern. There, an ancient wizard with a long white beard and staff (Djimon Hounsou) tells him he’s searching for a new superpowered champion to help the world. The champion must be “pure of heart.” A former champion, not pure of heart, went bad and released the seven deadly sins into the world. Oddly, those sins are still in the cavern, encased in whispering statues along the walls. So they’re both in the world and trapped in the Rock of Eternity? OK.
Anyway, the kid fails the test (he reaches for an energy ball, which is a no-no or something), he’s transported back to Dad’s car, becomes histrionic and causes an accident which leaves asshole dad paralyzed for life. That’s our cold open. And we haven’t met our lead yet.
Billy Batson, a gosh-gee newsboy in the original comics, a twentysomething radio operator in the 1941 live-action serial, and a long-haired Tiger-Beat teen in the 1974 TV series, is, here, a young, pretty-eyed punk (Asher Angel of Disney channel’s “Andi Mack”). He suckers a pair of Philly cops so he can get into their patrol car and look up the address of the woman he thinks is his biological mom. He has a long list of possibilities in his notebook and she’s the only one not crossed out. Turns out she’s black. Then the cops arrive and bust his head open for suckering them. Kidding. It’s jokes and kid gloves. You know Philly cops. But he winds up in another foster home.
This one is about as nice as you can get—a big ramshackle house run by the Vazqueses: Victor (Cooper Andrews), portly, jovial, philosophical, and Rosa (Marta Milans), who looks like a harried Angelina Jolie. The kids include:
- Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer of “Me, Myself and I”), a white, supertalkative, superhero-obsessed teen with a crutch
- Faithe (Darla Dudley of “This Is Us”), a supertalkative and superneedy black girl who dispenses hugs like a priest dispenses wafers at the Eucharist
- Eugene (Ian Chen of “Fresh Off the Boat”), a Chinese-American gamer/hacker
- Pedro (Jovan Armand), portly and reticent
- Mary (Grace Fulton), the eldest, getting ready for college
If I’d been thinking, I would’ve realized where this was going—particularly with Freddy and Mary—but I’m kind of glad I wasn’t. Once it arrived, it was a joy.
This foster family is large, loud and big-hearted but Billy keeps his distance. He’s got a foot out the door already. At school, Fawcett Central High—for Fawcett Comics, the publisher of Shazam in the 1940s—there are bullies, of course, and they pick on Freddy, of course, and so Billy has to stand up for him since he can’t for himself. Then the bullies give chase. Billy escapes to a subway, flips them off from behind closed doors, settles in; then the subway speeds up, the other passengers disappear, and the stops take on those squiggly symbols we’d seen in the Magic 8 ball. When the doors open, Billy’s in the “Rock of Eternity.” Good bit? He glances back at the subway map to check the stop.
Before all this, by the way, young Thaddeus (now a glowering Mark Strong), had set up a research institute investigating incidents like his from ’74—the hieroglyphics, the transportation, the wizard, the offer of power, the test, the failure—which has happened to dozens of people around the world. When the symbols are finally captured on video, Thaddeus figures out the pattern: the seven symbols that need to be repeated seven times to open the gateway. That’s what he does. He returns, pushes the old wizard aside, absorbs the seven deadly sins, and accumulates vast power to wreak havoc on the world. To be sure, we mostly see him wreaking havoc on his father’s company. He tosses the older brother out the window, unleashes the seven deadly sins to kill board members in horrible ways, and saves Greed to tear his father apart limb from limb. Oddly, he doesn’t stay to watch it. You’d think after nearly a half-century of hatred and resentment, he might.
So with the seven deadly sins gone from the Rock of Eternity, is that why Billy passes the test? Because there is no test? So why was he chosen then? He’s not exactly pure of heart. Why isn’t Faithe chosen? Or Mary? Or Victor Vasquez for god’s sake? Maybe there was an answer and I missed it.
This is the part where I got whiffs of the Democratic party. Old man Shazam has spent at least 45 years searching for a replacement, a champion, to take over; and he’s interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands, and none of them passed his purity test. Meanwhile, evil gathered.
But forget the metaphor. How much of a fuck-up is this Shazam? He keeps picking people who can’t pass the test, and probably fucks them over for life; and one of them becomes so incensed, and obsessed, he becomes a supervillain. And he seemed like a decent kid at the start! That’s some shitty program.
Anyway, I assume that’s why Billy Batson, who isn’t exactly pure of heart, gets the gig. At this point, they needed to pick somebody. And he says “Shazam!” and turns into what would be called Captain Marvel (Zachary Levi in a padded suit) but for copyright issues with Marvel Inc. That actually leads to a good bit, as he and Freddy, but mostly Freddy, try to come up with different names for him: Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers, Thundercrack, Mr. Philadelphia, Zaptain America, Sir Zaps-a-Lot.
I anticipated this being my favorite part of the movie and it was. Among the antics he and Freddy get into:
- testing CM’s superpowers
- buying beer
- sipping beer and spitting it out
- buying tons of candy instead
- going to a “Gentleman’s Club”—CM at least
He stops crooks at a convenience store, then rescues an attractive woman from a purse-snatching. Except he pisses her off by calling her an “old lady” and she’s already maced the purse-snatcher. He wasn’t needed. Another good bit.
Along with “Big,” some of it reminded me of “Greatest American Hero,” the short-lived but often-funny superhero show of the early’80s, starring William Katt as a schoolteacher who is given a superhero suit but loses the instruction book: He’s forever flying into walls and things. He’s the George of the Jungle of the city. Similarly, Shazam doesn’t really know what he can do or how to do it. Takes him forever to figure out flying. But as they’re testing all he can (and can’t) do, Freddy video-records it and uploads onto YouTube, where it gets tons of hits. The true source of 21st-century power. Question, though: Couldn’t anyone with skillz trace the videos back to Freddy? And thus his family? Not exactly smart.
Foster Family: the new FF
Eventually the fun ends when Thaddeus, now Dr. Sivana, the longtime Captain Marvel villain, shows up, envious that another champion was chosen. I’m curious what he’d been doing after the boardroom. Does he have a plan? World domination or anything? Does he and the 7 Deadlies just want to wreak havoc? It’s electing Trump, isn’t it? I bet it’s electing Trump.
Sivana makes quick work of Shazam, who is new to his powers, and just a kid, after all. I like this part. Superpowers don’t a superhero make. Just because you’re super doesn’t mean you’re brave. Billy/Shazam flees, and it takes his foster family being threatened before he begins to fight back against someone whose powers seem greater than this. Oh, and in the process, he finds his real biological mom, who’s an awful person. His real family is the foster family, and they turn into—of course—the Marvel family: Freddie becomes Captain Marvel Jr. (if he could be so named), Mary is Mary Marvel. Etc. Each has one of Shazam’s powers.
I liked that. I like the “family you create” motif, which is very Hollywood. Even so, that, along with the mid-credits sequence introducing Mister Mind, who is, after all, a fucking caterpillar, reminded me that C.C. Beck’s world was always kind of stupid. (Mouse over the poster for an example.) Tawny Tiger? Captain Marvel’s shortie cape and his Brezhnev eyebrows? Holy Moley? Superman gets “Man of Steel” and “Man of Tomorrow,” Batman gets “Caped Crusader,” and the best nickname Beck can come up with is “The Big Red Cheese”? Even as a kid I thought Shazam comics were dumb. They were dumb by the standards of Golden Age comics, let alone the Mighty Marvel Age I was living in.
So congratulations to screenwriter Henry Gayden (“Earth to Echo”), director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”), and the cast and the casting director. DC is finally turning it around. Before, they had great source material and turned it into crap; now, they have crap source material (Wonder Woman, Shazam!), and are turning it into something, if not great, at least fun and palatable.
Don’t envy them Mister Mind, though.
Movie Review: The Mustang (2019)
The most searing part of the movie for me was the beginning, when wild mustangs in the western U.S., living their life, are rounded up by the feds as part of population control. Helicopters and jeeps drive them toward fences that funnel them into pens and eventually horse trailers. They buck, rear, cry out. At prisons, they’ll be broken and sold at auction—usually to the police. If they can’t be broken, or if no one buys them, they’ll be put to death.
First-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre gives us the mustangs’ perspective throughout: from freedom to inexplicably not; from a natural life to a process that’s mechanized. There’s an inexpressible horror to it. The proper reaction to it is the cries of animals.
Then it just becomes about us again.
Second second chance
Going in, I assumed “The Mustang” took place in the Himalayan steppes. The poster screwed me up. That orange jumpsuit looked like red Tibetan robes to me, while Matthias Schoenaerts’ shaved head made him look monk-like. Plus I missed the blurred fence in front. Plus I’m too stupid to know mustangs are endemic to North America.
Schoenaerts’ character, Roman Coleman, is as solitary as a monk, he just exudes no sense of peace. The opposite. He moves through prison like he hasn’t taken a breath in 12 years. He’s the bomb waiting to go off. So not exactly what you’d expect from a horse trainer.
I also assumed he would find himself, and a gentler, more patient nature, with the horses. There’s some of that, but the movie’s conceit mostly goes another way. It’s in the tagline: “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” Both Roman and his horse, Marquis (mispronounced “Marcus”), are untamable, and I guess the horse recognizes a kindred spirit; so even after Roman, frustrated by other matters, punches the horse in the chest, the horse forgives him. Days later, he nuzzles him. I didn’t buy it.
There are three main settings/storylines:
- Outside with the horse program, run by Myles (Bruce Dern)
- Visits with Roman’s daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon)
- Encounters with his cellmate, Dan (Josh Stewart)
The horse program is rehabilitation and purpose. The visits with the daughter, in conjunction with group therapy (led by Connie Britton), are about coming to terms with past crimes. They’re confession and the possibility of redemption. In the cramped cell with Dan lies the potential for future crimes.
Since Roman works outside with the horses, he has access to ketamine, an anesthetic which can be used to get high; and Dan blackmails Roman to get it by threatening Martha. He says he knows where she lives, he has people on the outside, etc. He must be connected since Roman goes along with it even though it looks like he could take Dan out with one punch. Roman has already spied his happy-go-lucky horse mentor, Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”), coating extra T-shirts with ketamine and wearing them inside, and Roman does the same.
The problem with the movie is the disconnect between these storylines. After the blackmail threat, for example, Martha arrives for a visit. One assumes Roman’s going to warn her about Dan. No. He wants to finally open up about his crime—turning Martha’s mother into a vegetable. The confession is painful for him (he looks wrecked afterward) but there’s no redemption (Martha doesn’t forgive him), and, worse, the threat from Dan goes unmentioned. Shouldn’t that be his main concern? His daughter's safety? Rather than his own redemption?
Then Dan kills Henry—slitting his throat in the yard. Was Henry smuggling for a rival? Was it simple racism? We never find out. But in retaliation, in their cell, Roman chokes Dan. To death? Who knows? And if Dan is connected, are there repercussions from a gang? Got me. At the least, we assume there will be repercussions with the horse program. That privilege will be taken away from Roman, and he won’t be able to show Marquis at auction, and maybe Marquis will be put to death. That’s the trade-off.
But there’s no trade-off because there are no repercussions. Roman participates in the auction as planned. It’s the second second-chance he’s been given—the first was after he punched Marquis—and he still blows it. He keeps scanning the crowd to see if Martha shows up. He’s not focusing on the task, which is Marquis; he’s seeking redemption rather than responsibility. For a time, though, he gets away with it. The horse is spirited but falls into line; then a helicopter spooks Marquis, and Roman is thrown and dragged and winds up with a concussion. Because of that, the horse program is shut down and Marquis will be put down. So Roman sets Marquis free. He sends him back into the wild west.
In the end, looking out through the small slot of his solitary window, Roman sees the horse on the other side of the barb wire fence. I assume this visitation is in his mind’s eye. Otherwise, it’s dumb.
Oh, right. He also gets some forgiveness in a letter from Martha. Like we give a shit.
Best supporting actor
It’s a shame. There are good moments. I liked the group-therapy scene when the men talk about how much time lapsed between the thought and the crime. (For most, it’s barely a second.) I liked the horse-training team riding across the plains in their DOC jumpsuits. (It suggests a great western/prison break flick that might be made.) I liked the scene where Marquis keeps turning his backside to Roman—shunning him. (That horse is a helluva actor.)
But the movie, which was developed through Robert Redford’s Sundance labs, combines the gritty with the unrealistic—all the stuff above that I don’t buy—and it’s a bad mix.
Worse, the longer the movie progressed, the less I liked our lead. Roman is on a path to redemption, which can be long and tortured, but he keeps lunging after forgiveness rather than owning up to responsibility. He becomes less of a man. That’s not any path to redemption I'd like to take.
Movie Review: Us (2019)
As I stood outside the SIFF Egyptian theater after the Saturday matinee, waiting for my wife and blinking in the late afternoon sun, my immediate thoughts were:
- not as scary as “Get Out”
- not as cohesive
Rabbits? Hands Across America? So much left unanswered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling this. I kept seeing moviegoers scrunching their faces and beginning conversations like: “So if...?” or “So then what...?” Would’ve made a nice tableau vivant. Title: “Us.”
That night I proved myself wrong on the first point. I woke up at 1 a.m. scared witless. I don’t know if it was retroactive horror, if I’d just had a bad nightmare, or some combination, but I was suddenly terrified of doppelgangers. I saw them everywhere. I didn’t even want to look in the mirror because there was another one. To make it to my office—since I couldn’t get back to sleep—I did that thing where you keep the light on at one end of a dark hallway until you can walk down and turn the light on at the other. Then you schlep back to turn off the first. I’m 56.
Earlier, online, I’d proved myself wrong on the second point, too. At the least, questions I thought unanswered were in fact answered in Jordan Peele’s film. But the answers only led to more questions.
Apparently the doppelgangers, “the tethered,” are clones from an abandoned government project. I’d missed that 11th-hour explanation. And the rabbits are what they ate—raw rabbit—while they mimicked the actions of the surface people above.
How long ago was the project abandoned? Five years? Because the kids are like, what, 10 or 12? So are they the last of the tethered or are there more? Or is the whole thing automated now? That would explain why tethered/surface dwellers seem the exact same age. Officials aren’t getting the DNA swipe in utero or waiting for the kids to be born to clone them; it’s all natural. Red and Abraham, underground, simply mimic the movements of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) above—including sex. They have kids the traditional way. But then would the kids be clones? And what to make of Adelaide’s above-ground kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex)? Since she’s “tethered,” what are they now, really?
More: Does everyone have a clone? Trump? Beyoncé? Lin-Manuel Miranda? And is it America or everywhere? If it’s a U.S. government project it’s just here, right? Which means immigrants don’t have clones. Is that why we’re so xenophobic? They are their own entities while we’re half-people—sharing sensations and movements and thoughts with creatures below us.
Is that why we feel so empty? Needy? Lost? Listless? Is that why Adelaide’s parents fight on the boardwalk in 1986 and her dad is drunk and needs to play another game of Wac-a-Mole rather than watching his girl, which is why she wanders down to the beach, and into the funhouse (“Find yourself”), where she does exactly that: She encounters Red, who (11th hour reveal), grabs her, chokes her, and takes her place in the sun.
That reveal is my favorite part of the movie, by the way. It not only turns the movie on its head but the audience, too. Because we’ve been rooting for the wrong person the entire time. The little girl lost? We actually wanted her to die. Jordan Peele must’ve chuckled to himself when he came up with that.
But of course this reveal leads to its own series of follow-ups. Did Adelaide always know she was original Red or had she repressed it? If she knew, why go back to Santa Cruz? And did Red know she was original Adelaide? If so, wouldn’t her conversation in the living room have been different? “I’m back,” etc. “Thought you could get away with it,” etc. Also, when she woke up in the underground and got unchained from the bed, why didn’t she just escape? Up the escalator and back to the funhouse? Speaking of: What lame-ass inspector is responsible for keeping that place up to code? “Yeah, sorry lady, I don’t see anything on this manifold about an escalator inside a tent.”
Another thought: Why are the tethered stronger and faster than the people above ground? Is raw rabbit meat that fulfilling? So kale is just bullshit?
Right now, most likely, some reader is growing increasingly frustrated with me: Dude, it’s a metaphor! For class issues! Don’t you get anything?
Right. But I want the metaphor to make sense outside the metaphor, too. And this thing is just ... impossible. The logistics alone boggle the mind. Makes the U.S. entry into WWII seem like a weekend camping trip.
Other favorite moments are the stuff that made me laugh. Like when Gabe, genially enough at first, confronts the silent family at the end of the driveway, then returns with a baseball bat and his “black voice.” That cracked me up. Especially when it didn’t work.
Also: “Call the police”/“Playing ‘Fuck The Police’ by NWA.” Perfect.
I still don’t get “Hands Across America.” I remember it, and I like that it was in the movie, but it doesn’t resonate. OK, so the tethered are replicating a big empty-gesture event about homelessness from 1986. And...?
What resonates is the main thing: The horror that there’s someone who looks like you, and who is crushed by life and forced to live underground and have nothing, and whom you don’t even know exists, and who wants your life. And yes, that’s a class metaphor. What's interesting is that it doesn’t exactly make you sympathetic for the literal lower classes. The opposite.
“Us” is a movie worth seeing and talking about. I liked it. But. For all those reasons above: but. And maybe too I'm just tired of another movie playing off of and exacerbating paranoia about the federal government. It’s been going on for decades and simply plays into the hands of people who proclaim the federal government “the problem," “the enemy” and “the swamp.” It leads to Reagan, the Bushes and Trump. Which is the real horror.