Movie Reviews - 2022 posts
Saturday April 22, 2023
Movie Review: Amsterdam (2022)
How many actors have spent an entire movie imitating another actor who has nothing to do with the movie? Kurt Russell doing Clint Eastwood in “Escape from New York” comes to mind. Anyone else? Feels like there’s more but I’m drawing a blank.
In “Amsterdam,” Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a Jewish doctor and wounded Great War veteran who tends to the wounds of other Great War veterans in 1933 New York. His friends include other vets such as Harold Woodman, Esq. (John David Washington) and Milton King (Chris Rock), and initially I was worried this was another example of color-blind casting in a historical setting. Not a fan of that. As if we can just level history. As if we can raise an entire generation thinking the Civil Rights Movement weren’t no big deal since everyone’s been the same forever and ever. Wait, and Zoe Saldana is a coroner, too? And they’re all hanging with … is that Taylor Swift? Wow, this cast. But c’mon.
Thank god Chris Rock says something about the dangers of Black men hanging in a room with a white woman and a dead white body. So not quite color blind. But definitely wishful thinking.
Washington has never done much for me. He’s the son of Denzel, given two dull first names rather than one memorable one, and he’s twice dull rather than once memorable. Sorry. His father had snap; he snapped you to attention. Maybe I’m being too tough on the son. What am I basing it off of? This and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Maybe I need to see Chris Nolan’s “Tenet.” Top directors seem to dig him.
Anyway, early on I thought, “Oh, Christian Bale is doing a Jewish accent.” But I began to realize he wasn’t doing general Jewish but particular Jewish. He was doing someone. Drove me crazy. I kept flashing on Martin Short as Jiminy Glick doing Larry David to Larry David—and, to be honest, that’s not far off. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realize it. Or I did but dismissed it. At one point, he was crouched over, looking up, and I went “Peter Falk? No.” Yes. Bale is doing Peter Falk throughout. And it’s fun but also distracting.
But not as distracting as Zoe Saldana.
The movie’s not much, which is a shame because it should be something. It should’ve resonated hugely.
It’s framed as a mystery. Did someone kill their former platoon leader Gen. Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), and why, and why kill his daughter (Taylor Swift), too? The dude from “Deadwood” (Timothy Olyphant), with crazy eyes and bad hair, pushes her into traffic, then blames the Jew and the Negro, and mobs being mobs, everyone goes along. So our heroes are on the run during perilous times but their own investigation doesn’t feel sharp; it feels soft and blurry. She says something about Rose? Or Voze? The Vozes are richie riches. But first we get an extended flashback about how our principles know each other.
Woodman and King were both in the All-Black 369th Infantry Regiment fighting in France, but their superior officer is a cracker. So Gen. Meekins, a kindly man, brings in Berendsen, another kindly man, whose gentile in-laws want him dead anyway. Nearly happens. But Woodman saves Berendsen, and Berendsen saves Woodman, and they both become friends with a crazy beautiful nurse, Valerie (Margot Robbie), who makes trinkets out of the torn metal she pulls from soldiers’ bodies. She and Woodman wind up romantically linked, and all three party for a while in Amsterdam, the idyllic place that allows such partying in 1918. But then Berendsen has to return to the States. Something about loving Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), the awful woman whose upper-crust family is even awful-er. And for some reason Woodman has to return, too. Maybe because that partying in Amsterdam actually looks kind of dull.
At the Voze estate in 1933, guess who they run into? Valerie! She’s a Voze, but suffering medical/mental issues. And yes, she was the one who suggested Taylor Swift seek out Woodman and Berendsen. So that mystery is solved. But what to do now? Valerie’s brother Tom (Rami Malek) suggests they contact the legendary Gen. Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), who might be helpful in exonerating them. Um, how? But OK? Along the way, they also find out something about the Committee of the Five, or the Committee for the Sound Dollar, that is involved in a kind of eugenics and has a weird symbol—a combo of “C” and “5” that looks like it might be a drunk version of a swastika. Which … yes.
At some point, trying to figure out the plot, I’m thinking, “OK, so is it a bunch of richie riches who don’t like FDR’s New Deal and like what Hitler is doing in Germany, and want to bring Fascism to the U.S.?” Bingo. Better, it’s actually based on a historical incident, the Business Plot or Wall Street Putsch of 1933, in which businessmen apparently wanted Gen. Smedley Butler to take over from FDR as an emergency measure. But he spilled the beans on them—just as Gen. Dillenbeck does here. The question is: Who’s the betrayer? Turns out: Tom. Rami Malek. Shocking. Meekins was going to spill the beans, too, which is why he was killed. His daughter learned of it, which, ditto. Berendsen and Woodman were allowed to live because the Committee wanted Dillenbeck on board, and as decorated war vets they had a better chance of reaching him.
Given Trump, Jan. 6, Proud Boys and Fox News, this should resonate, but it doesn’t. Not close. It’s historic horror overlayed with contemporary feel-good. True, nothing happens to the Committee, as in real life, but Berendsen finally blows off Beatrice for the shockingly gorgeous Irma St. Clair (Saldana), and Woodman and Valerie are reunited, and they all have their own little Amsterdam in 1930s NYC.
Meanwhile, across the ocean…
But what fun seeing Matthias Schoenaerts again! He plays the good cop. I haven’t seen him since “The Mustang” in 2019, which feels like forever ago. Also Michael Shannon as a T-Man. When did I last …? Right, “Knives Out” in 2019. Mike Myers should act more. He has a bit part as undercover MI-6 with a bird fetish, and he’s fun. Zoe Saldana should let us see her face more. She’s a good actress, too. Christian Bale is amazing. All for nothing.
This is David O. Russell’s first movie since “Joy” in 2015, which I never saw, and which came on the heels of “American Hustle” in 2013, which I loved. So I haven’t seen Russell in 10 years. A bad 10 years. I wish he’d had something more profound to say about it than “Amsterdam.”
Saturday March 04, 2023
Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Here’s a good way to make sure a movie won’t last: put “Forever” in its title.
Sure, some of them aren’t bad:
- “Diamonds are Forever” (1971), with Connery returning to the James Bond role
- “Dragons Forever” (1987), a reteaming of Jackie Chan, Samo Hong and Yuen Biao
But most don’t exactly last forever. They’re romance movies you’ve never heard of and franchises on their last sad legs:
- “Forever Young” (1992), with Mel Gibson and Jamie Lee Curtis
- “Waiting for Forever” (2010), with Rachel Bilson and Tom Sturridge
- “Batman Forever” (1995), the one with Val Kilmer
- “Shrek Forever After” (2010), the fourth and final feature
- “Jackass Forever" (2022)
Add this one to the pile.
A moment of silence
Yes, the decks were stacked against “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It lost its young star, Chadwick Boseman, shockingly and tragically, to colon cancer in 2020, and his absence is felt throughout the film. After the cold open, in which his character, T’Challa, the Black Panther, succumbs offscreen to an undisclosed illness despite the heroic efforts of his braniac sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), we get a grace note: The Marvel logos all feature Boseman and there’s nothing on the soundtrack. A moment of silence. That’s nice.
And then, sadly, the movie begins.
I guess at the end of the last movie in 2018, T’Challa revealed that Wakanda was an all-powerful nation and the only source of vibranium in the world; and though in the interim we had, you know, the Blip, where Thanos extinguished half the lives in the known universe, western countries still fear a Black planet more than a big purple dude. At the U.N., both the U.S. and France bitch to Wakanda’s new ruler, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), about not getting any of the promised vibranium. Elsewhere, they (or just France?) try to steal it but are beaten back by Wakanda’s baldheaded female security force.
Ah, but using a “vibranium detector,” the U.S. finds some on the bottom of the ocean. Take that! Except, whoops, there’s also an undersea kingdom there, ruled by the 500-year old Prince Namor (Tenoch Huerta), whose superpowered people attack and kill the helpless Americans.
When I collected comics in the 1970s, Namor was also called the Sub-Mariner, and I remember him being angry, imperious, and forever kidnapping Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four. Here, he’s calm and seemingly reasonable—emphasis on seemingly. Bypassing Wakanda’s security, for example, he delivers an ultimatum to Ramonda and Shuri: Do what I say or I’ll destroy your kingdom.
And the thing he wants them to do? Find and kill the scientist who created the “vibranium detector” so both of their kingdoms will be safe again. Right. It should’ve led to a conversation like this:
Shuri: Um, you do know there’ll be notes, right? Spreadsheets? I’m sure the inventor had conversations with colleagues. How do you kill all that?
Ramonda: You can’t stop knowledge.
Shuri: Besides, doesn’t the U.S. military already know where your kingdom is? It’s the place where you attacked them.
Ramonda: You’ll be killing someone to prevent them from doing a job they’ve already done.
The scientist turns out to be a 19-year-old Black female university student named Riri (Dominique Thorne), and, hoping to head off Namor, Shuri and security chief Okoye (Danai Gurira) visit her to bring her back to Wakanda. Riri loves Wakanda, is amazed that they’re there, but still fights to not go. But then the FBI come, blah blah, and Namor’s warrior forces attack them on a bridge (it’s always a bridge), and Shuri and Riri are taken to Namor’s undersea kingdom, Talokan, where we finally get their backstory. Seems way back when, they were all part of the Mayan civilization, but Europeans came with their death and disease, and a cure-all for both was vibranium. Side effects? Their skin turned blue and they could only live underwater. Namor, born shortly afterwards, was different: superstrong, with wings on his feet, and able to live in both worlds.
Vibranium always seems to find historically downtrodden people but never in a way that helps the whole. Other Africans are still enslaved, the Mayan civilization is still destroyed. It’s just the chosen few that sail along. What an odd dynamic. It’s like writer-director Ryan Coogler and his screenplay partner Joe Robert Cole want to uplift people, but in doing so they just create some really weird continuity issues.
In the end, Namor, et al., attack Wakanda and Queen Ramonda is killed. Then Shuri, after spending the movie saying there would be no more Black Panthers, becomes the Black Panther, and they take the battle to the Talokans. They dry up Namor to weaken him, and after defeating him, and despite the murder of her mother, Shuri/BP shows him mercy. Which totally makes sense. She’s BP, he’s IP.
Oh right. Subplots. The love interest I’d already forgotten about from the first movie, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), is hanging in Haiti these days. Why didn’t she make it back for T’Challa’s funeral? Because she and T’Challa had a child and I guess he didn’t want anyone to know. The boy’s name is Touissant, but his Wakandan name—revealed during the midcredits sequence with all the immensity of the “Rosebud” revelation—is …. wait for it … T’Challa!
OK. … And?
So much of the movie is this way. They want us to care about shit that … why? Who cares? The movie is overlong and bloated and we still get to know nobody. I’m beginning to wonder if Marvel thinks representation is enough—that you don’t have to make people of color interesting, that it’s enough that they’re people of color.
I guess I cared for Okoye—and didn’t like the way she was dismissed by Ramonda. I like M’Baku, all bluster and fun, but didn’t like that Namor took him out with one punch. Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows up as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, and you kind of wonder when they’re going to get around to her story—or if she’s just going to be like Viola Davis in the dipshit DC Universe: the evil bureaucrat behind the scenes who gets a few lines and nothing else. What a waste. We do find out that she’s the ex of Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), the anodyne CIA agent and FOW (Friend of Wakanda). Right. She would’ve eaten him alive.
Allow me a final rant.
Ross is the one who gives up the Riri intel to the Wakandans, and later, when Valentina calls him on it, this is his excuse:
The Wakandans saved my life! They’re a good people!
That’s a little me me for a CIA agent to be giving out state secrets, but sure, why not. Except they have him add this:
You ever thought for a second what they could be doing? Ever thought what we would be doing if the U.S. was the only country in the world with vibranium?
The implication is the U.S. would do awful, awful things. Because we’re an awful, awful people.
First, for centuries, Wakanda only cared about itself. They let the slave trade continue apace rather than give up their Edenic life.
More, the U.S. was the only country with vibranium … except it was called the atomic bomb. And what did we do with it? Sure, dropped it on two cities in Japan to end the war. And you can argue that Nagasaki was unnecessary and I wouldn’t disagree. But after that? What else did we do when only we had that power? Didn’t we work to resurrect the economies of our enemies, creating democracies that still thrive, while staving off Soviet aggression? I mean, I’m hardly the rah-rah America type, but I don’t think that’s nothing. Say what you want about Wakanda but it’s still a kingdom. They’ve had family rule for centuries. How is that good? How is that advanced?
Seriously, I’m surprised there wasn’t more pushback on that line.
Monday February 27, 2023
Movie Review: Triangle of Sadness (2022)
J.M. Barrie didn’t get a writing credit for this? What a rip.
Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan,” also wrote a 1902 play called “The Admirable Crichton,” in which a wealthy family and their butler, Crichton, are shipwrecked on an island, and since the butler knows how to do everything, and they know how to do nothing, the social roles reverse. He becomes powerful, they become servants. At the end, he’s about the marry the lord’s daughter when they’re rescued and social roles, as they say, regress to the mean. It’s what the “Swept Away” movies became but with rough sex. Barrie didn’t get a writing credit there, either.
That said, “Crichton” and “Swept Away” make more sense than this.
I was enjoying it for a bit, then kept not buying it. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund seems to be saying something important about class, race, gender roles; and then it just gets silly. He wants to make his points and makes them regardless of any kind of logic. Eventually I began thinking: “They gave this the Palme d’Or? And Oscar nominations for best picture and director?”
Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) are a beautiful supermodel couple who aren’t happy. Or they fight over silly things. Or … actually I like what they fight over—but, given the state of the world, it is silly. They fight over the fact that she never picks up the check. In the modeling world, she makes three times what he does, and yet gender roles still determine he’s the one who pays. Well, she determines it as well. The check comes and she stares into her phone, then absent-mindedly says “thank you” to Carl. I’m curious if it makes her feel more womanly to be pampered while it makes him feel more manly to take care of things. Either way, it is something I’ve noticed—women often seem gone when the check arrives—so I liked this opening.
Yaya is not just a fashion model but an “influencer,” with however many millions of followers on Instagram, and she gets free shit to promote all the time. That’s how they wind up on the luxury cruise, where class issues are immediately underlined. In one scene, Paula (Vicki Berlin), the short-haired blonde cruise director, exults her team with a rah-rah speech to cater to the whims of every guest. You’re feeling sorry for them, and maybe her, when Ostlund cuts to the mostly brown cleaning staff working a lower deck. There’s always a lower deck. (Cf. “Parasite.”) One thing people on all decks have in common? They spend a lot of time staring dumbly into smartphones.
The guests on the cruise are the worst people in the world: a Russian oligarch named Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), who made his fortune with fertilizer and introduces himself with the well-worn, self-amused line “I sell shit”; his idiot wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles); an old British couple, Winston and Clementine, who talk up the great work they did for world peace—which turns out to be selling grenades. Meanwhile, Paula can’t get the drunk captain out of his quarters. For a while I wondered if it’d be a Carlton the Doorman thing and we’d never see him. I also wondered if it was a comment on the Trump era (no one’s running the ship) or just our current awful internet era (no one’s minding the store).
The rah-rah speech comes to haunt the staff, and ultimately the guests, when the oligarch’s wife insists that one staff member, Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), get into the jacuzzi with her. Then she insists all staff partake in the fun. She wants to make some grand point about how they’re all equal, and everyone has to go along because they’re not. Worse, when the kitchen help leave for their mandatory, joyless slide into the ocean, the chef fears the food will turn. Which seems to be what happens. That night, as the Captain (Woody Harrelson) makes a first reluctant appearance at dinner, and the boat is pitched in a storm, most guests get sick. And there's much dysentery.
How much of the dialogue was improv? It feels real—both natural and not particularly interesting. The drunken debate between the socialist captain (Woody Harrelson) and the capitalist Russian oligarch did nothing for me. Pulling out a Noam Chomsky book to make your points feels like a Woody Harrelson move rather than whoever this captain is supposed to be. It took me out of the movie rather than deeper into it.
Then we get a distant shot of the ship while Somali pirates gather in the foreground. That’s what happens when no one is running the ship. Your vulnerabilities are exacerbated. Question: Why do the pirates toss the grenade? Isn’t the point to take over the ship rather than destroy it? Instead, Winston and Clementine pick up the grenade, slowly recognize what it is, boom. I confess: I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t enough that Ostlund named the couple after the Churchills, we had to get this idiot moment of karma.
Anyway, that’s why a handful of people wind up on a deserted island, and Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a cleaning woman, takes over like the admirable Crichton. She’s the only one with survival skills. Via IMDb:
In a podcast interview, De Leon said her character Abigail was supposed to be a male mechanic of the yacht, but when Ostlund pitched the film to his students, one suggested that it would be more interesting if the character was a woman.
Give that student an F. There’s a lot I found unbelievable on the island. These are privileged people who would be looking at their watches, wondering why they weren’t already rescued, and I don’t remember any of that. More, when you lose social constructs and class distinctions, you don’t just revert to survival of the fittest but the strongest. Abigail may have known how to catch fish, and start fires, but she was little. She needed to team up with someone to enforce the new hierarchy. We don’t get that. There wasn’t even a shift when Jarmo (Henrik Dorson), the computer coder, kills an animal with a rock, creating his own food source. Hey, we can do this now. Hey, we don’t need you now.
And I know these people are useless, but no one thinks to rub two sticks together? Has no one watched cartoons? It doesn’t have to work; I just wanted the attempt.
The final joke
Interplay between class and sex comes up a lot. There’s Carl’s jealousy of the shirtless Greek worker—and inadvertently getting him fired because he was shirtless on deck. There’s also the role-playing sex game (laborer, housewife) Carl and Yaya play in their cabin. Finally, on the island, Carl becomes concubine to Abigail. He leaves the supermodel for the cleaning woman. Sure, Ruben.
The final joke is it’s not a deserted island; there’s a luxury resort on the other side, which Yaya and Abigail find when they go hiking. Great news for Yaya, less so for Abigail. Away from the island, she’s a cleaning woman. Before they take the elevator up, Abigail says she has to go to the bathroom. Why does Yaya wait? Stockholm syndrome? This woman made you beg for fish, and took your man. I’d be running for that elevator. Instead, Yaya sits down, talks about how Abigail can become her assistant, while, behind her, Abigail picks up a large rock. Cut to Carl running breathlessly through the woods. And that’s the end of the movie.
Is it the lady or the tiger? How about who cares.
This is a poor follow-up for Ostlund after “Force Majeure” and “The Square,” his great takes on male cowardice and courage in modern society. Much honored, though. Do we all get our due after we deserve it?
Monday February 20, 2023
Movie Review: Women Talking (2022)
It’s aptly named anyway.
Women in a Mennonite community realize that the men in the community have been drugging them, raping them, then dismissing their charges and bruises as hysteria. The subsequent pregnancies—definitive evidence—seem to engender a shrug. But this time they caught a man in the act, he gave up the others, and they’ve all been taken to prison in the city. The women are given two days by themselves to decide what to do.
These are the options:
- Stay and do nothing
- Stay and fight
A plebescite is held—nicely filmed by writer-director Sarah Polley—but there’s a tie between “Stay and fight” and “Leave.” So they rehold the plebescite with just those two options.
Kidding. That was just one of those early moments where I was like, “Wouldn’t it make sense if…? No? Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” If they’d had ranked voting to begin with, the movie wouldn’t exist. Or it would’ve been short.
Instead, 11 of the women meet in a hayloft to wrangle it out. They have not been taught to read or write, so the minutes are taken by August (Ben Whishaw), the educated, sensitive son of an excommunicated member who has returned to teach the boys. Positions are staked early.
- Salome (Claire Foy) is angry and wants to stay and fight
- Ona (Rooney Mara) is calm and wants to stay and fight
- Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is angry and wants to forgive the men—which isn’t really an answer, but she’s really adamant about it; it's also odd because she keeps insulting August; she seems to forgive the innocent man nothing
Though we might be in a 19th century township, bit by bit—with references to antibiotics, with women wearing Birkenstocks, with a census taker playing “Daydream Believer” from the loudspeaker of his car—we realize we’re in a contemporary setting. Which is when I began to realize what was missing from their conversation: How. How do you stay and fight? What does that mean? With pitchforks? With laws? And how do you leave? Do you have cash? Credit? You can't read or write: Do you have any idea what’s out there?
But how doesn’t really come into it.
Some part of me assumed they would stay and fight. I don’t know if I got that idea from the trailer or if it’s because that’s generally the point of drama—to confront the thing—but it’s not the point of this drama. Here, it’s wrangling through the trauma. It’s consciousness-raising. It’s healing.
We get revelations. August is in love with Ona, and she exchanges glances with him, and you kind of wonder why they don’t just get together. Or why it’s assumed August won’t go with the women. At least he’s been out in the world; he might be able to help. But nothing. He’s to stay behind and teach the boys to be better men. The morning they leave, he’s in the hayloft, crying, and he tells Ona’s mother, Agata (Judith Ivey), to tell Ona that he will always love her. “She loves you, too,” the mother says, and I thought, “Oh, that’s nice, that’s some comfort there,” before she adds, almost with a shrug, “She loves everybody.” Ouch. But it’s probably why he loves her.
We also learn that Mariche’s husband beats her, and she was urged to forgive him by her own mother, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), and maybe this is why Mariche both urges forgiveness and is incredibly angry and insulting. But they work through the issues, and everyone apologizes to Mariche, and Mariche agrees that leaving is a good idea—even as her husband returns early to get more bail money or something. Wait, so the other men send back the abusive drunk guy for this task? Not smart. Or are they all just abusive drunk guys?
How many of the women are products of rape, by the way? Does that come up? How long has this been going on? Decades? Centuries?
Throughout, we get a voiceover from Ona talking to her own child in whatever new place they’ve landed. But we never see the new place. We never see the struggle to land.
You know the whole “Men want to solve problems while women want to talk about problems” dynamic? This feels like that. It wasn’t for me.
Wednesday February 15, 2023
Movie Review: Nope (2022)
Is Jordan Peele becoming M. Night Shyamalan? Both men knocked it out of the park with their first horror feature (“The Sixth Sense,” “Get Out”), did well with the second (“Unbreakable,” “Us”), but ran into trouble with the alien-invader third (“Signs,” “Nope”).
I should add that “Nope” is way, way better than “Signs.” I walked out of “Signs” back in 2002 incensed at the stupidity. “Aliens are attacking our planet, and the secret weapon against them is water? How stupid are they? Our planet is mostly water, we are mostly water, why would they come here?”
This isn’t that, but I do have questions.
Balloons taketh, balloons giveth
Does the giant flying alien have no sense of smell? What is it seeing when it sees us and other food sources? It spits out coins and keys, and gags on flags and balloons, but seems to do OK with clothes. And it learns. It learns not to attack flags and balloons that look like flags and balloons. Yet it still swallows the giant cowboy balloon—and blows up as a result. Not quite getting that.
I assume it’s organic? So what’s with the metallic noises we keep hearing? Is it an alien within a metallic spacecraft/suit, or are those not metallic noises? Maybe it’s digesting.
And what the hell was the Wild West show Jupe (Steven Yeun) was putting on? We only saw the one that went really, really wrong. He wasn’t feeding it horses, was he? Or customers? Wait, just checked via Wiki:
“Jupe introduces a live show in Jupiter’s Claim and plans to use Lucky as bait to lure out the UFO, to which he has been feeding the Haywoods’ horses for months, in front of an audience to help reclaim his fame.”
So Jupe is an idiot. As a kid, he was a regular on a 1990s sitcom, “Gordy’s Home,” starring a chimpanzee, Gordy, who went nuts after a balloon burst and killed several cast members. He should know you don’t fuck with wild animals. And this one is a giant, giant alien wild animal. Plus, I mean, c’mon. He has evidence there’s a giant alien on earth and his only thought is, “This could really help my Wild West show”? And no one who saw the show previously took photos or told anyone? How is this not out already? Where’s DHS? FAA? How isn’t some local airport seeing it? Nothing that big and ravenous stays secret.
And what kind of major fucking asshole feeds an alien horses? That might’ve pissed me off more than anything. Glad my mother isn’t alive to see this shit.
I do like the spin on the usual alien-invasion movie. “Wow, a giant spaceship!” “No, actually, it’s an airborne bottom feeder. And we’re the bottom.” And Peele does creepy well. He opens on the Haywood Horse Farm where Otis Sr. (Keith David) is in charge, while Otis Jr. or O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) seems a reluctant but dutiful hand. Then an electrical disturbance. Cellphones don’t work. And noises from the sky. Is it hail? No, coins. Coins falling from the sky. Dad’s horse begins to move out of the stall with him wobbly in the saddle; then he just falls over. We quickly learn he’s dead. A coin lodged in his head. When O.J. returns to the ranch, the horse is standing in the same spot—a key in its hindquarters. Creepy.
That leaves the horse farm in the hands of O.J. and his younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who are opposite ends of the spectrum. She’s hyper, self-promoting, shallow, while he hardly has a heartbeat—staring out into the world with the eyes of a man who’s lived a thousand lives, 999 of them bad. Which, it turns out, makes him the perfect man to both wrangle horses (he calms them) and take on a giant motherfucking flying alien (he doesn’t panic).
I’m curious: How often does Jordan Peele think about that Eddie Murphy bit on horror films? (Just checked: I guess it’s why he named his first film “Get Out.”) Murphy’s joke is that white people stick around even when there’s a ghost in the house, while Black people, no, they'd be smarter. I kept thinking about that as O.J. and Emerald set up shop, including a security camera mounted on their roof with the help of an odd Fry’s Electronics employee, Angel (Brandon Perea), to get video of the UFO. They figure: fame, money and Oprah, not in that order. Afterwards, O.J. can buy back the horses he sold to Jupe, and, per the Hollywood tradition, save the family farm. But that’s when they think they’re just dealing with a shy UFO.
So when they realize it’s a gigantic alien, feeding on them, and raining blood on their house, why do they stay? That’s one of the places where the movie lost me—in the aftermath of all that. What do they do? Just hole up in Angel’s apartment, where Angel and Emerald experiment with VR goggles and O.J. watches a horror movie on afternoon TV; then they go to a fastfood joint. Sure, PTSD. But shouldn’t they bring their intel to … somebody? Particularly with O.J.’s observation that if you don’t look at it, it won’t eat you. Instead, they return to the house to attempt to monetize the thing before others find out. I guess Eddie needs to update his routine.
They also enlist the help of an oddly named cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Julian Schnabel perennial Michael Wincott), who has a crank camera that won’t tweak out when the alien appears. Love Wincott and his gravely voice, but he’s not really necessary, is he? They don’t need a James Wong Howe to film the thing, and anyway he gets carried away and, well, gets carried away. Gulp. Emerald almost gets sucked up, too, ditto Angel, who then wraps himself in plastic and barb wire. An asshole from TMZ who shows up last-minute gets it, though. Jordan Peele must’ve laughed at that idea. Meanwhile, O.J. hangs out in the open range atop Lucky and nothing happens to him. I get O.J. He's figured it out. But shouldn’t Lucky be spooked? Wasn’t that happening earlier? The horses bolting because they sensed this thing out there?
So a bunch of questions.
The title sucks, by the way. Originally I thought it referenced the Eddie Murphy bit—as in “Nope, I’m out of here”—but apparently it’s for the people who weren’t scared by what he'd created? Either way, doesn't work.
Peele must’ve also had fun naming his hero “O.J.” He even has sis yell “Run, O.J., run!” like we’re watching a Hertz ad in the 1980s. And was the key in the horse’s hindquarters a pun off of Key & Peele?
Monday February 13, 2023
Movie Review: Black Adam (2022)
What’s worse—the dipshittery of this movie or the fact that it’s got an 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes? I guess for these people it’s all about the roller-coaster ride. It doesn’t have to make sense. You kidding? Making sense would just get in the way of the fun.
Example: If there’s an ancient, powerful item a night’s drive from the city—something that has been missing for 5,000 years—you’d think it might be, I don’t know, buried deep or something. You and your pals couldn’t just drive there in your van, walk through some tunnels, read some runes, walk into a room and “Oh, there it is, hanging in mid-air.” I mean, nobody ever did this before? Nobody even found it by accident?
How about this one? You’re a superpowered being from 2600 B.C. and you wake up in the modern world where men have automatic weapons, helicopters, and missiles. What’s your reaction? Whoa, something besides me can fly. Whoa, these projectiles are more powerful than rocks in slingshots. Here, he just glowers and says, “Your magic is weak.” Dude, if there’s one thing mankind has done well in the last 5,000 years, it’s figuring out better ways to kill each other. Show some respect.
I get it: Logic is dull. Having a dude that truly embodies 2600 B.C. is problematic. Let’s cut to the chase and the WWE catchphrases. Can you smell-ell-ell what Warner Bros. is cooking!?!
The Paulie Walnuts of superhero movies
Here’s what I think they thought.
Dude A: We could really use some multicultural superheroes. Or one.
Dude B: BIPOC.
Dude A: What?
Dude B: They’re called BIPOC now. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Dude A: Whatevs. We got any?
Dude B: Black Adam. He’s Egyptian.
Dude A: Isn’t he a villain?
Dude B: We could make him a badass superhero type like Wolverine. You know, he doesn’t give a shit about due process, just kills people.
Dude A: And we could get The Rock to play him!
Dude B: The Rock isn’t Egyptian.
Dude A: Egyptian enough.
Yes, it takes corporate cojones to have one of your characters complain about “cultural appropriation” when you cast a Samoan as your Middle Eastern hero. But I guess it was all invented in white minds anyway: C.C. Beck and company in 1945.
The movie begins 5,000 years ago—never a good sign—when an evil pharaoh takes over the democratic nation-state of Kahndaq and has its people mine the desert looking for … is it eternium? Christ, what a name. One guy finds some, and his reward is to be kicked in slow motion off a cliff to his death. It’s like that early stupid scene from “300” when the hero kicks the dude into the hole. Expect more theft like that.
So a pudgy bald kid rises up, and he’s got a symbol—hands held above his head forming a triangle—and he rallies the people, and for his impudence he’s put to death. But no! The immortals give him the power of Shazam—Middle East version: Shu, Horus, Amon, Zehuti, Aton, Mehen. As Teth-Adam, he fights the pharaoh, who has the Crown of Sabbac, made of Eternium, and their subsequent battle destroys the palace. And the great hero is never seen again.
Cut to Kahndaq today. Now it’s being run by mercenaries called Intergang—imagine Blackwater in charge of Oman—with military checkpoints for locals. They’re in the process of searching a van that looks like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, while also looking for a superhot archeologist named Adrianna Tomaz (superhot Sarah Shahi), when a kid on a skateboard distracts them enough that they let the van go. Hey, guess what, Adrianna was in that van. And the annoying kid was her son! High five.
Who are the three dudes in the van with her? Adrianna’s comic-relief brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), and two of her colleagues: Samir and Ishmael (James Cusati-Moyer and Marwan Kenzari). I’ll cut to the chase: Samir dies fast and Ishmael is the villain. Is he working with Intergang? At the least, he wants the crown for himself. Adrianna gets it first, but then Intergang arrives and are about to put her to death; so, reading the ancient runes, she shouts the name “Shazam!” which awakens 5,000-year-old Teth-Adam, who dispatches the mercenaries without blinking an eye. I like how he demonstrates that he’s invulnerable, superstrong, superfast, can fly, and is able to fry a dude with his bare hands, and the reaction from the mercenaries is: “We need immediate backup!” Made me laugh out loud. Intergang must be recruiting from the 88%.
Hey, remember that asshole bureaucrat Viola Davis played in “Suicide Squad” and its sequel “The Suicide Squad”? Well, she’s back, and dourly sends the Justice Society to take care of Teth-Adam. Why are they making it their business? Because they have access to ancient texts that reveal Adam isn’t the pudgy kid but his father, and he killed a bunch of people 5,000 years ago. And? And that’s it. It’s the dipshit response to a dipshit situation. So send in the dipshits.
The Justice Society is the B team.
- Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the leader, forever glowering, who seems to think he’s more powerful than he is.
- Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the only interesting character in the movie; he can see the future and do Mysterio-type magic.
- Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), the nephew of the original Atom Smasher (Henry Winkler in a nice cameo), on his first assignment. He’s superstrong and can grow supertall, like Goliath. He’s comic relief, too. A clumsy adolescent.
- Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), who can control wind, has a high IQ, and is way, way too pleased with herself.
They show up, do dipshit battle with Adam. What’s the goal again? To convince him to stop being? Great plan, guys. Way to barter. Meanwhile, Adrianna’s super-annoying son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) acts as Adam’s press agent:
Amon: You definitely need a catchphrase. … I was thinking, like, “Tell them the Man in Black sent you.” And you wear a lot of black so we should really lean into that. My point is, you could be famous. Magazines, lunch boxes, video games. And the superhero industrial complex is worth a lot of money.
Adam: I don’t need a box for my lunch.
Did you catch it in Adam’s response? That flat, straightforward tone that doesn’t get the nuance or the joke? It took me a while to figure it out. It’s Drax from “Guardians of the Galaxy” who doesn’t understand metaphor, and who’s played by another former WWE star (Dave Bautista). Except Drax is actually funny. His lines are funny, his delivery is funny. None of this is. It’s just ripoff.
You’d think five superheroes would be able to take care of a paramilitary org pretty handily, but Justice Society keeps fighting Adam, which allows Ishmael time to machinate. When he can’t get the crown, he kidnaps Amon and threatens his life. Can’t Adam move at superspeed, though, and take him back? Sorry. Logic. Instead, they make the swap, Ishmael gets the crown, seems to get incinerated for his trouble, but he’s actually gone to, I guess, hell. There, he says SABBAC!, the evil version of SHAZAM!, and returns as an evil superpowered being to rule Kahndaq.
By this point, for no good reason, Black Adam has surrendered to Justice Society and been placed in a cryochamber in a black site beneath the ocean. (We get a pullback, a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” to see many rows of such cryochambers.) But Sabbac shows up so Dr. Fate resurrects him. At the same time, Dr. Fate is ruminating on a path to victory and foresees only a few options. In one, Hawkman dies. In another, he does. He opts for the second.
Wait, that’s the Doctor Strange/Iron Man dynamic in “Avengers: Endgame,” isn’t it? Christ, can’t these fuckers think of anything on their own? They not only steal but steal badly. We were with Iron Man for 10 years; his death meant something. We were with Dr. Fate, what, 90 minutes? Not even that. A few scenes. I'm reminded of when Paulie Walnuts stole that painting of Tony Soprano and his horse and put his own absurd stamp on it. That's what these guys do. “Black Adam” is the Paulie Walnuts of superhero movies.
There’s also an idiot third-act thing about Amon encouraging the people of Kahndaq to rise up and take on the easily take-on-able “Legion of Hell” skeletal warriors of Sabbac. It’s a totally unnecessary add-on, because when Adam and Sabbac battle, Adam rips him in half—literally—and that’s that; the Legion crumbles to dust. Afterwards, the U.S. tells Adam, “OK, you can live, but don’t leave Kahndaq!” and midcredits they send Superman (Henry Cavill) to talk with him. It’s just a cameo, five seconds maybe. We don't hear their talk—that might've been fun—but I guess it’s the last time we’ll ever see Cavill in the role. Shame. He was a great Superman, stuck in dipshit movies.
Here’s the thing: I like The Rock. I was overjoyed to see Sarah Shahi. When I watched “One Night in Miami” a few years back, I said that I could see Aldis Hodge becoming a star. And Warners somehow put all these elements together and created crap.
Jaume Collet-Serra directed. He’s done 12 features, and only one, “The Shallows,” has rated higher than 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most are way below that—with negative audience scores to boot. Yes, he’s given a tough task: introduce us to five superheroes and a 5,000-year-old backstory in one movie. But James Gunn could’ve done it. He did it with “Guardians.”
What happens when you make a dipshit superhero movie? You gross hundreds of millions of dollars but also lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars. “Black Adam” was a superhero movie packaged with an international box-office star and it only landed 14th in worldwide box office last year:
- 4. “Doctor Stranger in the Multiverse of Madness”: $955
- 6. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”: $843
- 7. “The Batman”: $771
- 8. “Thor: Love and Thunder”: $760
- 14. “Black Adam”: $392
I guess the 88% only goes so far.
Wednesday February 08, 2023
Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
I know it doesn’t make much sense to say “Hey, that was a little excessive,” when excess is the point of a movie; when it’s right there in the title. But here I go.
There are moments in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” when I thought, “Wow, that feels like a poignant ending,” and then … nope, keeps going. OK, how about that one? No? Another half hour of this? You wonder if the film’s creators, Daniels, i.e., Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, ever thought, “So maybe not the hotdog-hand universe?” But then you learn it’s the name of one of the film’s production companies: A24, AGBO Production, and Hotdog Hands. So I guess it means something to them. For me, it was just a universe too far, too silly, or too flaccid. And I definitely didn’t need the excreting ketchup and mustard.
What other universes are there in this non-Marvel multiverse? Off the top of my head:
- Martial artist/movie star
- Sign spinner
That’s not rock ‘n’ roll or Dwayne Johnson; that’s when they’re rocks.
Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan) are Chinese immigrants living in a cluttered apartment above their run-down laundromat in Simi Valley, California, dealing with: 1) her aged father Gong Gong (James Hong); 2) their lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu); and 3) a tax audit that includes a lien against the laundromat. They’re in danger of losing everything. They deal with all of this in opposite ways. He leans toward the positive—finding joy in googly eyes, for example—while she frets and carps. Even as he tries to buoy her up, as is his nature, he’s also drawn up divorce papers for her to sign. Because she’s just not there anymore. For anyone. She’s always onto the next thing. She’s trying to be everything everywhere all at once.
I like this opening stuff. I like that Evelyn calls Jenny Slate’s character “Big Nose” in Mandarin, that she says her daughter is “fat,” that she has trouble with the lesbian relationship—particularly introducing the lesbian relationship to her father. I once lived in Taipei, Taiwan, and it all rang true.
It’s at the IRS building that the multiverse fantasy begins. In the elevator, Waymond’s personality shifts, he becomes someone who takes charge, an action hero, and he gives Evelyn earpods and instructions. The universe is at stake, he tells her. Then he reverts back to his usual amiable self. She calls him sangxinbing. Crazy person. I heard that all the time in Taiwan, too.
The directions are nonsensical:
- Switch shoes
- Imagine you’re in the janitor’s closet
- Press the green button (on the earpod)
Why does she go through with it? Maybe because her current reality is too awful? Their auditor is Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), the stickler’s stickler, and she’s calling Evelyn on all of her tax write-offs. A karaoke machine as a business expense for a laundromat? C'mon. Receipts are spread over the desk, Waymond is being annoyingly cordial, so Evelyn follows the instructions from Alpha Waymond. Which is when we get that great shot of Yeoh pulled back in her rollie-chair and into the janitor’s closet. There, Alpha Waymond tells her that a great evil named Jobu Tupaki is spreading through the mulitverse. And she’s the only one who can stop it.
The One. That trope again. I’m not a fan of The One movies.
Except later we get the reason why she’s The One, and it’s brilliant.
Evelyn: There is no way I am the Evelyn you are looking for. … I’m no good at anything.
Alpha Waymond: Exactly. I’ve seen thousands of Evelyns, but never an Evelyn like you. You have so many goals you never finished, dreams you never followed. You’re living your worst you. … You're capable of anything because you're so bad at everything.
She’s The One because she’s us. The earpods allow her to move through the multiverse and absorb the experiences and talents of her other selves. We see one version reject Waymond’s marriage proposal, then become a great martial artist and a glamorous movie star. Once our Evelyn absorbs those experiences, she's a kung fu expert, too. Basically she becomes Michelle Yeoh.
I’ll cut to the chase: the great evil, Jobu Tupaki, is her daughter Joy. And while our Evelyn sees Jobu as the reason for the discord in her own world—the whole lesbian angle—the Alpha version of her father, Gong Gong, tells her she was the one responsible: “In my universe, you push your own daughter too hard until you broke her. You created Jobu Tupaki.”
There’s so much to unpack there, right? Maybe it’s all metaphor. Her daughter’s lesbianism fracturing Evelyn’s tidy worldview, creating realms of possibilities she never considered. But even as the movie was deepening for me, it kept spinning off into silly worlds—including “Raccaccoonie,” a takeoff on Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” with a handsome actor, Harry Shum Jr., becoming a great chef thanks to the raccoon on his head; and a universe where Evelyn and the tax auditor are a couple and everyone has hot dogs for fingers.
Despite all of these realms of possibility, the true battle for Evelyn’s soul still comes down to a binary: kindness (as represented by Waymond) vs. nihilism (as represented by Jobu’s doomsday machine: the bagel with everything on it). Between universes, Waymond articulates his point of view:
CEO Waymond: When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.
Our Waymond: The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please. Be kind. Especially when we don’t know what’s going on.
CEO Waymond: I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one, too. This is how I fight.
I love all that. It felt like the climax to me, the necessary lesson, but Evelyn’s immediate response is, “It’s too late, Waymond.” Really? No, it just takes a while to sink in. She has to go back to the hotdog-hand universe, and be offered the bagel, and what all else, before, ah, OK, now she decides to fight like Waymond. But once that happens, again, it’s great. One of Waymond’s googly eyes becomes her third eye—a perfect distillation of the movie’s themes—and she vanquishes the enemy not by pounding them into submission but by giving them what they want: these two get married, that one is relieved of pain, the other is sadomasochistically spanked.
And that’s how she wins. Done and done.
Well, no. We have to go back to the raccaccoonie universe, where Evelyn becomes the raccoon on the dude’s head, and then that’s translated into our universe where she battles the others on his shoulders. But even here she gives her opponents what they want—puppies, babies, cupcakes—and that’s how she wins. Done and done.
Well, no. Now Alpha Gong Gong tells her what a disappointment she is and how she’s not his daughter, so everything in all the universes begins to fall apart again. But then Evelyn fights back. She tells her father she is not going to do to her daughter what he did to her—give her up—and that it’s OK that Joy is a mess, like her mother, because, like her mother, the universe gave her a good person to love. And that’s when Evelyn, with great fanfare, is finally able to introduce Joy’s girlfriend to Gong Gong.
I have to admit, the air kind of went out of me. Really? We have to travel through universes to overcome homophobia? In 20-fucking-22?
But at least that’s how she wins. Done and--
Even as she’s introducing the girlfriend to Gong Gong, Joy pulls away, and Jobu is turning toward the bagel, and mother and daughter have to fight through the many universes—including as pinatas—until they're both exhausted. And then we get more speechifying. Out in the parking lot, Joy says she’s tired, and she doesn’t want to hurt anymore, and blah blah let me go. And Evelyn says “OK.” But then more memories/universes flood her brain, and she says no, not OK, and Evelyn has her say. And none of it as poignant as Waymond’s speech a half hour earlier.
I have to mention: I loved, loved, loved the fight by the elevator, the homage to Jackie Chan, with Alpha Waymond using our Waymond’s moneybelt, with its pink stuffed animal, as nunchucks, and taking out all the IRS security guards. So fun. And it was nice seeing Quan again. He was the kid from the second Indiana Jones movie, and apparently he retired from acting 20 years ago. Well, he’s back, baby. Though it does underscore the 10-year age difference between the Wangs. Two years before Quan was the little kid in the “Raiders” sequel, Yeoh was Miss Malaysia. (Not bad, Short Round.)
Again: the movie is fun, and poignant at times; it just goes too long. There's a line from “Moneyball”: He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it. That feels like what the Daniels did here. They hit a homerun but kept rounding the bases. Someone should’ve told them they’d already won the game.
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.
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.
- “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz
- “AFTERSUN” by Craig Wright
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.
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.”
- Anthony Lane, “Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ Goes Nowhere, In a Mad Rush”
- Karina Longworth, “Fake News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All previous entries
Baseball's Active Leaders, 2023
What Trump Said When About COVID
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
A Lion Is In the Streets (1953)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)