Movie Reviews - 2022 posts

Monday January 16, 2023

Movie Review: Aftersun (2022)


A small criminal of perception. That’s how E.L. Doctorow describes Danny Isaacson, who sees what he shouldn’t see, and notices what he shouldn’t notice, in the 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel.” And that’s the phrase that came to mind as I watched Sophie (Frankie Corio) in “Aftersun,” Charlotte Weber’s’s acclaimed feature film debut.

She’s a Scottish girl on vacation with her divorced father, Calum (Paul Mescal), in a resort in Turkey. Give or take a Turkish rug or phrase, it could be anywhere. The resort has a swimming pool, video games, billiards, karaoke, Chumbawamba. There’s the ocean but everyone hangs around the pool. The sky is full of people parasailing but Sophie and Calum never do it. At the pool, he encourages her toward the littler kids but she gravitates to the teenagers. She’s attuned to their cues, smiles, touchings and trysts. She’s 11 and sees all. We worry for her. She wants to grow up so fast, and such circumstances are never good for young girls in movies. 

Turns out we’re worrying about the wrong person.

Strobe light
When did I realize it? To be honest, probably after the movie. I missed a lot of cues. I’m an old criminal of misperception.

The vacation begins poorly. They’re supposed to have two beds but just get a double. Later we see how the resort handles the snafu: They give him a kind of cot, next to the big bed, and he sleeps on the cot. Maybe the resort knows they can get away with it with this guy. 

OK, more honesty: I flashed on a trip I took to Portland in the mid-1990s with my then-girlfriend Brenda. I was working in a bookstore, and didn’t have much money, and was probably beaten down. When we arrived in our room at a hostel, it should’ve been obvious that something was wrong. There were used condoms in the wastebasket, the bed wasn’t made, and there were shitstains on the sheets. If it happened today I would yell holy hell, but I hadn’t been traveling much back then, particularly to hostels, and I thought “Well, maybe this is how they do things here.” At the front desk, I waited my turn and then politely explained the situation. What did that politeness get me? Blank stares. I think they just handed me fresh sheets. So we could change the bed ourselves. And we did.

The world knows who to fuck over.

I like a moment after the snafu. Sophie falls asleep on the big bed, and from inside we see Calum on the balcony. He’s moving. Kind of. Is it dance? Is it tai-chi? It feels like something so personal we shouldn’t even be watching.

Throughout, he tries to teach Sophie tai-chi (but she jokes about it), and self-defense (but she’s uninterested), and he tries to get her on the dance floor (but no). Throughout, too, we get flashes of a strobe-lit dance scene, a rave or a disco, with Dad in his cups. And is that adult Sophie with him? Are they arguing? Is it a real scene? A memory? The strobe could be a metaphor for memory: flashes of illumination amid the darkness. 

Turns out Calum has money problems. He has work problems. At one point, they visit a Turkish rug dealer who serves them black tea in his cramped store. There’s a rug on the floor, and Calum tells Sophie how the pattern tells a story. He’s enamored of the rug, then finds out its cost, 850 pounds, and the air goes out of him. During karaoke night, after Sophie powers through an off-key rendition of “Losing My Religion,” Dad suggests voice lessons, and she dismisses him, saying he couldn’t afford it anyway. She says it to hurt him, and it does, but she’s smart enough to know that, and caring enough to apologize.

Is it karaoke night when she goes off on her own? With the older kids? They’re flirting, some are making out, but her first kiss comes from the video-game playing kid nearer her own age. I like how he tries a surprise attack on her, in the manner of boys who don’t know how to talk to girls, and she drops him. She’s learned Dad’s lessons after all. We also see Dad looking for her. In a long still shot, he walks determinedly toward the beach, and we want to tell him, “She’s not there, champ,” but he keeps walking straight toward the surf, and we think, “He’s not… Is he?” Yes, he dives in and swims out. It’s night, and Weber holds on the shot, and holds on the shot, and we keep peering into the darkness to see some glimmer that he’s still alive.

He is. Sophie has to get a resort clerk to let her into their room, but he’s there on the big bed, asleep on his stomach, naked, and it’s odd and awkward and leaves us with so many questions. Did he try to kill himself but swam back? Did he get drunk? If so, what was the suicide scene? Right now, he’s just there. He’s in decent shape but like most men there’s a heavy bear quality to him, particularly next to a pre-adolescent girl, and it’s all so awkward. 

Calum’s heaviness isn’t just weight. He winds up buying that rug, and later it’s next to the big bed as feet come dangling off. His? No, too thin for his, and too adult for hers. But it is her. It’s adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), the one yelling at him at the rave. It’s present day, and it’s her rug now. Because? Where is he? Near the end of the film, during a bus-tour stop, Sophie gets the other tourists to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for his birthday. He’s above them on some ancient steps, and his reaction is just off. He doesn’t smile. He just stares. It’s not the wrong song to sing, just the incorrect one. There’s nothing jolly there. 

I missed bits and pieces—the Scottish—so I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. It’s generally not the type of movie you want to see again: day-in-the-life stuff, in a dull locale with characters who don’t do much. It’s also the kind of movie you want to see again. To see that you missed, or misunderstood. To re-see what you miss.

It’s what adult Sophie does. That’s how the movie ends. Eleven-year-old Sophie waves to Calum as she prepares to board her plane back home, back to her mum, and he films her waving and acting goofy, and they exchange I love yous. And then it’s today and she’s watching the video he took. He’s gone. We don’t know how, we just know it. Of course, she’s gone, too. That 11-year-old girl is gone. It’s awful to say, but every time we saw adult Sophie I felt such disappointment. I might’ve missed the young actress, Frankie Corio, who is amazing and tomboy-cute and heartbreakingly like a little girl; or maybe I missed the possibilities of what Sophie might become. “You can live wherever you want to live, be whoever you want to be,” Calum tells her at one point, and now that’s no longer true. She lives there and is that.

We saw it at the Egyptian Theater on Friday night, and it’s days later now and I keep thinking about it. It’s a movie where not much happens except everything.


Posted at 10:10 AM on Monday January 16, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 10, 2023

Movie Review: Babylon (2022)


It’s not often I watch a movie and think, “Hey, scale back on the tits and ass, will ya?” So kudos to Damien Chazelle. 

What did Chazelle think the point of “Babylon” was? That the great, unbridled bacchanalia of the silent era gave way to the strictures of sound, and there went all the fun? Does he believe this is true? In fact or in spirit?

Some of his inspiration apparently came from Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was published in France but banned in the U.S. until 1975. We had a copy of it when I was a teenager—Dad, movie critic—and I was drawn to some of the pictures but never to the words. In the last year, I bought a copy and tried reading it again. Couldn’t. It all felt false—reveling in the most salacious rumors and scandals in Hollywood history, exaggerating and enjoying them. I think that’s what really turned me off. It’s not the lack of humanity in the stories but in the storyteller. Like all tabloid fodder, it’s saying, “Look how awful these people are,” but revealing how awful the author is.

You ain’t heard
Chazelle isn’t like that, he cares about his characters, but he revels in the exaggerations. It’s not enough to cart an elephant up a hill to a mansion for an all-night party, the elephant has to shit all over the guys pushing the vehicle. It’s not enough to show a Fatty Arbuckle type, naked and voluminously fat, enjoying sex, no, the naked girl above him has to pee all over his chest and face while he laughs uproariously. And then she dies, of course. And it’s swept under the rug. It doesn’t lead—as with the real Arbuckle—to three murder trials and an eventual acquittal but a ruined career and an early death. Legal and journalistic careers were made off of Fatty’s carcass. Sometimes the true scandal is who benefits from the scandal.

The first half hour of “Babylon,” a Babylonian party, is all excess—drink, drugs, nudity, sex, dance—filmed at a frenetic pace. Amid it all, we’re introduced to our main characters:

  • Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the matinee idol of the day, who, between drinks and wives, longs to kinda make something meaningful
  • Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the brash up-and-comer, who acts like a bratty star before she becomes one
  • Manny Torres (Diego Calva), helpmate and gofer, who finds himself inexplicably drawn to it all—particularly Nellie

The freneticism continues the next day, as three or four films for Kinescope Pictures are filmed simultaneously in a large field in close proximity to one another. Manny proves himself resourceful and begins his rise. Nellie proves she can act and steals the movie away from an established star. Jack proves that when the cameras roll, he can still project star power. 

But then that upstart Warner Bros. produces a sound picture, “The Jazz Singer,” and it’s getting standing ovations all over New York (source, Damien?), and everything changes. Goodbye large field and close proximity. Hello separate sound stages and hitting your mark. There’s a good scene on the number of takes a simple entrance requires, but that, too, is over-the-top, as the cameraman dies of heat stroke in the soundproof booth. More unforgiveable: you see it coming. 

Pitt’s character is basically John Gilbert, the silent star whose flat line-readings in the sound era (“I love you, I love you, I love you”) provoked laughter and ruined his career. Meanwhile, Nellie (Clara Bow-like) is just too Jersey, it’s decided, and given elocution lessons by scenario writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and then taken to a party where she’s supposed to put on airs. All of this goes as poorly as you’d imagine. The snobs see through her, she reacts badly, shoving food into her face, and then projectile vomits all over the host. Sure. I never got who these people were or why they mattered. And that’s not what ends her anyway. She gets too deep into booze, drugs and gambling. She winds up owing $85,000 to gangsters who threaten to throw acid in her face.

That’s when Manny returns into her life. He’s been rising all the while, helping create a series of movies about a jazz band led by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Now Nellie, the love of his life, needs his help. The $85k he gets from studio pill-pusher “The Count” (Rory Scovel), who goes with him to deliver it to gangster James McKay. We turn a corner, see Tobey Maguire, and are momentarily relieved. Then not. He’s drug addicted and super-creepy, taking the men on a tour of underground L.A., where there are live alligators, sex shows, geeks eating live mice, and the Elephant Man himself. Is this some comment by Chazelle on what happens when bacchanalia is bridled—that it’s driven underground and becomes perverse? The elephant of the opening party becomes the Elephant Man of underground L.A.

Oh, and the $85k from the prop man turns out to be prop money. The gangsters figure it out and kill The Count but let Manny skip town. Sure.

There’s also an Anna May Wong character who seems too self-satisfied given her circumstances, along with way too many studio executives and movie producers: Flea, the kid from “Witness,” Jeff Garlin, Irving Thalberg. I liked Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, playing the director who first spots Nellie’s talent. Afterwards, my wife dismissed the female director thing as PC revisionism. Me: “No, there were women directors in the silent era. It was sound that screwed them over.” Maybe that should’ve been the story.

Nothing yet
Pitt is great—is he never not these days?—but I never bought Robbie as a 1920s starlet. Something too tall, hard and modern about her. She's supposed to be Clara Bow? Come on. Meanwhile, Calva’s Manny is a nonentity. What does the guy want? That's the question. And the answer for Manny is, I guess, to be part of it all? And then Nellie? And then to survive? 

I kept wanting other. St. John becomes the town gossip columnist, its Louella Parsons, and she writes a cover story on the fall of Jack Conrad. He confronts her about it, she responds that what he really wants to know is: Why did they laugh? That’s not bad, but I wanted him to also wonder why they loved him in the first place. Why was it magic one way and comic another? Instead, she talks about how, 50 years after his death, people will still be admiring his work. Even as she said it, I flashed on how James Cagney and other 1930s contemporaries assumed none of it would last. I wanted more of that contemporary, cynical attitude rather than Chazelle’s dreamy historical take.

But of course he’s teeing up his ending. After Conrad blows his brains out in a hotel bathroom, and we see below-the-fold newspaper headlines on the deaths of Nellie and St. John, it’s suddenly 1952. Manny returns to L.A. with wife and daughter, and stands outside the gates of Kinescope Pictures. Later, alone, he wanders into a movie theater, which is playing “Singin’ in the Rain,” MGM’s comedy-musical about the transition from silents to talkies; and he’s stunned to see versions of the men and women he knew and loved. And then he seems to see, or Chazelle shows us, the long future of movies, up to and including “Avatar,” and the joy it brings the world, and … it’s so fucking pointless. He should’ve just left Manny outside the Kinescope gates. He’s our eyes and ears here, and that’s where we all wind up. 

I’m currently reading “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, culled from countless AFI interviews over the decades. I’m still in the silent era and loving it. The other night, I came across this quote from Raoul Walsh: “Work. That’s the true story of Hollywood. But who wants to hear it? They’re looking for something else. Who took off whose panties behind the piano while the director shot the producer in the head? People want to know stuff like that, even if it isn’t true.”


Posted at 09:42 AM on Tuesday January 10, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Friday January 06, 2023

Movie Review: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)


If “Knives Out” was a beautiful fuck you to the xenophobic fears of the Trump base—the immigrant Latina gets everything, and the spoiled white children lose it all, and in the end she stares down at them from the patriarchal estate, now hers, holding the patriarchal coffee mug, now hers, while they stare up with the slow realization that the tables have turned, finally turned, forever—well, “Glass Onion” gives us another beautiful fuck you. It might even be a better fuck you, if that’s possible. It’s certainly more targeted. And incredibly well-timed.

Should I just say it? The fuck you is to the Elon Musks of the world. And we get it just as Elon Musk is revealing through mass ineptitude—buying and ruining Twitter—just how accurate Rian Johnson’s portrait of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is. At the end, when detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) tears into Bron, I was positively giddy with delight.

More, I thought. Pile it on.

The title plays into this, too. Bron names his Greek island estate “Glass Onion,” after the bar where they all worked back in the day, but he’s also the glass onion: seemingly many-layered and complex, but you can see right through him. You can see right into the emptiness of him.

Then there’s the Beatles’ song which plays over the closing credits. This line in particular:

Looking through the bent-backed tulips
To see how the other half lives

The movie is all about how the other half, the fabulously wealthy, live. And man are they idiots.

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill
The movie opens at the start of the pandemic, May 2020, with five people receiving puzzle boxes that require various steps to unlock. The result? An invitation to play a mystery game on Bron’s private Greek island. The five are:

  • Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), a former model, now fashion designer
  • Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the head scientist at Alpha, Bron’s corporation
  • Duke (Dave Bautista), a men’s rights Twitch streamer and gun advocate
  • Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), the governor of Connecticut who is running for U.S. Senate
  • Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), who cofounded Alpha with Bron before being betrayed and ousted

The first four work together to solve the puzzle box, but I love how it’s actually Duke’s mom, chiming in from the background, and Yo-Yo Ma at Birdie Jay’s party, who give the clues to unlock the box.

A sixth box winds up at the home of Benoit Blanc, our only carryover from the first film, who is handling the pandemic poorly with multiple baths, and is being buoyed via Zoom call by his friends Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s a fun bit, even if not enough is done with it, and even though it’s sad to see that two of them have already left us.

Turns out Blanc was not invited to the party by Bron let's him stay for the “murder mystery” game. Bron says it’ll take all weekend: “I don’t want to toot my own horn,” he says, “but it’s pretty next level.”

So of course Blanc solves it before it even happens: Birdie Jay was going to be the culprit, the weapon was a harpoon, the clues were various. The cutting blow is when Blanc tells a totally deflated Bron that he enjoyed his little game, saying it was like “one of those mini-crosswords the Times has.” 

But a murder-mystery movie requires a real murder, and other games are afoot. Bron is going public with Klear, a supposedly clean alternative fuel that others know is volatile and dangerous. Duke brings his girl, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), who cuckolds him with Bron. Birdie Jay’s sweatpants brand—doing gangbuster business during the pandemic—is continually threatened by her own dim-bulb self. She got booted from Twitter, claiming she didn’t know her word for cheap referred to Jews. (“Jewy?” her assistant asks incredulously. She also OK’ed her product being made in a Thai sweatshop because she thought that’s where you made sweatpants.

And all along periphery stalks Andi: isolated, accusatory, an ice princess. Related: On the island, behind layers of protection, Bron displays the Mona Lisa, the actual Da Vinci painting, on loan from the Louvre. (Since the Louvre is closed and France needs the money.) Bron has long been obsessed by it. He says he wants to be responsible for something that gets mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. “Is she happy, is she sad, is it something else?” he says. He could be describing Andi. 

We assume Bron will be murdered since that’s the trope, and many have a reason to do so. But it’s Duke who gets it—drinking a poisoned cocktail. And just when the lights go out—a leftover from the mystery game Blanc already solved—Blanc meets up with Andi to ask if she has the one thing he needs to solve the case. Per the trope, that’s exactly when she's killed.

Rian Johnson keeps playing with the tropes. In an extensive flashback, we discover that this isn’t Andi but her twin sister Helen. Andi was killed a week earlier. It was Helen who got Blanc the invitation to the island since she wants him to solve her sister’s death. And Helen isn’t dead, either. My favorite trope of all: the notebook in the jacket pocket that stopped the bullet.

In the end, it was all about a napkin. Back in the day, Andi wrote her vision for what Alpha would become on a Glass Onion napkin, but Bron outmaneuvered her, all the others lied for him, and she was cut out of her own company. She’d only recently rediscovered the napkin, which would ruin them all, particularly Bron, so Bron killed her. Duke can place him at the scene, which is why Bron killed him. But the proof? The napkin? Bron destroys it. Bron wins again. Which is when Helen begins to destroy all the glass tchotchkes in Bron’s Glass Onion estate. She also uses Klear to create a fire. And the final blow? She engages the override Bron had installed so he could gaze at the Mona Lisa up close, rather than through layers of protective glass. Before Bron’s distraught eyes (and ours?), DaVinci’s masterpiece burns to nothing. “Your fuel of the future just barbecued the world's most famous painting, you dumbass,” Helen tells him. “You’re ruined. And you did get your wish—to forever be remembered in the same breath as the Mona Lisa.”

I tell you man he’s living there still
That’s the story, and it’s fun, though not as tightly constructed as the original. Craig’s Blanc seems less clear, somehow, more muddied. I doubt we really needed Birdie Jay’s assistant—she didn’t have much to do. Meanwhile, of the suspects, Odom Jr. and Hahn aren’t given much to do. Is Toussaint a real scientist? Is Claire a not-bad politician? No clue. The best of the suspects is Birdie Jay and Hudson make the most of her. I particularly like it when she says she can finally breathe again on the island—without the COVID mask—when we never saw her wear one in the first place.

But what I loved loved loved about “Glass Onion” is Blanc’s realization about Bron, and, by implication, all the billionaire Brons of the world:

His dock doesn't float. His wonder fuel is a disaster. His grasp of disruption theory is remedial at best. He didn’t design the puzzle boxes. He didn’t write the mystery. … Like everyone in the world, I assumed Miles Bron was a complicated genius. But why? Look into the clear center of this glass onion: Miles Bron is an idiot!

What a joy this series must be for Rian Johnson. I wonder if he lays in bed at night wondering, “OK, who can I fuck with next?”

Posted at 10:33 AM on Friday January 06, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Thursday December 22, 2022

Movie Review: Say Hey, Willie Mays! (2022)


I wanted to like it more. I wanted to love it like I love Willie Mays. But “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” isn’t exactly the Willie Mays of sports documentaries.

What does it mean to be the Willie Mays of something? It means you’re the best:

Early on in this doc, one of the talking heads says it’s “hard to quantify” how big a star Mays was, but Peanuts might not have been a bad place to start. Peanuts was huge. And Mays kept getting mentioned in it.


But the doc doesn’t reference Mays’ appearances in Peanuts. Not once. That kind of stunned me. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was a thing called “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie,” an hour-long cartoon on Saturday mornings featuring different storylines usually associated with ABC shows: cartoon versions of the Brady kids, Nanny and Professor, and the Banana Splits. But there was one movie based on a real person. It was called “Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid.” I remember it was supposed to air in January 1973 but was preempted by coverage of the U.S.-Vietnam peace accords—and I got mad. Then my father got mad at me for getting mad. He lectured me on the importance of the end of the Vietnam War. And all the while I’m thinking, “But it’s Willie Mays.

The point is, “Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid” isn’t mentioned in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” either. Neither is Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free” (“Hey Mr. football man, what do you do about ... Willie Mays?”), or Joe Henry’s “Our Song” (“I saw Willie Mays/At a Scottsdale Home Depot…”). They do show us clips of Willie in various ’60s sitcoms—“The Donna Reed Show” and “Bewitched”—and on Ed Sullivan. I liked that. At the same time, if you do a little research, you see Don Drysdale showed up four times on “The Donna Reed Show” and played himself on episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch.” Duke Snider played himself on “Father Knows Best,” while Sandy Koufax turned up on “Dennis the Menace.” And which 1960s sitcom character didn’t get a tryout with Leo Durocher? That was a plot point for Herman Munster, Jethro Clampett and Mr. Ed. 

The point is, even here, Mays got short shrift.

Endless dreams
Alright, I’m going to get a little petty. Well, pettier.

The first sentence of the doc is spoken by Dr. Todd Boyd, a talking head in the film. It’s an overview of the subject for anyone who might need it:

Willie Mays is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player in the history of Major League Baseball.

I was immediately deflated. It’s the word “arguably.” I’ve long not liked it. I’ve long stated not liking it. It’s college-speak for “I think.” It’s such a nothing word. What isn’t arguable these days? And in the above it’s almost an insult. If you remove the qualification about the greatest, then Dr. Body is saying Willie Mays is arguably one of the greatest players in the history of Major League Baseball, which, I’m sorry, that’s not arguable. That’s a fact.

The doc has lots of little cuts like this. Another talking head, Dr. Harry Edwards, lists Mays’ accomplishments, including “12 Golden Gloves.” Then he adds, “But unless you know and follow the game, you don’t really get a full appreciation of how great he was.” Right. And unless you know and follow the game, you might say “Golden Gloves,” which is boxing, rather than “Gold Gloves,” which is baseball.

I wondered why they didn’t talk more about Henry Aaron. I wondered where James S. Hirsch was. We also got nothing on Mays and Mantle being banished by MLB for getting jobs as greeters in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

I loved Barry Bonds in this. That was startling. Bonds lights up like a kid when talking about his godfather. If he’d lit up like that on the ballfield he might’ve been as beloved as his godfather. He might be in the Hall right now. 

The doc unintentionally raises an interesting question: Can someone be great and not have a great story to tell? 

What is Willie Mays’ story? Being raised in the Deep South during the worst days of Jim Crow. Then early, blistering success on the diamond. He became beloved in a country still in deep denial about its racism, then wound up behind the times. The doc keeps justifying his silence when Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were putting it out on the line. They allude to Mays’ private work rather than his public noise. He made sure other Black and Latino ballplayers were looked after and knew the score. I guess I would’ve liked this underlined more.

Why was he so beloved? That’s a good question. What was that magic? It couldn’t just be that he was great. It feels more than that. He was so beloved after just two months with the the Minneapolis Millers that when he was called up to the New York Giants it made the local paper. I mean, it made the front page of the local paper. The Minneapolis Tribune placed it above the story on Pres. Truman mulling a run for reelection. Several days later, Giants owner Horace Stoneham actually took out an ad in the paper apologizing to the baseball fans of Minneapolis. Yes, Mays was hitting .479 in Minneapolis. But was it just that? Or was it his energy and ebullience, his talent and grace? And do you need that kind of inroad into the hearts of people before you get to an Ali? 

Forgive me if I get this wrong, but I believe Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP in the early 1960s, once chided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his pre-Birmingham accomplishments. “What have you actually integrated, Martin?” he asked, and Dr. King responded, “Well, I may have integrated a few hearts.”

Imagine the number of hearts Willie Mays integrated. 

His and yours and mine
Maybe I’m putting too much on him. But that’s what we’ve always done. Back to Joe Henry:

But that was him
I'm almost sure
The greatest centerfielder of all time
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams
His and yours and mine

The doc begins and ends with a question, “Are you Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player of all time?” without telling you its context. Famous white ballplayers (not to mention Muhammad Ali) were all about being the greatest. Ted Williams had a determination to be known as the greatest hitter of all time; in retirement, Joe DiMaggio insisted on being called the greatest living ballplayer. Mays insisted on nothing, and dismisses the question. He ain’t about that.

But he was the greatest baseball player of all time. Unarguably.

Posted at 09:53 AM on Thursday December 22, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Monday December 19, 2022

Movie Review: Empire of Light (2022)


I liked it well enough for never believing—and actually feeling squeamish about—the central relationship.

The aptly named Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the assistant manager of the Empire Theater in the town of Lido, on the British coast in the early 1980s. We get snapshots of her life. Selling tickets. Picking up popcorn. Reluctantly jacking off her boss (Colin Firth) in his office. Eating dinner by herself at her small kitchen table.

Which image is sadder—the jackoff or the kitchen table? You can make arguments for both but the last one feels like a staple shot of the lonely in movies. They’re not watching TV or reading a book or listening to music. It’s just them at the table with the food: cutting the meat, chewing, staring into space. I guess I just don’t know anyone who does this—or maybe it’s simply that I don’t do it—so it doesn’t feel like life to me. Anyway, at this point, I was wary of where writer-director Sam Mendes was going. He wanted us to feel sad for Hilary. He wanted us to care about Hilary before we knew about Hilary. 

Then there’s a new hire at the Empire, Stephen (Michael Ward), a young, handsome Black kid, and Hilary’s life changes.

The bird with the broken wing
Though the punk girl has a thing for Stephen, and the projectionist (Toby Jones) eventually takes him under his wing, Stephen, for some reason, gloms onto Hilary, the dowdy, quiet, assistant manager. He asks where another set of stairs lead, and she says there used to be two more theaters, along with a café, and shows him the semi-dilapidated remains. (Even that felt a bit off to me. In the U.S., at the time, the movement was toward multiplexes.) The café is now the habitat of various birds, including one that Stephen finds in a cupboard with a broken wing. He knows how to nurse that broken wing: He cuts a hole in a sock and puts the sock on the bird so its wings are trapped; so it won’t try to fly away and it’ll give the wing a chance to heal.

Ah, I thought. Hilary’s the bird with the broken wing.

Well, it turns out there are a lot of broken wings.

There’s a moment, too, when he reaches for the bird, and his dress shirt lifts, exposing some waist-level flesh. We see Hilary eyeing it. Then for New Years Eve, rather than hang with the other kids, he rings in 1981 with Hilary on the rooftop. And they kiss. And later, in the dilapidated café, they fuck. And she begins to blossom. She takes charge of things. When the boss asks to see her in his office for his weekly jackoff, she says no. And that medication she’s been taking? Which makes her feel numb? She stops taking it. She doesn’t need it anymore. She’s free.

Except the medication is lithium and she does need it. She’s bipolar or schizophrenic, and she changes, slowly at first, and then very very quicky, from a mousy woman into a terrifying figure. (Olivia Colman is amazing in this.)

We’d gotten flashes. The way she snapped at Stephen after he mocked the elderly customer—though her anger made sense. He’s youth making fun of the old, she’s old, is this what he thinks of her? Plus she’s right. You don’t do that. (It’s the one time in the movie where Stephen does what you shouldn’t do.) No, it’s at the beach, when she suddenly destroys the sandcastle that you see glimmers of what she’s becoming. And it all comes undone when the Empire Theater hosts the premiere of “Chariots of Fire,” the boss’ big night. He welcomes everyone, gives a speech, and as he exits the stage she improbably enters, in sparkly blue gown and racoon eye makeup, to give a speech of her own. It’s about racial tolerance. She reads a poem. And it’s not horrible, just odd, and in the lobby she and the boss argue, and she #MeToos him in front of his wife. She destroys them both. Then she holes herself up in her place, drinking and playing too-loud music and glowering down from the window when Stephen stops by. Eventually the cops batter down the door to take her away.

Again, Colman is amazing. I bought her character completely. I just never saw what Stephen saw in her. She’s either boring or terrifying. And there’s a difference not only in age but looks. Watching, I was doing the math. What is she—35 years older? Turns out the actors are 25 years apart. I still had trouble watching them together. I don’t know if it was because of the age difference, or the looks difference, or because she reminded me of my mother. Maybe the problem was me more than Mendes. Actors like Colman don’t get sex scenes in movies much, so maybe it was the shallow, sexist part of me that was rebelling. But all of that is mixed up with matters of age, and race, that mostly remain unstated. So much of the movie goes unspoken until it shouts.

The chips guy
Is Stephen too good? Too blank? Too soft? Who is he? The longer the film goes, the more of his homelife we get. We meet his mom, who’s an immigrant nurse, and she keeps him on the right path. But a path is not a character.

Beyond all that, “Empire of Light” is a gentle, nostalgic look at filmgoing that lets you know how much times have changed: the threading of the film, the professionalism of the projectionist, the team of ushers. It’s also a less-than-nostalgic look at racism and xenophobia that lets you know how little times have changed. I liked both of these threads.

But there are several moments when Mendes seems to create drama by having his characters act ... not smart. A rude customer shows up with chips, which he can’t take into the theater. Stephen politely tells him the theater policy, and he gets angry at Stephen—as if Stephen created the policy—and sure, that’s the way people are, they’re assholes, and this dude is probably a little racist, too. All that’s believable. It’s everything else. The asshole winds up eating all the chips while standing in the lobby and staring down Stephen. And everyone stares at the two of them staring at each other. There are customers behind this guy, just waiting, but no one moves. Maybe it’s the old Boulevard usher in me, but I wanted to wave those customers around this guy. Keep things moving. Or is that too American? Instead, everyone lets him be the center of attention. It’s silly.

The bigger forehead slap for me is later in the movie. By this time, Colin Firth is gone, Hilary is back from hospital, and the dweeby, funny head usher, Neil (Tom Brooke), is now the manager. They’re all in the breakroom, having a laugh, when they hear a humming, thrumming noise. In the lobby, on the avenue out front, they see all these motorcycles and vespas going by. And while initially charmed by the sight, like it’s a parade, they suddenly realize, no, it’s skinheads and xenophobes, and Neil, serious now, tells the others to lock the doors. What he doesn’t say, what no one says, but what I immediately thought was, “Get Stephen out of sight.” Instead, like an idiot, Stephen walks right up to the long row of glass doors to help lock them—and right into view of the skinheads. And of course they notice, and shout, and bang at the doors. And they break through. And both Stephen and Neil are beaten. And none of that would’ve happened if someone had been just a little smart for just a second. 

So the bird with the broken wing eventually flies, and Stephen eventually finds direction. He dates a girl his own age, and he applies to university, and gets in. The end of the movie is him leaving. At the park, Hilary races after him to hug him one more time. She wraps him in her arms like he’s a bird with a broken wing, when he’s not, when he can fly just fine. But there’s such need in her. It’s awful to say, but I didn’t really like her, and I didn’t really believe him, and they’re most of the movie. But I liked hanging with Toby Jones in the projection room. I could’ve spent the entire movie there.

Posted at 09:51 AM on Monday December 19, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Monday November 21, 2022

Movie Review: Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)


In “Thor: Ragnarok,” which came out in the before times (for the MCU and us), Thor loses a lot—father, Asgard, hammer, long hair—but director Taika Waititi somehow manages to keep the film loose and funny. You get a tragic moment followed by a winking in-joke and somehow it all works. There’s no disconnect.

Did “Thor: Love and Thunder” ever connect? It felt wrong from the beginning. Its glibness was cartoonish, its tragic moments bone-deep but irrelevant.

It doesn’t help that the tragedy happens to others while the glibness is all Thor’s. He’s clowning while the world suffers. He’s always been the joke superhero in the MCU, and here Waititi turns that up to 11. And it’s not funny. 

Implore Gorr, Thor
In the cold open, we follow an emaciated, white-skinned alien, Gorr (Christian Bale), and his daughter Love (India Rose Hemsworth, Chris’ real-life daughter), through a barren desert. I guess they’re the last of their race? That’s what Wiki says but I don’t recall hearing that. Either way, they’re dying. They pray to their god, Rapu, but Love dies, and … Yeah, I know. That name. Underline it a few more times, Taika. Get out that highlighter.

Anyway, Love dies, and as Gorr suffers the loss, he hears a voice whispering to him and drawing him to an oasis in the desert where, whoa, Rapu (Jonny Brugh) lives. He’s not exactly benevolent, this god. First he mocks Gorr and his pain, and when Gorr renounces him he picks him up by the throat and slowly strangles him. But that’s when the whispery voice returns. Seems it belongs to the god-killing Necrosword, which suddenly arises out of the earth, right into Gorr’s hand, and he kills Rapu with it and then vows to kill all gods.

Cut to the god we know, Thor, hanging out and doing battle with the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Remember that? At the end of “Endgame,” Thor joined, or invited himself along with, the GGs and headed into space. It was an intriguing idea—combining the two tongue-in-cheek Chrises (Hemsworth, Pratt) on outer space adventures—but I guess Taika thought better of it since they’re not here long. GG work, they imply, is hardly worthy of Thor’s attention. I like the body language of Drax (Dave Bautista, underutilized in the MCU), who stands there watching Thor take care of the bad guys like, “Well, what’s the point of me then?” I think this is around the time it gets super-cartoonish: Thor stopping two alien air-roadsters with Jean-Claude Van Damme-ish midair splits. It just looks stupid. Thor also tends to destroy the thing he’s trying to save without realizing it’s a big deal. And he’s needy. Starlord talks about his own past love, and that’s the thing that matters most, but Thor remains intentionally obtuse on the topic.

Hey, what about Thor’s long-lost love—whom I guess we last saw in 2013’s “Thor: Darkworld”?

Turns out Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has stage-four cancer. And when science is no help, she hears Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, whose pieces are under glass case in New Asgard, Scandihoovia, calling to her. I guess once upon a time Thor told Mjolnir to care for Jane, so it reconstitutes itself and turns her into a female Thor to save her. And when everyone convenes at New Asgard because Gorr is trying to kill the gods there, or something, hey, there she is. His long-lost love. As him.

That’s gotta be weird. There’s a great song by Joe Henry, “She Always Goes,” about the aftermath of a breakup, and it includes the line, “I see her wearing my old clothes,” and this is that but again turned up to 11. She’s not just wearing his old clothes, she’s him. Except the movie never digs into that, it just treats the whole thing as a joke. Thor and Jane act uncomfortably around each other, like seventh graders, and Thor chastises Mjolnir but then has to deal with the jealousies of his own Stormbreaker; and yes, I’m talking about their weapons here, but, like the Necrosword, they can communicate. And admist all these gags, Gorr uses shadow monsters to kidnap most of the children of New Asgard and imprison them in a cage in the Shadow Realm. That's the disconnect again: a bad '80s sitcom mixed with Old European fairy tale.

Taking on Gorr and rescuing the children is apparently too much for two Thors and a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), so they travel, via space ark pulled by giant goats, to Omnipotence City to request the aid of Thor’s longtime hero Zeus (Russell Crowe). He turns them down. Why? He’s old and fat and would rather not. I think that’s it, basically. He’s not a hero, he’s a poser. So Thor winds up defeating him and stealing his thunderbolt and off they go to the Shadow Realm. 

On the way, Thor learns of Jane’s cancer, and that Mjolnir isn’t healing her but preventing her from being healed. (Although … stage four? What healing?) Oh, and if Gorr gets Stormbreaker he can use it to access the realm of Eternity, where he’ll be granted one wish. Everyone assumes that wish will be: kill all gods.

Has the MCU told us what is a god, by the way? I mean, I always thought Thor was just a super-powered being from another realm that Scandinavians worshipped as a god back in the day because they didn’t know better—like in that “Star Trek” episode with Apollo. Who knows, maybe Gorr killing all the gods wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Zeus is certainly not much, Odin never anything, Loki nothing but trouble. I guess I’d need to know who all the gods are before developing a rooting interest in the battle.

The battle in the Shadow Realm goes fast: Gorr strangles the women forcing Thor to call Stormbreaker, which Gorr wrests from him. But knowing what he’ll do with it, Thor follows him to the ends of the universe.

Kidding. Jane collapses, reverts, and the next thing we know Thor is on earth quietly conferring with Jane’s oncologist. (Me: Dude? Gorr has Stormbreaker; that’s the whole ballgame. Might want to speed things up.) When he’s ready to take leave of a bedridden Jane, she objects. “You’re going without me?” (Me: Weren’t you just using the remote a second ago? Where was your urgency then?)

But off he goes, Gates of Eternity, final battle. Thor uses the power of Thor, or Zeus, to give all the kids powers so they can take on the shadow monsters (nice 11th-hour trick), then he takes on Gorr. An 11th-hour symbiotic thing develops between Thor and bedridden Jane, and, sensing Thor losing, she shows up as she-Thor to lend a hand. And in the end, as he-Thor and Gorr clash, thunderbolt vs. Necrosword, she-Thor throws Mjolnir, which shatters the Necrosword. And before Gorr can summon its parts again, she clangs Mjolnir on the ground and the pieces of the Necrosword turn to dust. Because sure.

By now, though, the Gates of Eternity have opened and Gorr has slipped through. What does Eternity look like? An endless shallow pool surrounded by puffy clouds, of course. And there, Thor implores Gorr to seek, not revenge, not hate, but the one thing we all really want: love. And Gorr’s one wish becomes the resurrection of his daughter, who, after Gorr and Jane die, is raised on a beach by Thor.

That final scene, urging love, is kind of touching. Bale helps. It saves Gorr, not to mention Thor, but it can't save the movie.

Thor no more?
Who would’ve guessed Thor would win? I don’t mean here, I mean in the number of MCU movies. This is his fourth. He’s now surpassed Iron Man (3), Captain America (2.5), Ant-Man (2 going on 3) and Doctor Strange (2), as the most-depicted of the original Avengers. Thor.

I chalk it up to Hemsworth’s sex appeal since the movies have hardly been box-office or critical wonders. There have been 30 MCU movies, and, with the exception of “Ragnarok” (93%, tied for fourth-best), his Rotten Tomatoes scores are near the bottom: 77% for the first, 66% for “Dark World,” “64% for this. Save “Eternals” (47%), it’s the worst-reviewed in the MCU. And while each iteration has made more money at the domestic box office ($181, $206, $315, $343), none are top 10. This one is 13th. Adjusted, it's obviously lower.

You’d think all of that would preclude a fifth film, but we get a mid-credits scene of Zeus sending Hercules (Brett Goldstein of “Ted Lasso”) to battle Thor. 

Does anyone get what M is doing with its CU? The original movies built toward “Avengers,” and the sequels built toward “Infinity War,” but, between this and the multiverse crap, and Eternals and Shang-Chi, I’m not seeing anything being built.

Posted at 08:04 AM on Monday November 21, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Friday August 12, 2022

Movie Review: Vengeance (2022)


I had trouble with this movie immediately. There were a few things I just didn’t buy.

Writer-director B.J. Novak plays Ben Manalowitz, a douchey writer for The New Yorker who hangs out at parties with a douchey friend, John (John Mayer), where they keep agreeing with each other’s douchey thoughts “100 percent.” That’s their catchphrase. Novak really underlines that one. Oh, and they drink their bourbon neat—a classic sign of movie douchiness. It’s such a classic sign, I don’t know if Novak isn’t mocking the trope rather than the characters. 

That’s not what I didn’t buy, by the way. I mean, it’s uninteresting but believable. Here’s what I found unbelievable.

Ben, desperate for a podcast, seems to need the help of Eloise (Issa Rae), a big-name podcast producer, to make it happen. He’s all but begging her. I’m like: Wait, can’t anyone create a podcast? Also, doesn’t he write for The New Yorker? Isn’t that enough for writers these days? And even if it isn’t, wouldn’t the fact that he writes for The New Yorker help him get such a podcast? I mean, don’t they even have one? “The New Yorker Radio Hour”? Shouldn’t he be talking to David Remnick?

And then the movie gets more unbelievable.

Ben’s list
So it’s already been established that Ben’s a douchey guy, with a lot hook-ups. He’s in the middle of one such hook-up when he gets a call from the brother of one of his former hook-ups, letting him know that she died. Of a drug overdose. Near her home in west Texas. He barely remembers the girl, but the brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook of “Narcos”), assumes they were very, very close—that he was the love of his sister’s life—and invites him to Texas for the funeral. More than invites: He assumes he’ll be there. It’s really the last thing Ben wants to do in the last place he wants to go.

And he still goes.

Admittedly the phone call is an awkward situation. But there are a zillion ways to get out of it. Plus, as we've established, he’s a douche. I’m sure he’s had practice. 

Instead, there he is, hopping a flight, to go to a very isolated part of west Texas, and sit with the family in the front row of this poor girl’s funeral, where the big funeral photo, the one on the stand, is of her kissing Ben on the cheek as he stares at the camera and sips from his glass of bourbon, neat. (That actually cracked me up.) 

Anyway, it’s here that Ben comes up with an idea for a podcast that finally catches Eloise’s interest. Ty, you see, believes his sister, Abby, didn’t die of an opioid overdose; he thinks she was murdered by a Mexican drug cartel. And so on a dusty Texas backroad, with Ty 12 feet away in his truck, Ben phones Eloise and makes his pitch: a podcast about “a new American reality where people invent these conspiracies because the truth is too hard to accept.”

Sounds intriguing. Ben winds up staying not only with the family but in Abby’s old bedroom. He’s pretending to help Ty expose the murder but in reality he’s exposing the family. Or on another level he’s exposing himself. That’s a big point of the movie. Sure, they’re hicks, but they’re hicks with hearts. And he’s a douche without one. And their down-homeness help make him become a better man. You see it coming about as far as you can see down a flat, west Texas backroad. 

The movie almost saves itself halfway through, particularly with the arrival of Ashton Kutcher as an existential Zen-like record producer, Quentin Sellers, who once recorded Abby. Plus Novak is a comedy writer and we get some good bits. Ben sends away for his own high-end coffee-maker and asks Abby’s younger sister (Dove Cameron of Bainbridge Island) how she takes her coffee. “In my mouth?” she says, with a “no duh” tone. I also like the grandma (Louanne Stephens) saying Abby’s murder isn’t something you can solve with a .45. “It’s the breakdown of society is what it is,” she says. After Ben nods, she adds, “You’re gonna need a 12 gauge, a couple of ARs, a Wesson automatic and a sidearm for safety.”

Maybe the best line is when some good ol' boys are talking revenge movies, including Liam Neeson in “Taken,” and one of them says Ben reminds him of someone from a Liam Neeson movie. It takes a second for him to remember: “Schindler’s List.” Ben's “right” nod is perfect. Right, that’s who I am here. Right, that’s who you are here.

In cold blood
The problem with the movie—along with all the aforementioned hard-to-believe stuff—is its unevenness. Just as we’re getting a more nuanced view of everyone involved, Grandma, at their favorite hangout Whataburger, let’s slip that, yes, Abby had a drug problem. They all know she ODed. They all know there’s no conspiracy. Which leads to the most idiot rant from Ben, in which he condemns them in the most broad blue state/red state terms, as if he hadn’t just spent weeks getting to know them better.

And after that rant, after Ty decks him in the parking lot, he still returns to their house? To sleep? In Abby’s room? They let him?

Which is where he finally unlocks Abby’s phone and finds out she never was enamored of him, that all that time she was in love with Quentin Sellers, who is in fact a seller—a drug dealer. Ben confronts him and finds out he caused Abby’s death without a shred of remorse. Which is when Ben turns into Liam Neeson. He pulls a gun and kills him. In cold blood. Ben. And he gets away with it. And that's that.

So the movie begins with stuff I don’t buy and ends with an act I don’t buy.

“Vengeance” is so uneven I assumed it began pre-pandemic and finished up when things got safer. Yep. If I could’ve given B.J. Novak notes I would’ve told him: Lose the “100 percent” scene at the beginning; lose the Whataburger parking lot rant; lose the bourbon, neat. Don’t make Ben a cartoon douche. Make him someone whose ambitions maybe get a little ahead of his morality, but don’t be afraid to let us care about him a little. Novak plays shallow all the time, which is fine for a supporting role, but tougher for a lead. It’s tough to sustain a whole movie with it. This is Exhibit A.

Posted at 08:52 AM on Friday August 12, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Friday August 05, 2022

Movie Review: The Northman (2022)


I’ll take “Hamlet.”

Not that I don’t admire what Robert Eggers has done here. Our culture is way too now-focused and future-focused, and if the movies create anything historical it’s usually from the author or auteur’s youth, and tinged with nostalgia, it’s not from, you know, before the Magna Carta. I might have even made this exact comment when reviewing a movie from China. (Which I can't find, of course.) The Chinese have way more legends from pre-1,000 A.D., so they’re that much more likely to make movies from those periods, while Hollywood, nah, it doesn’t give a shit. Well, Eggers does. As does Alexander Skarsgård.

Apparently Skarsgård, the hunky vampire of “True Blood,” as well as our most recent big-movie Tarzan, has wanted to make his Viking movie for a while now. He’s Swedish born-and-bred, son of Stellan, brother to an unending host of Skarsgård siblings, and he wanted to go full Scandinavian. Good for him. (BTW: Did he ever try out for “Thor”? Just checked: he did. And Marvel went Australia instead. How rude.)

Apparently Eggers was also interested in making a true-life Viking movie. But whose story? Erik the Red? Fran Tarkenton? They wound up going with the tale of Amleth.

Yes, it’s the tale that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” So instead of an action hero, they went with the West’s most famous inaction hero. 

Slings and arrows
Is “Hamlet” also one of our most famous revenge stories? I don’t think of it that way, but I guess that’s what it is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Hamlet serves it up not just cold but dumped in the trash in the back alley.

Amleth is also big on the delaying tactic, but there are big differences between the stories. Amleth is a child when his father is murdered (not a young adult), he witnesses his uncle Fjölnir doing it (as opposed to second-hand info from his father’s ghost), he sees his mother being carried away to be ravaged (Hamlet just imagines that one), and Amleth goes into exile (no similar exile for Hamlet). This is what young Amleth says, over and over, as he rows away: 

I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.

It’s his Inigo Montoya line. 

The next time we see him he’s Skarsgardian strong, dirty and brooding with a massive back, and attacking and pillaging with a berserker tribe of Vikings. When he hears that some of their latest victims, Slavs, are being sent as tribute to the now-deposed King Fjölnir, living in his own exile in Iceland with Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their children, he doesn’t think, “Well, I guess Harald of Norway did my work for me. Guess I can get on with my life.” The revenge is his life. So he sneaks aboard the boat to be part of the tribute. Only Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) notices. Will she give him away? Will they get together?

Yes. It's a serious, indie movie that goes for verisimilitude as much as possible, and with deep historical research into the period involved. But some tropes die hard, such as, “Hey, the two best-looking actors are going to shack up. How nice for them.” Eggers also includes mysticism and witchcraft as an almost daily part of life. Because we’re getting the POV of the people involved and they believe that it’s happening? Or maybe Eggers himself believes in that shit? Who knows? The asides to the mystical took away from the story for me, to be honest. What’s Willem Dafoe’s head doing here? Is that sword his dead father’s or just a sword?

In Iceland, Fjölnir’s eldest son, Thorir (Gustav Lindh), dismisses the new group of slaves as unworthy. He somehow misses the tall, hulking man among them until Amleth all but roars. Thus begins his rise. A game of knattleikr is played against another farm, the point of which seems to be to throw a ball and hit an opposing post, but the point quickly becomes survival as players maim or kill one another. In the end, it’s just Amleth and Thorfinnr, played by Hafpor Julius Bjornsson, the Icelandic strongman champion who played “The Mountain” on “Game of Thrones.” Which is when Fjölnir’s youngest son Gunnar (Elliott Rose) joins the action, stealing the ball, and is about to be killed by Thorfinnr. Amleth saves him and kills the Mountain.

Yes, Amleth is doing the opposite of what he promised to do. He’s actually saving Fjölnir’s kids. But such saving means rising further and getting closer to his target. Is that part of the plan or mere happenstance? Privileges are given, including Olga, and there’s more nighttime mysticism. 

At some point Amleth kills some of Fjölnir’s men and nails them to a wall. To what end? Then he reveals himself to his mother to a not-good end. Turns out his beloved mother was originally chattel for his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke); she was the spoils of war, and Amleth was the result of a rape. She was actually part of the coup. As a child, when he saw Fjölnir carrying her away? She wasn’t screaming, she was laughing. I’m like, “Wait, did she know Fjölnir wanted to kill Amleth?” She did. She didn’t care. She was good with it.

You’d think at this point Amleth would kill her, too, but, sure, I guess it’s tough to switch gears like that. But it means he’s lost his advantage—his identity has been revealed. So he splits. Then when Fjölnir is about to kill Olga, he shows up on a hillside with Thorir’s heart in a sack, offering a swap: her life for the boy’s heart. Fjölnir takes the deal and then tortures Amleth. Somehow, by raven, Valkyrie or Olga, he escapes; and even though Olga is pregnant with his children (twins), and they’re on a boat away from Iceland, he can’t leave his oath undone. He swims back to shore.

He still doesn’t act much. In the village, his mother attacks him so he kills her (through the heart—she thanks him, a good bit); then Gunnar attacks him so he kills him, too. Then he and Fjölnir meet at the Gates of Hel, which I took to mean more mysticism, but apparently it’s Hekla, a volcanic mountain in Iceland. And in the heat and the dark, nude or near-nude, they battle, and Fjölnir is beheaded after mortally wounding Amleth. And there’s no Fortinbras or Horatio to offer benedictions.

Indifferent honest
I got bored. Sorry. The story never quite catches, and Amleth’s inaction is never interesting, or resonant, or poetic. 

What’s inside him? Hamlet spilled his guts constantly, and poetically, while Amleth keeps spilling guts literally, and it’s usually the wrong guts. I recently rewatched Michael Mann’s “Thief” and a cool thing in the final siege is that our hero kills the head bad guy first, then fights subordinates on the way out. The trope is usually the opposite—building to the big confrontation—which is what Eggers does. For all of his 9th-century verisimilitude, it’s another Hollywood trope he buys into.

Posted at 07:49 AM on Friday August 05, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Friday July 29, 2022

Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)


For the longest time superhero creators have insisted, “We’re not schlock, our stuff should be taken seriously,” and the movement has been in this direction—away from its cheesey, strongman-underwear origins and toward darkness and seriousness. It’s worked so well that Marvel is now confident enough to trot out something called “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which, if it had been made in the 1950s, would’ve starred Vincent Price and been presented in Emergo-Vision. It would’ve been schlock. 

This isn’t schlock. But is it any good?

Maybe within the multiverse there’s a critic named Erik Lundegaard who likes movies set in the multiverse. I just think Marvel is overdoing it. The bad guy used to be somebody robbing a bank. Now it’s someone shattering the fabric of reality. Again.

Déjà vu all over again
The beginning of the movie, I assumed, was a recap of the multiverse craziness in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Then I realized, “No, it’s a different adventure. In media res. Cool.” Except my secondary assumption was that this was some other Doctor Strange adventure, set in that weird Neutral Zone-y realm, and it would soon end and the proper story would begin. But this was the proper story.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a Latina teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), are being pursued by a demon-monster who wants the girl’s power, and they need to reach the Book of Vishanti, which is glowing on a rock in the Neutral Zone-y place, but the demon is too powerful. So Doctor Strange, our hero, says he needs to take the girl’s power himself. And he tries to do this against her wishes. So obviously something is up. Then the demon spears him, the girl is almost torn apart, and he wakes up. Ah, it was just a dream.

Or was it?

That day, after attending the wedding of Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the woman he loves, Strange sees an octopus monster tearing up Midtown and springs into action. And that’s where he meets the Latina girl he dreamed about.

You see, according to the film, our dreams are often (or always?) visions of other versions of the multiverse. I kind of liked that idea. It reminded me of when I lived in Taiwan, hearing a theory that in our dreams we can travel through time, and that déjà vu is simply arriving at a moment in time you’ve already visited in a dream. 

Anyway, because he sees some witchcraft markings, Strange goes to see his Avengers pal, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), to see if she can't interpret. Turns out, whoops, she’s the one making all this happen. The reveal is lame (she says America’s name even though he hasn’t), but isn’t a hero in one movie becoming the villain in the next kind of unprecedented? Can’t remember that ever happening with such a prominent recurring character before. 

She’s the villain in this one because she’s nuts. Her brother Pietro was killed in, I guess, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and I think she had to kill the Vision, her love, during the battle with Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and all of this took a toll and now she has PTSD. On the “WandaVision” TV series this meant she used her powers—apologies, I’m sorting this out as much for me as you—to create various sitcom-like worlds where she and Vision were happy and domestic and raised a family, including two boys, Tommy and Billy (Jetty Klyne and Julian Hilliard). And apparently that fictional life actually exists in one of the universes of the multiverse. And that’s why she wants the Latina girl. America’s power is the ability to traverse the multiverse—though she hasn’t figured out how to control it yet—and Wanda wants the power for herself. So she can go to that universe, kill her other self, and raise a family. Like heroes do.

Oh right, I guess she’s also been corrupted by the “Darkhold,” a book of sorcery, which has turned her into the all-powerful Scarlet Witch.

How all-powerful? Super all-powerful. Doctor Strange teams up with the Sorceror Supreme (Benedict Wong), and all his disciples at a monastery in Nepal, dozens of them, and she blasts through them like they’re Swiss cheese. Strange and America escape into another universe, where that Doctor Strange is dead and a hero—honored in statue form. Except, whoops, we learn, by and by, from a group called the Illumanati (Mordo, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Black Bolt, Mister Fantastic and Prof. X), that that universe’s Doctor Strange used the Darkhold to beat back Thanos but created an “incursion” into another universe, which destroyed it. So he’s actually a destroyer of universes. That’s why he himself was destroyed and the Illuminati created. This Illuminati distrust all Doctor Stranges. They think they’re all bad. Which is an interesting form of prejudice the movie doesn’t delve into. I mean, couldn’t Strange say, “In my universe, Captain America is male, Captain Marvel is white, and Mister Fantastic works at a paper-supply company in a small town in Pennsylvania. Maybe I’m different. Maybe give me a chance.” 

Alright, let me delve for a second. Marvel’s multiverse started out as a way to bring together different characters (“Into the Spiderverse”), or different actors who’ve played the same character (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”), and sure, in this one, we finally get Patrick Stewart’s Prof. X in the MCU; but otherwise all the Doctor Stranges look like Bendedict Cumberbatch and all the Wandas like Elizabeth Olsen. Because? Because the Tobey-Garfield-Holland triumverate is unnecessary. Because most Marvel characters don’t have the cinematic legacy of a Spider-Man.

But Marvel also uses the multiverse concept to make itself more multicultural and inclusive without any real heavy lifting: the Captain Marvel we see here is Black (played by Lashana Lynch, or Maria Rambeau), and the Captain America we see here is female (played by Hayley Atwell, or Peggy Carter). But even trying to be inclusive and politically correct, they still fuck it up. When the Illumanati face off against Wanda, landing in a kind of V formation, guess who’s at the front? I mean, if you’re them, wouldn’t you lead with Captain Marvel—one of the most powerful characters in any universe? Nope. They put Silly Putty Man in front. In what universe does that make sense? No universe.

And it goes as poorly as you’d think. He brags on Black Bolt but Wanda removes BB’s mouth and he blows up his own brain. Then she fillets Mr. Fantastic and—pop—there he goes, too. Only then do the women think to spring into action. A bit late, girls.

“Sure, the Black chick is one of the most powerful figures in the universe, but let's lead with Silly-Putty Man.” 

The horror
If Mr. Fantastic being filleted and Black Bolt losing his mouth sound horrific, well, yes. The horror elements in the movie keep getting stronger until Doctor Strange, in that other universe, “dreamwalks” as the Frankensteinian corpse of another universe’s Doctor Strange in our own. (Don’t try to unpack that.) It’s a nice homage to Cumberbatch’s stage work as The Monster in “Frankenstein,” but a bit unnecessary. Once I realized Sam Raimi directed this, though, it all made sense. That's his bag. Horror homages + a Bruce Campbell comedic cameo: I should’ve realized Raimi was involved sooner. 

I do like how they finally defeat Wanda. Not by battling her but by giving her what she wants. In control of her power now, America transports her to that other sacharine universe, where the kids she covets see her as a monster. Which is when she realizes what she’s become. And how she has to close the Darkhold so no one can ever blah blah blah. I think she sacrifices herself, too. At least she’s buried in the rubble she creates. Hey, maybe we should erect a statue to her.

You’d think Marvel would at least give Doctor Strange a shawarma moment at the end but no. We see him fix his broken wristwatch—a metaphor, I believe, for moving past his lost love—then he walks along the street, practically whistling a tune, when he’s struck down in pain … and develops a third eye! Which means … somethingorother. And in the mid-credits sequence, Charlize Theron shows up to take him … somewhere or other.

Give him a rest, Marvel. Give us a rest. In the multiverse, I’m sure there’s an Erik Lundegaard who gives a shit. Just not this one.

Posted at 07:56 AM on Friday July 29, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Monday July 18, 2022

Movie Review: Elvis (2022)


What’s the tragedy of Elvis?

The man sold more records than any solo recording artist in history and remade our culture. He opened it up racially and sexually. He supercharged it. He landed like a fucking bomb in middle-American living rooms and thrilled kids and perplexed and frightened and angered adults. He crossed lines he didn’t know existed. The generation gap became a chasm.

He also died drug-addicted and overweight on a toilet seat at age 42. 

So what's his tragedy?

Baz Luhrmann’s answer is that Elvis wound up in the Mephistophelean clutches of a fat Dutch prick of a carnival barker named Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).

My answer would be different. 

Devil in Disguise
Just as reactions to Elvis in 1956 veered wildly, so, in the run-up to its release, reactions to “Elvis” veered wildly. I’d heard it got a 12-minute standing ovation at Cannes. I also heard it was awful, unwatchable, over-the-top crap. And then, counter to the counter, I heard it was the must-see movie of the summer.

To me, it’s neither unwatchable nor must-see. But I'm glad I saw it.

“Elvis” is kind of like Elvis’ career. It’s fun early, and yes, over-the-top and operatic (it’s Baz, baby), and then gets bogged down in the later years. It gives us Elvis ’56, zips through the Army and movie years to the ’68 comeback special, and then it’s all about the how and why of Vegas. Post-’68, we keep getting the same tragic note. Elvis works up the courage to defy the Colonel, and he’s about to go out and do it, and finally tour the world, baby, until the Colonel starts talking. Then we get the snow job, and Elvis buys it, and he winds up back in the penthouse suite of the International Hotel, trapped, pill popping, an old, Howard Hughes figure before his time, with the inevitable sad end on the toilet on the horizon.

You’d think one of those times, after he’d declared himself free, that his Memphis mafia friends and bandmates, Red or Scotty or Bill, would tell everyone, “OK, keep the fucking Colonel the fuck away from him!” Nope. Instead, Elvis is heading out the door, maybe into the parking garage, and there’s the Colonel again, and he begins talking again, and Elvis begins listening again. And everyone else just stands around and lets it happen. 

So it’s a bit one-note. And is it tragic? He’s not caught in a trap, as he sings, because there’s a very easy way out. The Colonel gives him and his dad a bill for $7 million? Talk to a fucking lawyer. Shit, a good lawyer would just wipe this shitstain away—out of your life and probably out of the country. He’d wind up owing you $7 mil.

I think the tragedy of Elvis is this: He was wholly unique, a sexy, gender-bending sponge of blues and R&B and country and gospel music, loving all of it, and yet in his heart he wanted to fit in with the dullest people in our culture. When he first went to Sun Records, he was doing standards, he was doing what he thought people wanted, and it was others, notably Sam Phillips, who realized that his true passion—what became rock ‘n’ roll—was the path. I think when he emerged on the scene, he was shocked by the shock he caused. He was just doing what his body did, singing what it wanted to sing, and half the country thought he was a menace or a joke or a freak. The north mocked him as a hillbilly and the hillbillies condemned him for singing race music. He was viewed as a rebel but never reveled in it. He never had the “Fuck you” gene like John Lennon did. Can you imagine if he’d had that? With Lennon’s wit? Holy shit.

The comeback special is considered this great triumph—Elvis is singing in front of us again!—but to me it’s a little sad. It’s Elvis being embraced by all the elements that were horrified in ’56. Because by ’68, he’s the comfortable one. He’s a good ol’ boy singing good ol’ songs, not like those LSD-takin’ hippie freaks singing about revolution.

No, it’s easy for the Devil to tempt you if he’s giving you what you want. And what Col. Tom offered was a lot of what Elvis wanted. That’s the tragedy.

Heartbreak Hotel
I wish Baz had stayed on the Louisiana Hayride longer. I’m a sucker for the thing becoming the thing, and that was the Louisiana Hayride. He was singing worlds into being. He was singing the future into being.

I wish Baz had gone deeper, too. I learned a few things—the Capt. Marvel Jr. fixation, for one—but he never gave us a deep Elvis. Maybe there wasn’t one? I could’ve stayed on Beale Street longer, too. We get Shonka Kukureh as Big Mama Thornton singing the bluesy “Hound Dog” and Alton Mason as the truly gender-bending Little Richard singing “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and we get inklings of a friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) but not much else. Was there resentment? “They’re taking our music. He’s talking our music.” And what was the deal about the funeral he couldn’t attend? And did Elvis ever give three seconds’ thought to the Civil Rights Movement or was he too busy trying to fit in with the worst elements of our society?

The kid is great. Austin Butler doesn’t quite look like Elvis, but the longer the movie goes on the more he does. And his moves are dead-on. Apparently the singing is partly him, too. It’s tough to take on a much-imitated role like this and not slide into impersonation, and he succeeds in making him seem as much of a person as the script allows.

Not so Hanks’ Col. Tom. He’s so grotesque you wonder how he could sweet-talk anyone.

I also learned about Elvis’ fear of assassination—after MLK and RFK in ’68—but I thought it was going to lead to the meeting with Pres. Nixon and his junior G-man badge, or whatever the fuck he was given. Baz doesn’t go there. He shows us Elvis becoming obsessed with guns and security but not how karate fits into all that. Elvis feared some outsider coming to take it all, but that person was on the inside, and it wasn't even really Col. Tom Parker. It was Elvis himself. We're always our own worst enemies.

The Blytheville, Ark. Courier News: Jan. 19, 1955

Posted at 06:58 AM on Monday July 18, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Monday July 04, 2022

Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)


Watching the original “Top Gun” back in ’86, I remember being surprised at the end when they went beyond maneuvers and actually engaged an enemy. I thought, “What the fuck? We’re not at war with anybody.”

Watching the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” 36 years later, and at the end they engage the enemy, known simply as “the enemy,” who are faceless and voiceless. And I thought, “Makes sense. We’re at war with everybody.”

It’s been a helluva 36 years, hasn’t it?

Canyon run
It’s nice that some of that shows up on Tom Cruise’s face. He’s still in great shape but he’s finally showing his age. Tom, you’re finally showing our age. Both of us were born in 1963, and there’s bags under the eyes and sags by the jawline (at least you have one), and those little puffy indentations by the mouth. Would’ve been nice, of course, if someone in the film had mentioned it. Or if he had. Or if he’d mentioned something about aging. “Acid reflux at zero gs is the worst.” “I really should’ve worn sunscreen during those beach volleyball games.” “I feel the need … the need to pee.”

Instead, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, nearly 60 now, still has better stamina and reflexes than the twentysomethings he’s training, such as “Rooster” (Miles Teller), “Hangman” (Glen Powell) and “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), all of whom were born a quarter century later. (The actors were all born after “Top Gun” was released.) It’s like pretending Cecil Fielder or Edgar Martinez, two '63 babies, could play better than Mike Trout or Juan Soto right now.

For what it is, though, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a fun movie. They do a good job. In that airless world.

I’d heard good things (Rotten Tomatoes: 96%/99%), but from the raves I was expecting something like “The Right Stuff,” and this doesn’t come close to that.

It does open with a kind of “Right Stuff” vibe, and not just because of Ed Harris. Maverick goes into work to fly his zoom-zooms and he’s told by his team that, since they’d never hit Mach 10, Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Harris) is pulling funding to spend the dough on a different favorite project. Except Cain ain’t there yet. So Mav fires up the bird (no stick of Beeman’s), takes it to 10, then, being him, pushes the envelope. Oops. Down goes the bird. We skip the crash landing and cut to a frazzled Maverick in space-man outfit entering a crowded diner, where he chugs a glass of water and asks where he is. The awestruck boy near the cash register: “Earth.” Great line.

For the insubordination, Mav should be gone, fired, but he’s given another opportunity by his former rival and old pal, Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), to return to the “Top Gun” school and train the best-of-the-best for a new mission. That mission involves flying low and fast through enemy canyons, dropping a pinpoint bomb to blow up some uranium macguffins, then soaring over mountains and hopefully making an escape. It’s like the Death Star canyon run in the original “Star Wars” but without the whole “Use the Force, Luke.” Wait, I guess there’s that, too, since “Rooster” has to learn to trust his instincts. He has to learn to not think.

Oh, if they could only teach that to some of us critics.

“Rooster,” in case you didn’t know, is the son of “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) from the first movie, the pal who dies, the wingman our hero can’t save and who blames himself for the death. As a result, Mav and Rooster have issues. Not because Mav caused Dad’s death. You kidding? Pfft. No, it’s because Maverick initially prevented Rooster from following in Dad’s footsteps. We later find out that he promised the boy’s dying mother (Meg Ryan, unseen except for ’86 footage) to keep the boy from becoming a pilot—that’s why he did it. Also he really didn’t think he was ready. Turns out all these recruits have a thing like that: Rooster thinks too much, Hangman is too reckless and solitary, Phoenix is … No, I guess it’s just Rooster and Hangman. Everyone else is just there. A Benetton ad.

The goal is for the team to do the Kessel Run in under 2 ½ minutes and bond like a team. None of the recruits is able to do the former and the latter only comes in fits and starts. It mostly happens in that give-each-other-shit, sweaty-football-on-the-beach way. The bigger issue, for Mav, is those damn admirals. I keep referencing “Star Wars” but the movie is a little like “Star Trek” in this way. Mav is the balls-out captain without the green alien babes, just a shockingly beautiful Jennifer Connelly running the aviator bar, while Ed Harris, then Jon Hamm as Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, are the admirals who keep getting in the way. And when Iceman dies of cancer, Mav is cut from the project because Jon Hamm has a different idea about the Kessel Run. Why not 4 minutes instead of 2 ½? Right? So much easier. Sure, then the enemy will scramble its jets, etc., and our heroes probably won’t make it back alive. But mission accomplished!

Instead, Mav steals a plane, demonstrates that the run can be done in 2 minutes and 15 seconds, so Jon Hamm appoints him Team Leader for the mission. And for his team, Mav picks pretty lady, black dude, nerd boy and Rooster. And off they go to take it to the enemy.

Psst. They win.

Goose, Rooster, Loon
Admittedly, it’s thrilling. Throughout, director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion,” “Only the Brave”) and DP Claudio Miranda film the actors within the F-14s and 18s, and we can feel the difference. We can see the pressure on them. This ain’t green screen, kids. From the IMDb trivia page:

  • Cruise's involvement was predicated on the condition that real aircraft be used in the aerial sequences, not CGI.
  • Cruise personally designed a three-month aviation course for the new actors to get ready riding in F-18s.
  • Three of the actors threw up every day of filming in the jets, per Miles Teller. 

All of which accounts for a lot of the critical enthusiasm. The movie is real. It’s about heroes who are super rather than superheroes. And (admittedly again) it's not all sweaty football on the beach. The scene where Mav visits Ice, and they talk, is powerful and powerfully acted, particularly by Cruise. One shot in particular—myriad complex emotions crossing his face. I’m like “Damn, this dude can act when he wants.”

But you could write most of the characters’ personalities on a Post-It note. Connelly as Penny is given almost nothing to do. They’re exes, and she: 1) teases him feistily, 2) teases him softly, 3) leaves the door open for him. When he returns after the mission, she’s off sailing with her daughter. I guess to show she has her own life? Or to provide a thrum of last-minute tension? Right. Imagine if she never returned. Instead, in the final reel, yep, there she is, in magic-hour light standing next to a 1973 Porsche 911 S, like in a car commercial. That said, Connelly looks fantastic. And when was the last time we saw 50-year-olds making out in a movie?

Should the movie have worried more about Rooster? He barely knew his father, yet he: 1) trains at the same academy for the same job that killed the old man; 2) sports the same moustache; and 3) sings the same fucking song at the same fucking bar. Goodness gracious, that’s weird. Plus the whole double-o bird connection. (Was “Loon” taken?) But sure, let’s ignore all that. His issue is he’s “too cautious.” Until he isn’t—during the Kessel Run.

To be honest, hearing about “Top Gun: Maverick,” then seeing it and writing about it, I'm reminded how much I hated “Top Gun” back in the day. I guess I hated what its popularity meant. It meant the cynical period I grew up in was over. We were that much more mindless, that much more jingoistic, that much more ready to buy the bullshit. And every year it’s gotten worse. It’s almost as if we stopped thinking.

Posted at 08:13 AM on Monday July 04, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

Monday April 04, 2022

Movie Review: The Batman (2022)


Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” is arthouse Batman: long, brooding and morally ambiguous. It’s reminiscent less of a superhero flick than David Fincher’s “Se7en”: two detectives, an elder Black officer and his white, hothead partner, attempt to solve a series of grisly, serial-killer murders. You know how recent Batmen swoop around Gotham the way Spider-Man swings around Manhattan—almost as if he had super powers? This ain’t that. This is a grounded Batman. He’s definitely a dude in a bat suit, who relies on gadgets and martial arts, determination and smarts. The first time he’s on the roof of some gothic skyscraper he doesn’t brood over the city in the rain but all but goes “Yikes!” Recent Batmen have been like ninjas, too—all of a sudden, poof, there—while the first time we see Robert Pattinson’s Batman, we actually hear him, slowly clomping up the steps like the Terminator. Nothing about him is fast. Nothing about the movie is fast. Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” plays several times on the soundtrack, which is appropriate because it’s the movie’s tempo. Exactly that. “The Batman” is like “Something in the Way” for three hours.

And it’s pretty great.

Who is director Matt Reeves and how the hell did he land this gig? Back in 2008, he directed the sleeper hit “Cloverfield”; then he was tapped to remake the great Swedish horror-vampire film “Let the Right One In” for American audiences, and did a great job. So he spent the next decade doing the “Planet of the Apes” sequels. Now this.

Oh, and Batman’s sexy again. About time.

John Doe
We begin the movie looking through the high-tech goggles of someone spying on a rich man and his kid in a townhouse. The kid is pretending to be a ninja and Dad is accommodating; he pretends to be stabbed. Then the kid goes trick-or-treating since it’s Halloween in Gotham City.

All the while, these were my thoughts:

  • Are these the Waynes?
  • Or is this another family and it’s the bad guy watching them?
  • Or is it Batman watching them?

Right out of the gate, in other words, Reeves blurs the line between hero and villain. That’s a lot of the film. And not in the way of “You created me, I created you,” the Batman/Joker dynamic in the Tim Burton movie. Nobody says it, but I kept thinking, “OK, so Batman beats up a bunch of skull-faced subway punks while the Riddler (an excellent Paul Dano) is taking down the corrupt officials of Gotham City. Batman is fighting the symptom, the Riddler is fighting the cause. So why is the Riddler the villain again?”

Answer: He’s the villain because he’s insane and tortures people. Don’t do that, kids.

Anyway, yes, in the opening scene, it’s the Riddler’s eyes we’re looking through, after which the Riddler shows up as silent as a ninja in the townhouse and bludgeons the rich man—Mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones)—to death. Then he gets out the duct tape. He’s big on the duct tape. When he stretches out a strip, it’s as loud on the soundtrack as gunfire in “Shane.” He also leaves clues/riddles and a message to the Batman. Not to taunt; I think he’s testing his smarts. He feels kinship. He wants partnership.

This is Year Two of Batman’s exploits, and he’s still this odd, caped vigilante around town. Most cops hate him, but he’s become the all-but-official partner of Lt. James Gordon (an excellent Jeffrey Wright), who is already using the bat signal when he needs to contact him. This is another stroke of genius to me. I’ve written about the bat signal before. It’s super-cool, I loved it as a kid, but it tends to mean we’ve left the Batman-as-vigilante phase (cool) and entered the Batman-as-institution phase (meh), which is a step away from Batman as camp (death). Here, Reeves manages to give us both Batman-as-vigilante and the bat signal. Because Gordon isn’t in charge yet. And the people who are in charge are corrupt.

Which is the point of the Riddler. Like John Doe in “Se7en,” he’s acting as judge, jury and executioner for the city’s sins. First it’s the mayor, then the police commissioner (Alex Ferns), whose face is eaten by rats during a livestream; then it’s the DA (Peter Sarsgaard), who is kidnapped and forced to crash a car, with a bomb locked around his neck, into the mass funeral for the mayor in midtown Gotham. All of these city officials are in the pocket of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), the crime boss who runs the town from his penthouse above the Iceberg Lounge. So why doesn’t the Riddler just go after Falcone? Too logical, I guess. Way shorter movie. And how does the Riddler connect the dots between the mayor and the DA and the like? Was it common knowledge—like Mitch McConnell and dark money? Now there’s a Batman villain for you.

I keep using the term “the Riddler” but I don’t know if we ever hear it in the film, and he’s not exactly Frank Gorshin in a green leotard with question marks over it. (Though one of his lines is said with a very Gorshin-like inflection.) All the supervillains are mere suggestions of their comic book personas. The Riddler is a nerd accountant with crazy goggles and dark green hoodie. The Penguin (an excellent Colin Farrell), is a fat, squat crimeboss with a limp named Oz. Selina Kyle (a superhot Zoe Kravitz) is a martial arts-trained cat burglar, who, on the prowl, wears a mask with mere suggestions of ears. Plus the cats in her apartment. “I have a thing about strays,” she says to Batman, giving him a suggestive look. All three characters could fit into most crime/gangster movies and it wouldn’t look weird.

Meanwhile, Pattinson’s Batman looks iconically Batman—like a ’70s-era, Neal Adams drawing, but with dark cape/cowl rather than blue. He might look better than any Batman we’ve ever seen on screen. It should look weird—like “Se7en” with Brad Pitt in a bat outfit—but somehow it works. I assume because we expect it? I bet if you found someone who’d never heard of Batman, or superheroes, they’d think the whole thing was bizarre.

Pattinson makes it work, too. Like Edward from the “Twilight” series, he has a bruised, tragic stillness to him.* His Batman may mete out pain but he also exudes it. His Bruce isn’t the usual playboy, either. When he shows up at the mayor’s funeral, and the press goes crazy, Falcone (I think) calls him the only man in Gotham more reclusive than himself. He’s the city’s lost child, its poor little rich boy.

(* Has any actor played both vampire and Batman? I think Pattinson’s the first. He did it for the girls and now for the fanboys. OK, fangirls, too. He’s tall, quiet, tortured, mascaraed, passive. Selina makes all the moves. Their scenes together smoke.)

I like that there’s no slow-mo flashback to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne; it’s assuming we know that story by now. I like that Wayne Manor isn’t a mansion outside of the city but a city skyscraper. Initially, too, Batman gets around on a nondescript motorcycle, which blends, and the passage to his “bat cave,” is serpentine, with secret walls, making it, you imagine, difficult to follow. To be honest, I was almost disappointed when the Batmobile showed up for the car chase with Oz—which, despite the one cool moment (the Batmobile leaping through the flames), felt overlong and unnecessary: an action-adventure bit for a noirish police procedural.

Travis Bickle
Let’s ask the Mamet question: What do the characters want?

So Selina is trying to find out what happened to her friend, Annika, a fellow waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, who goes missing; that’s why she teams up with Batman. She’s also the illegitimate daughter of Falcone. Does he know? And was she working at the Iceberg Lounge to become part of his life or kill him?

Oz is the loyal henchman who turns out to be not-so-loyal. We don’t know much more about him.

We know what the Riddler wants but he keeps going astray. Yes, it’s weird to talk about a crazy dude who uses 1984-style torture devices “going astray,” but, to me, the Riddler does this with his fourth target: Bruce Wayne. Why does he go after him? The Riddler, nee Edward Nashton, was an orphan himself in Wayne Orphanage. But after Thomas and Martha were murdered, the orphanage wound up in the hands of Falcone and Oz, who pillaged it like Tony Soprano’s men, leaving the orphans starving. Yet every day he had to hear about “poor little Bruce Wayne,” surrounded by his wealth. And he came to hate him. He identified with Batman and hated Bruce Wayne, and he decides to kill him. But it’s off the mark: Bruce isn’t part of the city’s corruption. Is that why the Ridder’s M.O. changes? With the others, it’s close quarters and sadistic torture, but with Bruce he just sends him a bomb in the mail. Blah. Alfred (Andy Serkis) opens it instead. Blah. He survives. Blah.

Then Riddler goes further astray. For most of the movie, his cinematic antecedent is John Doe in “Se7en,” and the sinners who need eradicating are the city’s fathers—the rich and powerful. In the final act, he’s all Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” unleashing a real flood that, like Travis’ imaginary rain, will wash all the scum off the streets. It’s a big, grandiose moment but kind of a bummer. At least John Doe stuck to the plan.

Batman changes, too, but in a way that makes sense. He has a trajectory. He begins the movie saying “I’m vengeance” to the subway punks, then realizes how corrupt the city leaders are, and that even his father was hardly a paragon of virtue; and at the end he’s confronted by one of the Riddler’s acolytes, who, when asked who he is, responds, “I am vengeance.” So the hero comes to realize his path is wrong, and rather than hurt criminals he winds up helping citizens caught in the flood. If the storyline were true to itself, in fact, this would be the moment when he unmasked himself—like Zorro at the end of the original 1920 “Zorro.” Basically it’s the moment he needs to be Bruce rather than Batman. But: sequels; moola. We even get a glimpse of Barry Keoghan as the Joker in Arkham Asylum. Warner Bros. primes that pump. Least shocking part of the film.

Despite that, I think this is the best Batman movie ever made. I love the scene in the police station where Batman is surrounded by cops, love Jeffrey Wright as Gordon, think Dano is a revelation (again), think Pattinson makes a great, brooding Batman. They’ll have a tougher go in the sequel. How do you scare criminals when you’re a beacon of hope? Good luck. Just don’t forget the Nirvana.

Posted at 06:04 AM on Monday April 04, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 2022   |   Permalink  

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