Movie Reviews - 2021 posts
Monday October 02, 2023
Movie Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Is Zack Snyder the Leni Riefenstahl of the Trump era?
I know, I know, that’s such an unfair question. Riefenstahl was actually talented.
Kidding! No, it’s a totally unfair comparison … yet somehow I keep returning to it. It’s that grandiose superman posturing—this time with an actual Superman (Henry Cavill)—but full of disphittery, befitting Trump and his era. Remember the opening to “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, and the way Colbert’s right-wing pundit landed in a three-point crouch and then rose majestically? It was so perfectly stupid I thought he killed that move for all time, but apparently it’s tough to kill stupid. Snyder must return to the move a dozen times in this film.
Both men, Zack and Trump, lost their battles and then sic’ed their minions on the power structure to overturn the results. Trump’s big play was the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. A TV game show host and gasbag real estate mogul attempted to violently overthrow American democracy … and very nearly succeeded. And still might.
Snyder did succeed. This movie is the result.
I have more sympathy for Snyder, of course, but it has limits. His rebellion involved artistic differences. He had a vision, the corporation took it away from him during a time of tragedy, he marshalled forces on social media (#ReleaseTheSnyderCut), and the suits relented. But it’s not like the people in charge disliked his vision; they disliked the returns on investment. They’d given him the most valuable superhero IP in the world and he returned with “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which grossed about half of what “The Avengers” did. Stupid may be tough to kill but dipshit only goes so far at the box office. All in all, Zack’s vision probably cost Warner Bros. more than a billion dollars. So if you’re a CEO or CFO, and even if you’re among the dipshits who put him in charge in the first place, you probably lose a little patience. You probably think, “Hey, what about that ‘Avengers’ guy? He still available?”
And that was the theatrically released “Justice League,” begun with Snyder’s heavy hand, finished with Joss Whedon’s light comedic touch, not “BvS”-awful but not good. Not a triumph.
And now, with his name not only above the title but possessing it, we get “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” It took me about 10 tries to finally force it down. I could only handle scenes like this for so long:
Steppenwolf: DeSaad! I call to thee!
[DeSaad appears in the wall of rock]
DeSaad: Steppenwolf, have you begun the conquest? …You still owe the great one 50,000 more worlds. He will hear your plea when you pay your debt.
Steppenwolf: The Mother Boxes will be found and united. No protectors here. No Lanterns, no Kryptonian. This world will fall, like all the others.
DeSaad: For Darkseid. [Vanishes in the wall of rock]
Steppenwolf: For Darkseid.
It’s not just the “thee” and the bowing, and the appearing and disappearing in a wall of rock, it’s those names. I think of a kid in the back row of English class sketching the logos of heavy metal bands onto his notebook. DeSaad. Steppenwolf. Cool! And yes, those names came out of Jack Kirby’s “New Gods” comic books, the ones he made at DC in the early 1970s when he jumped to DC—and possibly jumped the shark—so it’s not completely Snyder’s fault. Question: Is the Whedon-Snyder dynamic not far off from the Lee-Kirby one? Stan Lee had a lighter, comedic touch, which meshed with Kirby’s monumental but often ponderous approach, and for a time they worked well together. Obviously there was no such Whedon-Snyder dynamic since they never worked together, let alone well, but the comic book industry does seem full of this split: the witty ones with a ready wink, and the ponderous ones that want to brood on rooftops in the rain.
Alright, what exactly is “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” about?
Well, there’s an enemy coming. They were actually here eons ago, during “The Age of Heroes.” Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) tells Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) about it at the end of Part 2 of this movie. The part called “The Age of Heroes”:
Diana: As Darkseid waged war on Earth, he found a secret there. A power hidden in the infinity of space. He called forth mystics who worshipped and controlled three objects: the Mother Boxes.
Bruce: Mother Boxes?
Diana: Indestructible living machines made from a science so advanced it looks like sorcery. To conquer, three Boxes have to join and synchronize into the Unity. The Unity cleanses a planet with fire, transforming it into a copy of the enemy’s world. All who live become servants of Darkseid, alive but drained of life: parademons.
I like imagining Affleck practicing his line. “‘MOTHER Boxes?’ ‘Mother BOXes ?’ Wait, maybe just ‘Mother…?’ and let it trail off? Right?”
Back in the day, the inhabitants of Earth—Atlanteans, Amazonians and humans—united and beat back Darkseid for the first time in any universe ever. Yay, us! The bad guys were in such retreat they left the Mother Boxes behind, so they’re still here, one with each group, asleep. But oops, now with Superman dead (thanks, Batman!), they’re waking up and calling to Steppenwolf, who shows up with his parademons, who, per above, are actually just victims, aren’t they? God, that’s sad. Meanwhile, Steppenwolf may seem like a superbaddie with a horned head and no dick, but he’s just a lieutenant to a lieutenant. The real enemy is Darkseid who barely gets screentime in this four-hour monstrosity.
For some reason, they have Batman recruit everybody—though I guess Diana is the one who asks Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the former college quarterback whose superscientist dad (Joe Morton) turns him into a half man-half machine to save his life after a car accident. Dad also gives him the power to control nuclear arsenals and financial markets. “The fate of the world will literally rest in your hands,” he tells him. Wow. And some dads don’t even trust their sons with the car.
Is Cyborg grateful for this power? Or to be alive? Of course not. He’s a teen; he’s bitter. Dad never attended his football games, see, and his beloved mother was killed in the car accident that maimed him, and he’s wondering if his existence is a gift at all—alive but not, dead but not—and I’m just kidding about this last part. At least he doesn’t annunciate any existential concerns. He just broods in the shadows, and when Diana asks him to help save the world, he says “Fuck the world.” Not exactly the words you want to hear from a kid who can control nuclear arsenals.
Aquaman (Jason Momoa) also wants no part of any defense of Earth. He saves Icelandic sailors, knocks back whiskey, then returns to the sea in jeans—which has to be uncomfortable. He has douchebag dialogue with Batman. It’s from “Part 1: Don’t Count On It, Batman”:
Aquaman: Don’t count on it, Batman.
Batman: Why not?
Aquaman: Because I don’t like you coming here, digging into my business, getting into my life. I want to be left alone.
Batman: They won’t leave you alone.
Sorry, that last line is mine. That’s the obvious rejoinder but Bruce doesn’t go there, he just says something stupid. And when Aquaman says “Strong man is strongest alone,” Bruce doesn’t say the obvious, “They are stronger,” he brings up how Superman and he fought side by side, and Superman died, which proves Aquaman’s exact point. Jesus, Bruce are you really this dumb?
The only one who agrees to join the Justice League right away is the Flash (Ezra Miller), who says, “I need … friends.” (Hold onto that thought, Ezra.)
Wait, so white people immediately agree to help humanity while the people of color don’t? And Zack Snyder and his minions accused Joss Whedon of racism?
Anyway, after Steppenwolf gets the first two Mother Boxes, he only needs the third to destroy the world, but it’s the Justice League who has it. By now, the BIPOC community has joined, so there’s five, but is that enough? We get a discussion about how Mother Boxes are “change machines,” and, as fire can change a house into smoke, these things can change smoke back into a house. Flash: “Who’s gonna say it?” Which is when Cyborg creates a holographic image of Superman brought back to life.
That was good bit. I liked that. I also liked them in the Batcave, with Flash being us going “Cool! Batcave!” I liked the Marc McClure cameo. That made me happy. So there are some things in Zack’s movie I liked.
When they bring Supes back to life, he doesn’t remember them, or his credo, or his personality, but he does remember how to fly and use heat vision and all that, and he’s this close to killing Batman, just incinerating him, when, oh, there’s Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who’s been brooding with cups of coffee throughout the first half of the film. Good thing she happened by. And love returns. And Supes joins the Justice League.
Well, not yet. First, he has to return to Smallville with Lois, visit his own grave (Clark’s), and hear how the family farm was foreclosed on by the bank. And somehow Mom (Diane Lane) just happens to drive by at this exact moment? I thought she was in Metropolis? How far is Smallville from Metropolis anyway? How many of these coincidences are you doing, Zack?
The cheer-worthiest moment in the history of ever
I do think Zack’s final battle is better than Joss’. In the Whedon version, the parademons fed on fear, and when Supes and WW destroy Steppenwolf’s sword he becomes fearful and so they fed on him. Burn. There’s also overlong stuff about a staunch Russian family, and a final idiot Batman vs. Flash footrace that recalled the 1960s comics but didn’t fit the whole “world nearly ending” vibe.
Here, Batman and Aquaman fight back the parademons, Cyborg tries to enter the Unity to turn it off (or something) but needs a nudge from a supercharged Flash. But oh no! One of the parademons has wounded Flash! And the Unity has started! Except wounded, and with his father’s words ringing in his ears (“Make your own future, make your own past, it’s all … right … now”), the Flash turns back time! He enters the speed force! You remember that, don’t you? It was voted the No. 1 “Cheer Moment” at the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony. By the Academy? No, by dipshits online. For 2021 movies? No, for all time. No moment in any movie ever made us cheer more than that one. If you’re wondering what a definition of a cult is, that's it: voting for “The Flash enters the speed force” as the cheer-worthiest moment in the history of cinema.
Well, at least Zack got to tell the “Justice League” he always wanted to tell. Done and—
Oh, not over yet?
No. Zack has to tee up the sequel that will never be made, about how Darkseid is going to attack Earth “using the old ways.” Then Cyborg has to listen to the tape his father made for him. And the bank doesn’t foreclose on the Kent farm because Bruce buys the bank. Haw! Couldn’t Bruce have just bought the Kent farm? No, because that wouldn’t be douchebag cool. It has to make you go “Haw!”
And there’s Supes back in Metropolis again, pretending to have a secret identity. “Hey, didn’t Clark die around the same time as Superman?” “Yeah.” “And wasn’t he reborn around the same time as Superman?” “Yeah. Your point?” “Oh, nothing. Kinda funny is all.”
Anyway, finally over.
Sorry, this is Zack. We also get Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) breaking free from Arkham Asylum (or, more accurately, not being there), and hanging on a yacht and telling a one-eyed guy that Batman is really … Bruce Wayne! Then we’re in a post-apocalyptic world? And Batman is being taunted by the Joker (Jared Leto)? And Aquaman and Lois Lane are dead? But of course it’s all a dream. Bruce wakes up, he’s introduced to the Martian Manhunter, who tells him his mom and dad would be proud, and how the Earth wouldn’t have been united without him. Me: The Earth??? It was six people. Did anyone else factor in? We don’t even get a “There are always men like you” moment.
Seriously, I wonder about Zack. I wonder what he thinks of us mere mortals. He’s not only teeing up sequels that will never be made, he tees up his Ayn Rand project with a headline about an architect.
But he did it. He triumphantly willed this movie into existence. He smited his enemies, landed in a three-point crouch and rose majestically. Like a dipshit.
Saturday November 26, 2022
Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)
Why wasn’t this better reviewed? It got 79% from critics, which is fine, but the likes of “Shang-Chi” somehow got a 91%. Its IMDb rating is 6.7, which is like a C+. I assume the latter is because of the misogynist crowd, and the former who knows. Maybe critics thought it odd to make a movie about a character who was already dead.
How did Black Widow die again? On another planet, right? Right. She survived the blip of “Infinity War” only to die trying to reverse it in “Endgame.” The Avengers went back in time to collect the infinity stones and for some reason she and Hawkeye—the two superheroes without any super in them—are sent to that far-off planet where Red Skull acts like a gatekeeper and you have to sacrifice something you love to get the stone. Thanos sacrificed Gamora; Natasha sacrifices herself. The greatest love of all, I guess.
Hers felt like the most unnecessary death in that movie, and maybe this movie, set between the wars—after “Civil,” before “Infinity”—felt like an unnecessary prequel to critics. But I thought it was rip-roaring fun.
Here we are now
It’s basically a James Bond flick. Early on, at a safehouse in Norway, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) watches “Moonraker” on TV and happily repeats one of Bond’s quips: “I discovered she had a crush on me.” Think of it as a hat tip. “Black Widow” is an action-adventure romp in which spies battle each other in glamorous international cities. It even ends, a la Bond, with our captured heroes blowing up and escaping from the villain’s outré lair. We even get a reprise of “Moonraker”’s most famous stunt: the hero, falling from the sky without a parachute, maneuvering to acquire one.
There’s even a Bond girl.
Well, sure, Scarlett, but since she’s Bond in this analogy, the Bond girl is her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, excellent). We finally get their backstory. Turns out it’s “The Americans.”
In small-town Ohio, 1995, young Natasha and Yelena learn their parents, Alexei and Melina (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies, and they have to flee, past high school football games and one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D., to get out of the country. They also learn, by and by, that their parents aren’t their parents. They’re just agents. The girls are orphans, widows in the movie’s vernacular, who are inculcated into the horrific Widow program by the villainous Gen. Dreykov (Ray Winstone, also excellent).
At this point we get the opening credits, and it’s a moment where the movie deviates from the fun Bond thing. Bond’s credits are silhouettes of sexy women doing gymnastics on guns over the raucous vocals of the pop star of the moment. Here, we get shots of young girls separated from families by faceless soldiers over the deadened vocals of Think Up Anger’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s powerful. Hell, it’s a kind of critique of Bond credits. You like slinky spy-girls? Well, this is the horror that made them.
(And sure: Why are there Soviet spies in the U.S. four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? And why is Natasha’s superhero name a reference to the Soviet-era program that broke her and hundreds of other girls? You’d think she’d want distance from that. But onward.)
The orphan girls are indoctrinated not only with training but chemicals. It’s in Morocco, taking down a rogue agent, that Yelena is sprayed with a red powder that frees her mind, and sets her on a path to take down Dreykov’s infamous Red Room. First, she sends the extra vials of red powder to Natasha at her safe house, which … How does she know where to send them? I guess they’re forwarded? More, how does Taskmaster, the masked Russian villain, know where to find Natasha? Who knows? But their bridge-battle (nicely done) propels Natasha to Budapest (“Budapesht”) and a rocky reunion with sis. After the obligatory fight, they team up and flee from Taskmaster and the widows.
More backstory: Natasha was able to join S.H.I.E.L.D. when she assassinated Dreykov, but—shades of “Munich”—she had to blow up his young daughter, Antonia, too. She feels guilty about that. But Yelena lets her know, no, Dreykov lives, and—I’ll cut to the chase—so does Antonia. She’s Taskmaster (one-time Bond girl Olga Kurylenko). So that’s nice. Natasha has less to feel guilty about. At the same time, it means she completely failed her first S.H.I.E.L.D. assignment. Oh well.
The two sisters then set about freeing “Dad” from prison—Harbour as the superpowered, out-of-shape Red Guardian is great comic relief—and the three reunite with Mom, the brains of the operation, out in the country. But she betrays them to Dreykov, and they’re flown to the Red Room, which is like a cloud city.
Ah, but at some point Melina has a change of heart, so the Melina who shows up is really Natasha, and Natasha Melina, and this allows our hero face-time with the villain, whom she can’t kill. Some kind of pheromone prohibitor. Except she knows it, which is why she allowed Dreykov to punch her the way he did. Sadly, he wasn’t strong enough to sever the nerves; she has to do that herself.
I would’ve liked it better if she’d killed him there, immediately, but of course he escapes and then dies trying to get out of his exploding cloud city, while Natasha, parachute-less, saves Yelena, and then battles and saves/frees Taskmaster/Antonia. She’s also downloaded intel on where all the widows are around the world. She will free them, too.
She was busy between the wars.
“Black Widow” was written by Eric Pearson, who also wrote “Thor: Ragnarok” (nice) and “Godzilla vs. Kong” (not), and who was apparently on set for filming. He overheard Pugh teasing Johansson about Black Widow’s three-point stance and hair-flip, for example, so he had Yelena tease Natasha similarly. I like that kind of thing. The director was Cate Shortland, who’s written and directed a lot of psychological, female-centric stories (“Lore,” “Berlin Syndrome”), but who, per IMDb, has nothing else on her plate.
Why? We’re in an era when Hollywood is looking under every other rock for female directors, and here’s a good one, and yet nothing. I guess she—and the movie—got screwed over by the times, too. Its original release date was May 1, 2020, the first of the “MCU Phase 4” stuff, but of course Covid shut everything down. So it was delayed until November 2020, then May 2021, then July 2021; and then it was released both in theaters and on Disney+, leading to a lawsuit from Johansson, who was set to get a cut of the box office, which the prescence on Disney+ would and did cut into. The lawsuit was settled last September.
Amid all that, I think Shortland and the movie got short shrift. Again, it’s fun and zippy, with an occasional dark undercurrent as in the opening credits. I liked the evocations of Americana as they flee Ohio: lawns, fireflies, Friday night lights, “American Pie.”
I talk about the movie being like a James Bond movie, but it’s also deeper and more poignant than Bond. One of the first lines we hear is from young Yelena (Violet McGraw) to young Natasha (Ever Anderson). They’re on a playground, goofing around, and having a contest about who can do a backbend the longest. “We’re both upside down,” Yelena says. It’s a little kid’s line, but more than that. After they’ve beaten the bad guys and fallen to Earth, Yelena repeats it. It makes you realize that these are women who have lived their entire lives upside down; and the thrust of the film is getting them right side up again.
Monday May 16, 2022
Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
I’m curious what I would’ve thought if I’d seen it opening night, with a crowd gasping and cheering and applauding—and if I didn’t already know about the multiverse and the supervillains and the return of Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire as Spider-Man 1 and 2. I’m sure I would’ve been blown away. The concept itself is great. It means anything and anyone might come back. You could do this with the Hulk and bring back Ed Norton and Eric Bana. You could do this with Fantastic Four and bring back Miles Teller (from the disastrous 2015 film) and Jessica Alba (from the disastrous 2005 and ’07 films), and—dare I say it—Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood (from the uber-disastrous, super low budget 1994 film). Which reminds me: Did they consider reaching back to Nicholas Hammond for this one? Probably not. But either way I like it. I like anything that makes our culture less throwaway.
Except I didn’t see it opening night; I saw it several months later, when I knew most of the above. And while most of the movie still works, and the meeting of the Spider-Men is sweet and poignant, something kind of ruined the movie for me.
Aunt May’s dumbshit argument
It opens as “Spider-Man: Far From Home” closed: with J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), a kind of Bill O’Reilly/Roger Ailes amalgamation on the Daily Bugle Network, broadcasting the final message from Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who accuses Spider-Man (Tom Holland) of the terrorist attack on London and then reveals his secret identity: Spider-Man is … Peter Parker!
And all hell breaks loose. Crowds gather around MJ (Zendaya), he swoops down to rescue her, then swoops them away because the crowd is celeb-crazy—or just crazy. It’s like a Twitter feed writ large. And suddenly there’s nowhere where they’re safe: Manhattan, Queens, anywhere. The FBI bursts in. Why does the agent in charge (Arian Moayed) bug me so much? Oh right, he played that asshole on “Succession.” Anyway, our heroes lawyer up with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the alter-ego of Daredevil from the Netflix series. So they’re bringing him in? That’s pretty cool. Talk about a multiverse. Can Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin be far behind?
But this particular storyline doesn’t last long: the state has no case, and to get away from the crowds Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) simply move to one of the Stark Industry safe houses. (Gotta say: Given its power in the world, Stark Industries, in the person of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is fairly unhelpful throughout.) The world is still crazy, of course. Half love Peter/Spidey too much, the other half—spurred by Bugle/Fox News—think he’s a monster. First day of senior year does not go well, so Peter, MJ and Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan) escape to the roof. And soon the focus of the movie becomes something else entirely:
Where are they going for college?
All three want MIT, but all three are rejected. Not because of grades, etc., but because they’re under FBI investigation. I guess you could say that everything that happens afterward is the fault of MIT.
Upset by the disappointment of his friends, Peter gets the bright idea to visit Avengers ally Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to see if he can’t do something about it. And he can! He can cast a spell to make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. But when he’s casting the spell Peter keeps interrupting with “Oh, MJ should still know, and Ned Leeds, and Aunt May…” until Strange has to break off and contain the spell before it goes kabloowy. Except it’s already begun going kabloowy. That is, people who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man from other universes begin entering ours.
The first is the best, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), from “Spider-Man 2,” who battles Spidey spectacularly on a Manhattan bridge. Then the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from the original “Spider-Man” arrives, tossing pumpkin bombs. And just as suddenly, Ock and Peter are transported to the “undercroft” of Doctor Strange’s “Sanctum Sanctorum” in Greenwich Village, where Strange lets him know what’s happening, and how others are sneaking through, too: The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), whom Strange caught, and Electro (Jamie Foxx), who’s causing havoc in the woods somewhere. Spidey goes there, subdues him, transports him to the cells Strange has constructed. Strange also has a cool-looking box, the Macchina di Kadavus, which houses the contained spell; and he’s finally figured out “the proper ritual” to reverse it and send everyone back to their own universes.
Wait, question: Do they have to be in Strange’s undercroft for the the ritual to work? If not, why send Peter out to subdue anyone? And if so, couldn’t there be a lot of people from other universes left in ours when Strange reverses the corrupt spell?
Anyway, that’s not the thing that ruined the movie for me. No, what ruined the movie for me is the reason Peter prevents Doctor Strange from reversing the spell—the thing that keeps the movie going for another 90 minutes. Aunt May convinces him to rehabilitate all the supervillains from all the other universes before sending them back. And that happens because Norman Osborn shows up at her homeless shelter, lost, babbling, and she pulls Peter aside:
May: He needs help. Maybe they all do.
Peter: Wait, you don’t mean... No, May. This isn't my problem.
May: Peter, not your problem? Hmm?
Peter: May, their chance of getting help is way better back where they came from. Sending them home, that's the best thing we can do for them.
May: For them? Or for yourself?
It’s the dumbest conversation, and the dumbest plot device, I’ve heard in an otherwise standout superhero film.
When May suggests that sending them back to their own universes is only best for Peter, that he’s somehow being selfish rather than altruistic like her, there’s a very easy response he could make: Sorry, Aunt May, but this is best for the universe. For all the universes. For the entirety of creation, which is now unstable, because I asked Strange to help me get into MIT. I love you, Aunt May, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Instead, May’s dumbshit argument wins the day, and Peter actually fights Doctor Strange for control of the box so he can rehabilitate the supervillains before sending them back to…
Wait. Since they’ve all been pulled into this universe the moment before they die, is Peter/May sending them back to simply die rehabilitated? That seems unfair. Or will the rehabilitation change their trajectory so they don’t die? And if so, how does that change the course of events in those universes? I mean, if Norman Osborn’s rehab prevents “Spider-Man 2” I’m going to be pretty pissed. On the other hand, if it prevents the Hitler hair and “Saturday Night Fever” strut in “3,” count me in.
More immediately, in the universe of this movie, the rehab goes as poorly as anyone would expect. Osborn’s Goblin personality returns, he rallies the others, and they all but destroy the Stark-Industry safehouse. Then the Green Goblin actually kills Aunt May, who dies in Peter’s arms telling him that with great power comes great responsibility. A sad moment. It should be a poignant moment. But it’s not, because of her earlier dumbshit argument. And because we all saw it coming.
After that, distraught, Peter disappears, so Ned uses Doctor Strange’s ring to find “Peter Parker,” but he winds up finding PP2 (Andrew Garfield) and PP1 (Toby Maguire) instead. I have to admit, it’s great seeing them again. And these Peter Parkers, with MJ, figure out how to find our Peter Parker, and all three Spider-Men agree to contact Doctor Strange to send back the supervillains without rehabbing them because c’mon, hasn’t enough damage been done?
Kidding. They work up chemical formulas to cure the supervillains and lure them out for a fight. And not to sound like J.J.J., but hey why not fight supervillains at an irreplaceable landmark like the Statue of Liberty? Give me your tired, your poor, your superpowered sociopathic… It’s a good battle anyway, and I like the interplay and bonding between all the Spideys. These lonely kids find out they’re not so alone. And in a poignant moment, Maguire’s Spidey stops Holland’s Spidey from killing the Green Goblin; and in the movie’s most poignant moment, Garfield’s Spidey saves Holland’s MJ the way he could not save his own Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Afterwards he asks, “Are you OK?” and she nods, shook, then notices how much he’s tearing up. “Are you OK?” she asks. Perfect. I teared up myself.
But by this point the Goblin has unleashed Doctor Strange’s original contained, corrupt spell, and now more people are being pulled into this universe, and Strange can’t stop it. So our Peter, who had tried to make every little detail perfect, offers a great sacrifice: What if everyone just forgets Peter Parker? It would mean his best friend won’t remember him and the love of his life won’t remember him. It would mean, after bonding with the Spideys, after finding out he’s not alone in the multiverse, he becomes wholly, truly alone in his own—a man with no connections to anybody. But that’s the spell that Strange concocts that saves everything.
And it’s all the fault of MIT, which wouldn’t give these kids a fair chance at the beginning.
No. Well, kinda. But it's mostly the fault of Aunt May and her dumbshit argument. I’m sorry she’s dead, but she almost destroyed the fabric of the universe. Instead, she merely ruined Peter’s life forever.
Easy way home
OK, some mop-up stuff.
I’m curious if it’s just our universe that forgets Peter Parker or if it’s all the universes. Does Tobey Maguire go back and Kirsten Dunst is all “Who are you? Get the hell out of my apartment!” And if she does that, can’t he just point to the mantle and say, “I’m the guy in all those photos with you.”
That’s another thing: Does Strange’s final spell also destroy the historical record—newspaper headlines and YouTube videos and tweets and Tik-Toks and Flash Thompson’s self-aggrandizing book? Think about it: For a time, Peter was the most famous man on the planet. So either people can’t see that part of the historical record anymore, or a lot of the historical record has been expunged. And if neither of those, won’t people come across it and go, “What’s this ‘Peter Parker is Spider-Man’ video? Who’s Peter Parker? Hey MJ, you see all these photos of you with a guy named Peter Parker who’s supposed to be Spider-Man?”
It is interesting to think that Holland’s Spidey never had an Uncle Ben tragedy. He was introed in, what, “Captain America: Civil War,” back in 2016, with Tony Stark showing up at their pad in Queens, and I’d assumed, and I assume everyone assumed, that they’d just skipped over the whole Uncle Ben tragedy, since we’d already seen it in 2002 and 2012. No need to revisit. But it never happened. Which means his raison d’etre never happened.
God, the ways Hollywood screwed up the Uncle Ben tragedy—surely the most poignant of all superhero origin stories. In the original, they actually improved upon it, making Peter’s refusal to stop the thief who would later kill Uncle Ben not the act of a selfish jerk—as it was in Amazing Fantasy #15—but a tit-for-tat. Peter gets to throw the crooked wrestling promoter’s line back at him: “I missed the part where that’s my problem.” We laugh. He’s us here. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. But in “3,” they blow it completely, saying that the petty thief didn’t even kill Uncle Ben; Flint Marko did. Peter never could have stopped it, so he has no reason to feel guilty about it, so he has no reason to do good and fight crime. It’s as if Bruce Wayne found out his parents died of heart attacks. Guess I’ll become a doctor then.
And in the 2012 version? Pete never avenges Uncle Ben’s death. He never gets the guy. He gets distracted. The movie gets distracted.
And now no Uncle Ben at all. Did May never marry? Maybe not. She was too busy saving the world.
Kudos, by the way, to J.K. Simmons. I know, they included his J.J.J. in this universe before they figured out the whole multiverse angle, but he’s still the only actor to play the same role in more than one universe. An Oscar’s a No Prize next to that.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is certainly acclaimed. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s got a 93% critics rating and a 98% audience score. And even though it was released in the midst of Omicron part of the pandemic, it opened in the U.S. at $260 million (2nd all-time), grossed $804 million (3rd all-time), and earned $1.9 billion at the global box office (6th all-time). It’s the biggest movie of the 2020s. By far. It’s inventive and panoramic and a helluva roller coaster ride.
But the title is a lie. There was actually a very easy way home. You just had to let Doctor Strange do his job.
Thursday April 21, 2022
Movie Review: West Side Story (2021)
It’s not often that someone makes a classic better, but I guess most people aren’t Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.
It didn’t hurt either that they were adapting the work of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. And Shakespeare.
I mean, look at that fucking roster.
Spielberg and Kushner clarify things about “West Side Story” that I didn’t know needed clarifying. I never got a sense from the original that the Jets and the Sharks were anything other than gangs in a slum fighting over turf, but here there are historic reasons for what’s going on. Robert Moses’ urban renewal program is destroying neighborhoods, their neighborhoods, so the Jets and the Sharks have less turf on which to exist. The powers that be are essentially pushing them together, and they’re blaming each other rather than the powers that be.
In the ’61 original, the territories seemed amorphous. In real life, there are lines—“Yeah, you don’t go into that neighborhood”—and at the beginning of this one, the Jets cross that line, 68th and Broadway, to cause trouble in the Latino neighborhood: to take back what they feel is theirs. Down goes the Cocina Criolla sign covering up the Irish Pub sign; up goes the paint to cover the Puerto Rican flag mural. Then it’s back to their hangout, Doc’s, which is already at the edge of the urban renewal destruction. It looks like the last store standing in a war zone.
How about Anybodys? In the original she was just a girl trying to hang with the boys. She was a punchline. Here, played by Iris Menas, she’s obviously trans and packs a punch. Literally. I love the moment at the end, after Riff and Bernardo have been killed, when she, a figure flitting in the shadows, delivers intel on Chino and the gun and is finally accepted into the gang. The myriad emotions that wash over her face: gratitude and pride, and then … confusion. As if to say: Is that all there is?
Officer Krupke isn’t just comic relief. As played by Brian d’Arcy James, he’s allowed dignity. He’s a good cop in a bad situation. The “Dear Officer Krupke” bit has been transferred to the police station, without Krupke present, and it’s insanely good. The Jets aren’t doing it to get back at Krupke; they’re doing it to amuse themselves. They’re doing it to mock every authority figure that thinks knows them: cop, judge, shrink, social worker.
I like how the songs come out of nowhere. Just a thought, a whisper, a kind of stumbling, before finally catching and going full-blown. “Deeeeaaarrr kindly Sgt. Krupke…” Or Tony by the schoolyard, repeating the name of the girl he just met, under his breath, before breaking into song, soaring into song, with “Maria.” Kushner’s script grounds us in the historic realities of 1950s New York while Spielberg’s direction makes it soar.
Everyone talks up Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita, not to mention the pipes on Rachel Zegler’s Maria, but Ansel Elgort’s Tony feels like an overlooked performance to me. Is it the toughest role? He has to be someone who’s leader enough to start the Jets, tough enough to still be pursued by the Jets, and someone wholly, fully in love. Elgort nails all of this. The balcony scene, “Tonight,” makes me believe in love again. I also believe he could kill. He talks about his regret at nearly beating another kid to death, how one more punch might’ve done it. And then we see him nearly do it again with Bernardo. Does this take away from the tragedy? In the original it just seems like a bad string of events, unlucky circumstances, and if they’d made it past this point things would’ve been OK. Here, I thought, “You know, if it wasn’t Bernardo it would’ve been someone else. He would’ve gone zero-to-60 with someone else at some other time.” Which, I guess, is tragedy enough.
I could go on: the photography, the shots, the camera angles. The overhead of the gang fight at the salt mines, with the long shadows of the gang members meeting in the middle before they do. Then juxtapose it with the overhead of the cops coming in afterwards: their long shadows falling upon the dead bodies of Riff and Bernardo. My nephew Jordan talked up the puddle shot and I was like “What puddle shot?” He: “As Tony’s looking up the puddles take on this surreal colorful quality. Gorgeous.”
The dancing? The toreador bit from “America” has been tossed for something more muscular and boxing. All the choreography feels harder now. And those songs? Those seemingly effortlessly beautiful songs? The playing/praying of “Maria” really got me in a new way this time. And city/committee from “I Feel Pretty.”
Is “I Feel Pretty” misplaced? We get it after the gang fight, but before Maria knows her brother is dead. Feels like the wrong time. And something felt off, not quite connected, between Maria finding out Tony killed Bernardo but sleeping with him anyway. I love Corey Stoll but his Lt. Schrank added little. But I loved Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc, running Doc’s, mentoring Tony. We see an old photo of her and Doc, and for a second I wondered if that was the original Doc, Ned Glass, next to her. Then I wondered if it might not be Spielberg's dad, who died in 2020, age 103, and to whom the movie is dedicated. Wouldn't that be a nice present? Hey dad, I fixed you up with Rita Moreno. But it seems to be neither of those men.
I didn’t get a strong sense of the Sharks as a gang. In the original, you see how the violence of the Jets helps create the Sharks. Here, when are the Sharks ever together as a gang? A bit during the dance but it feels loose and unaffiliated. We see the Jets creating havoc in PR territory, singing about being a Jet, singing about Office Krupke, watching Tony and Riff battle over a gun on the docks. The Sharks don’t even get their own song. Or their songs are dominated by women. That’s another big difference. The Sharks’ girls, Anita and Maria, are main characters, while the Jets’ girls barely register; they barely have a line.
The sweet spot
The ending requires everyone to act their worst selves. Maria never should have sent Anita, still grieving for Bernardo, with a message for Tony. Anita’s good deed then goes punished when the Jets attempt to rape her—a scene that’s always tough to watch—and so she acts her worst self, delivering the message that Maria is dead. That leads Tony into the streets crying out for Chino to end his misery. I like that even after he’s shot, as the life ebbs out of him, Tony’s eyes still shine with happiness because he’s in Maria’s arms.
There’s a sweet spot between art and commerce, identification and fantasy, fine and bold lines, that's tough to hit. In literature I think of “Gatsby” and “Garp” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” It has to be accessible, maybe even breezy, but deep, somehow. I think Spielberg’s “West Side Story” hits it. It should've won best picture. I watched it and felt filled.
It’s Spielberg’s first musical after more than 50 years in the biz. Encore.
Tuesday March 29, 2022
Movie Review: CODA (2021)
The hearing daughter of two deaf parents—fisher folk along the coast of Massachusetts—must navigate a crush on a cute boy, music class, and the needs of her family during her senior year of high school. Does the boy like her? (He does.) Is she a good singer? (She is.) Will she get into that prestigious music school? (She will.) Can her parents let her go? (They can.) Thanks for coming.
It’s a nice movie. I just don’t see best picture.
Both sides now
I will say this: Even when I anticipated what would happen, I was moved. Her parents, Frank and Jackie Rossi (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin), don’t know from music, though Dad likes to turn up his gangsta rap full volume to feel the throbbing bass. So they wonder: Is their daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones), a good singer? How can they tell? I assumed there would be a music pageant of some kind, and they would see the delight on the faces of other audience members, and that would be that. Which is what happens—though writer-director Sian Heder, adapting the 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” adds a nice touch: halfway through the song, she eliminates the sound. We hear what Frank and Jackie hear, which is nothing. We, too, rely on the faces of others.
Then there’s the moment when Ruby auditions at Berklee College of Music in Boston, singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and her parents and her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) sneak into the balcony to support her. I told my wife, “She should sign the lyrics. That would bring her family into it.” A few seconds later, that’s what she does.
“You were right,” my wife said.
“Still made me tear up,” I said.
“Not me,” my wife said. She’s made of sterner stuff.
We root for Ruby throughout because she’s cute but not too cute, tough but not too tough, and bears everything with an equanimity most of us didn’t have in high school—if ever. She gets up at 3 AM to fish with her father and brother because they need a hearing person on board, then, smelling of fish, bears the scorn of the mean girls in school. Because she has to act as interpreter between her family and the rest of the world, she’s often the adult in the room, but the movie doubles down on this conceit. Her dad listens to too-loud gangsta rap and her parents have too-loud sex, etc. It’s supposed to be funny and mold-breaking—they’re rebels, damnit—but they often come off as irresponsible and selfish. The movie’s title stands for “Children Of Deaf Adults” but her parents don’t act much like adults. I’m curious if anyone in the deaf community has objected.
The movie’s main conflict—can the family’s fishing business survive without Ruby?—is resolved at the 11th hour, all but off-screen, and the mother, who’d always felt out of place among hearing contemporaries, suddenly gets along with them, and her older brother finds his place, too.
Kotsur has won every prestigious award he can carry—BAFTA, SAG, Oscar—but some part of me wonders if he’s the best supporting actor in this movie. At the least, I was more intrigued by Durant as the brother. He’s got something. A certain cool. Will be interesting to see what else he does.
I also liked seeing Mexican comedian/actor Eugenio Derbez as Bernardo Villalobos, the demanding music instructor who takes Ruby under his wing. Sadly, we lose the thread of that relationship. She keeps showing up late to his private instruction because of family obligations but he thinks she’s a typical spoiled teenager who can’t tell time. Me, watching: “Tell him. Tell him your parents needed someone to interpret during a TV interview for their new fishing collective. Tell him that’s why you’re late.” But she doesn’t. She doesn’t say the obvious true thing. Instead, she offers vague excuses. And oddly, we never see them reconcile. There they are at the high school music pageant. There he is accompanying her on the piano during her Berklee audition. There they are celebrating when she gets in. Thanks for coming.
According to Nathaniel over at Film Experience, “CODA”’s best picture win set some records:
- It’s the lowest-grossing best picture winner ever (< $1 mil)
- It has the lowest amount of nominations (3) for any best picture winner in the modern era
- While it’s the 11th film to win BP without an editing nomination (“It Happened One Night,” “The Life of Emile Zola,” “Hamlet,” “Marty,” “Tom Jones,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Annie Hall,” “Ordinary People” and “Birdman”), and the fifth film to win BP without a directing nomination (“Wings,” “Grand Hotel,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Argo”), it’s the first film to win BP without a directing and an editing nomination
So I guess the stats didn’t really see best picture, either.
Wednesday March 16, 2022
Movie Review: Flee (2021)
At first I didn’t understand that Amin (our real-life protagonist, under an assumed name), laying on a couch and talking with his friend and filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, was a bit of an unreliable narrator. Like when he said he had no family left. That’s the lie the human traffickers—the good human traffickers—told him to say when he arrived as a teenager in Copenhagen; it would help him remain there.
What I never quite got, though, was how much of his story Amin was keeping from himself. Obviously he knew he had family. He visited some of them in Sweden. So when he was on the couch, was he just so used to the lie that it came more naturally? Or was he still afraid of being sent back to Moscow? Or Kabul? Or was it deeper than that?
Told via animation and historic footage, “Flee” depicts three ways Amin comes out: as a refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan shortly after the mujahideen took over; as a young gay man in Copenhagen, Denmark; and revealing his true story to Rasmussen, and to us, and maybe to himself.
Take on me
Chronologically, it begins with Amin as a young boy, wearing a dress while running around Kabul as A-Ha’s “Take on Me” plays on the soundtrack and on his walkman. It seems to be the last days of the Soviet occupation—a time of promise, one would think. But then the mujahideen, who mostly fought in the mountains, take over Kabul, and Amin’s father, a military officer, goes into hiding. At one point, Amin’s older brother is conscripted/shanghaied. Isn’t that him looking forlorn in the back of the military truck? Yet when Amin returns home, he sees his brother there. Mistaken identity? Unreliable narrator? Or just the sense that, growing up as Amin did, nothing is reliable.
It certainly isn’t when mother, brother and Amin escape to Moscow. There, as undocumented refugees, they hide out in small rooms watching Mexican soap operas while they make enough money to pay traffickers to take them to Sweden, where Amin’s older older brother lives. Or … could they work? I guess that’s murky, too. Maybe the money came from the older older brother.
But finally they go, in the middle of the night, being herded along with a large group by a man with a brutish face. In Estonia, the march is long and an old woman is slowing them up; she can’t make it. Will she be shot? No, several refugees carry her in a blanket to the port. But each step in the journey carries its own dangers. And in the ship they’re locked in the hold like in a metal tomb.
OK, up to this point, I thought the movie was fine if unspectacular. The animation was a bit crude, the story a bit familiar. Even this part was familiar. It’s how Ivan Reitman and his parents escaped Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Union took over, for example. They were placed in the hold of a ship and a floor was placed/screwed in above them. Can you imagine? The trust you’d need in people who weren’t trustworthy? He told this story on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2014, which I heard recently when Maron rebroadcast it after Reitman’s passing, and I flashed on it here. I also thought of the holds of slave ships. And seasickness. Wouldn’t they get seasick? I thought of my own struggles with that, and how, the best thing to do is keep watching the horizon. They couldn’t do that, of course. They were below, in the dark, packed together. And as the ship was buffeted about, yes, they got seasick; and I’m sure the retching of some led to the retching of others; and the smell of the vomit led to even more vomiting. And this is where the movie began to hit me on a gut level. Is it because it’s where I began to identify? Where I stopped thinking of the characters as “other” and thought of them as “me”?
Water begins to pour into the hold, so the refugees escape, see they're in the midst of a storm, and begin to bail water. Is there a crew at this point? I never got a sense of it. After the waters calm, they’re basically adrift until a huge Norwegian cruise ship is spotted and pulls alongside them. All the refugees cheer. All except Amin, who looks at the well-dressed vacationers, staring and taking pictures, and feels shame and embarrassment. Or maybe he senses what’s to come next? They’re not taken aboard. The cruise ship captain announces that the Estonian border police will be by to pick them up. And they’re returned to Estonia. And from there to Moscow. All that horror for nothing.
The week I saw this film I was also reading and listening to coverage of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; and in one podcast, talking up all the U.S. companies pulling out of Russia, the guest, an expert in Russian affairs, reminisced about that moment of hope when the first McDonald’s opened in Russia. Well, we get that here, too, but it’s not a moment of hope. A crowd is drawn, including Amin and his older brother, who are distracted enough that they don’t see the cops until it’s too late. Money is demanded. Amin’s watch, a family heirloom, is taken. Then they’re tossed into a police van with a female refugee. She turns out to be their means of escape but not in a good way. The boys are let go so the Russian cops can rape her in private. Amin looks back to see the doors close, and his adult self, on the couch in Copenhagen, berates himself for doing nothing—when, obviously, he could do nothing. Or anything he could’ve done would’ve been a suicide mission. “It’s one of the most horrible feelings I ever had,” he says. You can’t help but wonder what happened to that woman. Amin’s story is horrific but he got out. He got to tell it.
Wheel of fortune
Amin’s refugee journey is occasionally interrupted to show us his current adult life in Copenhagen. He’s an academic, there’s talk of Princeton, he’s got a Danish fiancé named Kasper. They visit a house but something’s missing. I thought Kasper was distant but it’s actually Amin. He’s not quite there.
We also get glimpses of Amin’s budding sexuality throughout, and these tend to be the most humorous aspects of the film—such as when his Kabul-era poster of Jean-Claude Van Damme winks at him. Or when, in Copenhagen, with, I believe, his adoptive mother, he says he wants medicine so he’ll stop liking men. This is when we realize that there’s an element of good fortune to Amin's story, too. He landed in one of the most progressive cities in the world. Just imagine the reaction if he’d been in Alabama or Kansas. Imagine him under the Taliban.
Coming out to his family occurs in Stockholm, as his older older brother talks up the girls in Denmark, how pretty they are, and why doesn’t he have a girlfriend? Amin comes clean: He’s gay. Everyone is quiet. His sisters are shocked. Finally his older older brother takes him in a car to a nondescript part of town, hands him money and tells him to have a good time. There’s a neon rose above the door. We assume it’s a brothel. The animators misdirect us further by showing us a heavily made-up woman inside. But past some curtains we discover it’s a gay disco. And the beefcake bartender, like Jean-Claude, winks at him. And my heart filled.
In 2019, “Honeyland” and “Collective” became the first films to be nominated both Best Documentary andBest International Feature by the Academy Awards. “Flee” did them one better: It’s also nominated for Best Animated Feature. You figure it’ll win something. No story feels more relevant. Although I guess there are few moments in history when it doesn’t feel relevant.
Monday March 07, 2022
Movie Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)
His rise is slow and measured, and I bought it. His fall is swift and ironic, and I didn’t. He falls, in part, because warnings in the first act are ignored in the third. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro and screenwriter Kim Morgan (his wife, a former movie critic, super hot) tie it up in a bow that, for all its griminess, is still a little too neat.
I’d never heard of the 1947 original, by the way, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, directed by Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel”), and written by Jules Furthman (“The Big Sleep”) from a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Apparently it’s beloved by noir fans. It’s 7.8 on IMDb, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, even though the Production Code was still in effect and the novel’s dark ending couldn’t be used. So they fudged it. They sweetened it.
For the remake, Bradley Cooper takes the Tyrone Power role as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a down-on-his-luck mystery man who becomes a carny roustabout and grifter in the middle of the Depression. For the first 10 minutes of the film, we don’t hear him speak—to the point where I wondered if he could—but we do see him act. In an old house, he drags a body into a hole in the floorboards, then sets it, and the whole house, aflame as he walks away.* Then he takes a busride, follows a dwarf to a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), gets a gig, and begins his rise.
(*The oddity of this opening scene is the dragging of the body. If you’re going to set the house on fire, a house in the middle of nowhere, why bother dragging it anywhere? Ashes are ashes.)
Stan has two things going for him: He’s a quick study who’s “easy on the eyes,” as Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) says before jacking him off in the bathtub. The bath costs 10¢; I assume the other was freebie.
Zeena and her partner/hubby Pete (David Strathairn, nice to see you) do a bit for the rubes where, via Pete’s verbal cues, the blindfolded Zeena is able to “see,” say, a wallet or locket of an audience member. They’re also good at reading people, and they teach all this to Stan, who takes it to another level. I was reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the black dirt in your fingernails, coupled with the chalky residue of your shoes, means blah blah blah. It’s fun. Particularly when he uses it to prevent a local sheriff (Jim Beaver) from shutting down the carny.
So did he mean to kill Pete or was it an accident? He brings him a bottle of booze but it’s wood alcohol, and Pete dies. By this point Carlisle has won over Molly (Rooney Mara), assistant to Bruno the Strong Man (Ron Perlman), and the two escape the carnival. Then it’s two years later, they’re doing their act in swanky dinner clubs, and, at one such, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist, tries to unmask him as a fraud. He gets the best of her. Then they begin an affair. OK. Then she starts feeding him well-heeled clients, including the Kimballs (Mary Steenburgen and Peter MacNeill), and because that goes well, he gets Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), the most powerful man in town, who lost a lover to a forced abortion.
All this takes us back to the first act—something Pete said about never doing the grift about the afterlife. Turns out he was prescient. To join their child, Mrs. Kimball winds up killing Mr. Kimball and herself, while Grindle uncovers Stan’s ruse—the bloodied, risen ex actually being Molly—and threatens to ruin him. Or kill him? Either way, Stan beats him to the punch by literally beating Grindle to death.
Throughout, Stan has been a teetotaler, underlining the fact that he never touches drink: never never. In therapy sessions with Lilith, we find out why: the dead body he burned in the beginning was his alcoholic father. But then … what is it exactly? … Lilith takes a swig, kisses him, maybe slips him some of the booze, and suddenly he’s a full-blown alcoholic. That’s part of the swift fall I didn’t buy. He goes from zero to 60 in a second. And when he’s on the lam for the Grindle murder, riding the rails, he’s still after drink and sinks fast. Which is why, disheveled, unwashed, booze-ridden, he comes across another carny ...
Wait, back up. We have another first-act return. Back then, Stan was fascinated with “the geek,” the sideshow attraction that lives in filth and bites the heads off chickens. He asks Clem where they come from. And Clem admits they’re manufactured more than anything. An alcoholic comes along, needs a gig, you tell him this geek thing could be temporary but it’ll keep him in booze. Before you know it, he’s the regular, and you’ve got yourself an attraction.
You see where this is going, right? The new carny boss (Tim Blake Nelson) gets a whiff of Stan and trots out the temporary geek line. And Stan smiles. He smiles a desperate smile and laughs a desperate laugh. And he says, “Mister, I was born for it.” And that’s the end. It’s not bad. Great production values. But it’s a bit tied up in a bow.
You know what I wondered afterwards? Why was the geek even a thing? Not here but in our history. Why was it ever an attraction? Who’s attracted by that? A man in filth biting the heads off live chickens? That’s entertainment? Man, we’re a sad race.
And is the movie implying that psychiatry is the grift that replaced mentalism? And what exactly was Lilith’s game? She couldn’t unmask Stan so she brought him low? Or is she just a dick?
Anyway, it was nominated for best picture. It’s not, but it’s OK.
Friday March 04, 2022
Movie Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)
So was the point that the movie contained some of the tropes of movies—awkward romance, crazy escapades—but was as plain and pointless as life? The dude in the 12 jersey isn’t like Altman’s assassin in “Nashville” or Scorsese’s in “Taxi Driver”; he’s not anything. He’s just standing there or sitting there. Our aimless heroes aren't quite Brad and Angelina and they never quite find aim; they just find each other, finally, running around Encino searching until they literally run into each other’s arms like in a movie—even meeting in front of a movie theater playing “Live and Let Die” and “The Mechanic”—but unlike in a movie, or unlike a romance but definitely like a comedy, they crash and fall into a heap. And then he blows it again at his blowout pinball-arcade opening by introducing her as his wife—her first name, his last—and she insults him and storms off. But no, this time they kiss and make up. This time they kiss. Hey, they kiss! And so it begins.
Even though she’s 25 and he’s 15.
That’s part of the controversy of the film, I guess, and obviously it wouldn’t even have been made if you’d reversed the genders; but watching, it doesn’t feel controversial. Maybe because the actor playing the 15-year-old is closer to 20, and looks it, and the actress playing the 25-year-old, while closer to 30, could easily pass for early 20s.
On our last episode…
It’s episodic, that’s for sure. How would you break down the film?
- Child actor
- Oil crisis
- Politics and pinballs
Each episode kind of relates to the others. He’s a successful child actor until he isn’t. Then he’s an entrepreneur. He sees a waterbed in the back of a wig store and starts his own business. Then at a teen fair he’s arrested for murder? And released? And nothing? Then it’s the gas crisis and, oops, their waterbeds are petroleum-based. So much for that. Then it’s the coked-up Jon Peters crisis and its various hijinks. Then she gets into politics and he pinballs.
And thanks for coming.
You can unpack the oddness of this movie forever. One small example from the above: What is a waterbed doing in the back of a wig store? And how the hell does he spot it from the street outside? And what’s going on with the sales technique of Wig Shop Brenda—an impossibly hot Iyana Halley doing a Claudia Lennear thing? Or is that the way waterbeds were sold back then? The sex, or intimations of sex, are free-flowing throughout the movie in a way that’s false like a movie trope (hot girls coming onto schlubby guys) but also feels correct for the period. It's the messy aftermath of the sexual revolution. Before the reign of terror.
I assumed this was autobiographical by time and place—the older auteur recalling his youthful craziness—but it’s set in 1973 and Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970. This isn’t his time. He was 3. But it is his place. The movie’s got all the weirdness and aimlessness of the San Fernando Valley between Manson and Moon-Unit Zappa.
Is there anything to the unfamous actors with the famous names? Is that a Valley thing? The cast list includes DiCaprio, Spielberg and Nicholson, but it’s George (Leo’s dad), Sasha and Destry Allyn (Steven’s kids) and Ray (Jack’s son). We get Tim Conway Jr. in a small role. And in the leading role, making his motion picture debut, is Cooper Hoffman, the son of Philip Seymour, playing 15-year-old Gary Valentine. He’s quite good. So is rocker Alana Haim playing 25-year-old Alana Kane, whose cinematic family is her real family. Mother, father, two sisters: all Haims.
Many of the actors looked familiar, too. I kept thinking, “Where do I know that dude from? Can’t wait to IMDb him.” When I did, I didn't know him. Is that what it’s like growing up in the Valley? You think you know that dude but you don’t. But everyone you meet is related to someone more famous.
If there’s any kind of connective tissue to the episodes, it’s that she keeps meeting men who drive her back to Gary: the ass-slapping photographer, the atheistic Jewish kid actor (Skyer Gisondo, good), the drunk matinee idol (Sean Penn, fantastic), Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, SAG-nominated), the closeted politician (Benny Safdie). Every time, she’s like, “I’m ready to become an adult finally,” and then they use her. Even the gay one. “I don’t need you, I need a beard.” Whatever their game is, she’s a pawn in it, while she’s Gary’s world. After the drunken motorcycle stunt, everyone runs to see if the former matinee idol is OK but he runs to her. He’s the only one who runs to her. He keeps running to her. He keeps running. So does she. There’s a lot of running in this, until, pop, they run into each other.
I’m not looking anything up—interviews with Anderson in which he says “Oh, I did this for that reason, and that for this reason.” I like living in the questions. Begin with the title. What does it mean? Is she licorice and he pizza? Why would you put them together? They shouldn’t go together. But there they are.
Down in the valley
Anderson doesn’t make many contemporary movies, does he? “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love” and maybe “Hard Eight.” Otherwise he’s turn-of-the-last-century (“There Will Be Blood”), post-WWII/1950s (“The Master,” “Phantom Thread”) and various versions of the Valley in the 1970s (“Boogie Nights,” “Inherent Vice,” this one). That’s a helluva oeuvre, by the way. There’s oddities there but not one movie where you thought it was a waste of time.
I’d like to see “The Master” again. I’d like to see “Inherent Vice” again. Those are his lowest-rated films according to IMDb users. Which I kind of get. Like this one, they don’t quite cohere in any familiar way. I wonder how they cohere in Anderson’s mind? Or if he thinks cohering is the opposite of the point.
Monday February 28, 2022
Movie Review: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2021)
After seeing the movie with friends at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, we gathered on the sidewalk outside and talked up its virtues—of which there are many. Sounding one sour note was—of course—me. I thought they shouldn’t have made the lead, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), such a jerk in the beginning because it telegraphed where the movie was going. He would arrive in Lunana, a village of a few dozen in the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, to teach at the remotest school in the world, and become a better person in the process.
“So we’re just waiting for this to happen,” I said, making the “hurry up” motion with my hand.
Even as I said it, though, I began to wonder if this wasn’t a virtue. We’re impatient along with Ugyen. And as he succumbs to the village’s charms, to a pace of life outside of the fast-paced one technology has created, we succumb, too. We’re transformed, too. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is one of those rare movies that leaves you feeling so peaceful you sit and watch to the end of the credits because you don’t want to break the spell. You want to hold onto that feeling a little longer.
Singing to offer
The movie itself is a Cinderella story. Bhutan barely has a movie industry, its writer-director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, had no money, and the village where he wanted to shoot was inaccessible by car or train or anything. More, the villagers he wanted to use for key roles not only hadn’t acted before, they hadn’t seen a movie before. Yet, from this, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” became only the second film from Bhutan—after “The Cup” in 1999—to be officially submitted by Bhutan for Oscar consideration. That was in Sept. 2020. The Academy then refused to accept the submission because Bhutan’s selection committee hadn’t been Academy-approved or something. So Bhutan jumped through the hoops, submitted it again, and this year it was nominated for best foreign-language film.
“When I found out, it was so unbelievable that I kept telling my friends: ‘What if I wake up tomorrow and I realize all this was a dream?’” Dorji told The New York Times.
Ugyen is a teacher in his last year of government training but he’s uninspired and uninspiring. He lives with his grandmother in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, has some nice friends, has a cute but quiet girlfriend, and seems to think highly of himself. He wants to be a singer in Australia, for example, but when we finally hear him sing we go, “Fine, but … C’mon, kid.”
Then he’s assigned the Lunana gig.
As he makes the trek there, first by bus, then via a seven-day hike led by Lunanan villager Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, charming), the movie lets us know, via title graphics, the area they’re passing through, its population and its elevation. The populations diminish as the elevations rise, but in my head I badly mistranslated the elevation. For some reason I kept thinking “a meter’s about a foot, right? Five thousand meters, five thousand feet. I’ve begun hikes at that level. No big deal.” Wrong. A meter is more than a yard, and the elevation of Lunana is more than 17,000 feet—or 3,000 feet higher than the top of Mount Rainier. It’s a wonder there’s grass there at all.
Throughout the trek, Ugyen is fed, lodged, and treated with respect, to which he responds poorly, or at least blankly. He puts on his headphones to listen to music and bides his time. Basically he’s a man in purgatory. When he finally arrives in Lunana and sees his sparse accommodations and the run-down one-room schoolhouse, he decides he can’t even deal with purgatory. He tells the village leader, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), he wants to go back. Asha nods, saddened, but requests a few days so Michen and the other guide can rest.
What changes him? It begins with Pem Zam. The next morning he’s awakened by an ebullient, bright student who has been elected to tell him when school starts, when it ends, and that he’s late. So he shows up, learns what they know and what they don’t. He sees all they don’t have.
(Aside: Watching, I assumed they’d done some kind of nationwide search—like Selznick’s for Scarlett—in order to find a girl this cute and this good an actress for such a key role. Nope. Pam Zam is a Lunanan villager using her own name. Talk about lucking out. You go to a remote village on top of the world and find the cutest little girl in the world? Who can act? Part of me wonders if not having seen a movie or camera actually helped her in this regard. She doesn’t have that awkward self-consciousness of being perceived that we all have. She’s just natural.)
Slowly things change. Ugyen asks Michen about paper to burn to keep warm and Michen tells him paper is far too precious; they use dried yak dung. Searching for it himself, and grabbing the wet kind, he comes upon a young woman, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), singing songs of loss, who wants to sing the way the black-necked cranes sing: “not worrying who hears or what others think,” she says. “They sing to offer.” He’s quietly infatuated.
The rest of it is just progress. He agrees to stay for the full term as long as they can make a blackboard. He sends for more school supplies: laminated maps of the world, and of animal species, and of the western alphabet. He teaches them ABCs. He teaches them about brushing their teeth. The village teaches him.
At this point, the main questions are twofold:
- Does he get romantically involved with Saldon? (No, thank goodness.)
- And does he stay? Or does he return?
The real-life inspiration for the character, Namgay Dorji, who is now 35, did stay, for about a decade, but writer-director Pawo Dorji takes a more resonant path. When the time comes, Ugyen leaves, with deep regret, and with regret from the villagers. Then we see him in a pub in Australia trying to sing a song but nobody’s listening. So he stops. And he sings the song of loss that Saldon taught him. He sings, one imagines, to offer.
That could’ve been the end of the movie, and it would’ve been a good end, but Pawo offers another poignant shot: the one-room schoolhouse in Lunana, the laminated posters askew, becoming dilapidated again from disuse.
It’s sad, but … possibly not? Learning of the world, and learning the language of the world (English), might it not propel the villagers out into it—the way that Ugyen was propelled—and at the loss of their culture? These themes recall Olivier Assayas’ great 2008 film “L’Heure d’ete,” in which the siblings of a French family are scattered across the globe while the better possessions of their deceased mother wind up in a museum. “What aspect of French culture is still part of French daily life?” I wrote back then. “Where and what is our treasure?”
“Lunana” knows where the treasure is.
Tuesday February 22, 2022
Movie Review: Dune (2021)
I was reminded of “Star Wars”: the journey of a young man on a desert planet who can see the future, read the past, and control minds. Of course, “Dune,” the novel, written by Frank Herbert, came first: 1965
I was also reminded of “Lawrence of Arabia”: the journey of a young soldier from a vast empire who joins forces with an indigenous desert clan and becomes their leader in a battle against his own people. (And don’t forget Lawrence’s/Peter O’Toole’s shocking blue eyes.) Since “Lawrence” came before Herbert’s novel, in 1962, as did the book it was based on, T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” published in 1926, did either of these have an influence on Herbert? According to director Denis Villeneuve: Yes.
Finally, I was reminded of us: bickering groups (houses/countries) fighting over control of a substance in the desert (spice/oil) that allows for the type of travel (interstellar/land-sea-air) that means power.
I wish I’d seen it in the theater—its epicness kind of demands it—but even at home “Dune” was much better than I thought it would be. It felt like “Star Wars” for adults. And this from someone who’s tired of movies about “The One.”
I’d read Herbert’s “Dune” as a teenager during my sci-fi phase, and liked it well enough but remembered little: just the desert planet, the sandworms, the blue eyes, and—interestingly—that scene where the tribal chieftain spits at Duke Leto. Hostilities are about to break out until it’s realized, no, spitting is a sign of respect, because it’s offering moisture on a desert planet. I remember thinking that was cool: an insult in one culture being an homage in another. I guess that’s why it stuck with me.
Did the movie spark other memories? Yes. The pain-box scene. Rev. Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), the leader of the Bene Gesserit sect (read: female Jedis), tells Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet, quite good) to put his hand in a box and keep it in there or die. Then the pain begins. It’s a test, to see if he can master his emotions. In the novel, I suddenly remembered, he felt like his hand was melting away, and after the test, when he removes it, he expects to see a bloody stumpy or something skeletal. Instead, as in the movie, it comes out pristine. He was luckier than Luke in that regard.
This is just Part One, and I liked the first part of Part One better than the second. I liked the introduction of these worlds and these characters, and the back and forth between them all. I know: odd. I liked the stage setting more than the stage. It’s just that Villeneuve (“Arrival”), and screenwriters Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”) and Eric Roth (“The Insider”) do a fantastic job of introducing us to an entire universe without making it dull, pedantic, or weighing us down with way too much information.
It helps that the good guys and bad guys are obvious. The House with all the handsome people (Atreides) is good, while the House with the bald and disgustingly fat people (Harkonen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonen—Stellan Skarsgård, whose eyes are still recognizable beneath the makeup), they’re the bad guys. And the group that hangs its enemies upside down and drinks their blood (Sardaukar, a warrior clan)? Yes, those are bad guys, too.
To the story. The Emperor has ordered House Harkonen to give up its lucrative and brutal mining of the spice trade on Arrakis and hand it over to House Atreides. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) doesn’t exactly want the gig but sees it as politically advantageous; and he hopes to work with, rather than against, the Fremen natives there, led by Stilgar (Javier Barden, he who spits). But he trusts none of it.
Neither does his team:
- Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), a joyful warrior
- Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), an unjoyful warrior
- Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), Leto’s concubine, a member of the Bene Gesserit, and Paul’s mother
- Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who speaks Mandarin with Paul
(The Mandarin thing threw me for a moment. This is another universe. Why would they speak Mandarin? Then I realized, Yeah, but why would they speak English, dumbshit.)
(I did like that Dr. Yueh tells Paul to be careful, which is 小心, xiao xin (literally: little heart), in Chinese. That’s something I’ve said to American kids for 30 years now. It always gets their attention way more than “be careful.”)
Duncan Idaho goes to Arrakis first, goes native, and is followed weeks later by the rest of the house, including Paul, who’s having visions of a Fremen girl, Chani (Zendaya), and death. He foresees Duncan’s death, for example. The Harkonen have left everything in disarray and Leto assumes they’ve been set up to fail. It’s actually worse: They’ve been set up to be slaughtered. Apparently the Emperor is worried about Atreides influence threatening his own. So why the elaborate ruse with Arrakis? Why not slaughter them on their home planet? Or is this a divide-and-conquer strategy? Who knows? We don’t see the Emperor in this movie. I’m curious if he shows in the second. (That initially unseen Emperor is another thing “Star Wars” nicked.)
Dr. Yueh is the weak link. His wife is held captive and tortured by House Harkonen, so he lowers Atreides’ shields, allowing the Sardaukar attack. He also paralyzes Leto, but, distrusting Baron Harkonen, gives Leto a pellet of poison to bite down on when the enemy comes near. Why he assumes he won’t be in that room, I don’t know. Particularly since he is in that room. He’s just already dead. The Baron is the kind of asshole who makes a deal to “set someone free,” then kills them because that’s within the language of the agreement. He nearly gets his when Leto bites down on the poison pellet but floats toward the ceiling to avoid a lethal dose, then spends weeks in a mud (oil?) bath to extract the poison. It’s not pretty.
In the meantime, Paul and his mother are on the run. This is the second-half roller coaster that bored me a bit. They run, they’re caught. They get away, they reunite with Duncan, they’re attacked, they escape, they run from sandworms, they find the Fremen; then Paul is forced to fight the pugnacious Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun). His visions have gotten stronger on Arrakis because of the mind-bending properties of the spice, and he’s had a vision where he dies at the hands of Jamis. I was ready for that. I assumed he would die here and be reborn stronger than ever, a la Obi-wan, Neo, and Jesus. Nice twist—he wins. He kills, for the first time. And he and his mom join the Fremen, and the Fremen girl, Chani, who tells him, “This is only the beginning.”
And that’s the ending.
What I really really want
Again, I was impressed. It was beautiful to watch, fun to follow, and I look forward to the second-act revenge, which hopefully will be complex and bittersweet.
It helps to have a good actor like Chalamet as your narrative and moral center. (And not for nothing—his hair is unbelievable.) I like that he’s distraught by killing Jamis. I like that when he has a vision in which he leads a holy war across the universe in the name of his father, with fanatical legions worshipping him and chanting his name, he is even more distraught. My reaction would’ve been the Bart Simpson reaction: Cool!
Anyway, put it on a double-bill with “Lawrence of Arabia.” Or “Star Wars.” Or “Spice World.”
Sunday February 13, 2022
Movie Review: Spencer (2021)
I like the title. I like that at the end she takes her two boys from the Queen’s Sandringham estate, where she’d felt so, so trapped, and to a KFC drive-thru, and when they ask for the name on the order, she pauses and says “Spencer,” underlining her newfound independence. Her marriage may be in ruins, her family estate may be in ruins, but Spencer lives.
And yet ...
OK, so she objects to little William learning pheasant hunting, as Charles did as a child, as all the royal men have to do, and she shows up in the line of fire to stop the shooting and grab the kids. And then she takes them to KFC? For chicken? I assumed she objected to the pheasant hunting for the pheasants. The immorality of the kill. So what’s the message? Don’t kill birds, just eat dead birds? Mixed, at best.
Cries and whispers
Most of the rest of the movie is a slog. It’s basically Diana (Kristen Stewart) having a breakdown during Christmas 1991 over allegations of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. In the huge, cold rooms and hallways of the estate, she’s uncommunicative, whispery and desperate. The royals are uncommunicative and cold. They’re worried about her well-being but don’t say so. They send servants, so she feels overwatched, imprisoned. They’re worried about the press so they have her curtains sewn shut. Diana has her favorite royal dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), but suddenly she’s gone, replaced by a sterner, colder model. A book about Anne Boleyn—a queen beheaded to make room for another—is left on her bed. She begins to hallucinate about Anne Boleyn. She sees herself as Anne Boleyn.
Director Pablo Larraín has done this kind of thing before. But his 2016 film, “Jackie,” worked, at least for me, because we had sympathy for the lead. We understood her trauma. One moment she’s the glamorous First Lady of the United States and the next she’s a widow with her husband’s blood and viscera in her hair and staining her clothes, and over several days she has to fight many, many men to get the funeral and the burial site she wants—all while suffering from a very understandable PTSD. Diana? No offense but the Camilla affair ain’t exactly the JFK assassination. Enjoy the palace, girl. Enjoy the soup. Put the pearls away. Buck up a little.
Or say something. And not just in a whisper. C’mon, Pablo, give us a scene. Give us drama rather than the throes of melodrama.
In the second half we do get a few conversations, mostly with the servants. Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) talks up duty, giving one’s life for country and Queen, but Diana doesn’t want people to die for her. She has a nice sitdown with the royal chef, Darren McGrady (Sean Harris, whom I mostly know from the 2009 “Red Riding” series). I don’t even remember what they talk about, but at least it’s something. Maggie returns, they go to the shore, and Maggie confesses her love for Diana. That’s a sweet scene. Then it’s pheasants, “All I Need is a Miracle,” and KFC.
The aforementioned pearl necklace is a present from Charles, but Diana discovers he gave the same to Camilla. So at different times she imagines breaking the necklace at the dinner table and slurping one pearl up with her pea soup; or tearing it off at the head of the stairs of the decrepit Spencer house and watching the pearls spill down the staircase. The first didn’t happen. Did the second? Anne Boleyn is there with her. She prevents her from throwing herself down the staircase. Is Anne a figment and the breaking of the pearls not? Does it not matter since both are indicative of her frame of mind? She stops the suicide and breaks free from Charles. What’s suffocating her isn’t life but them.
The casting of the royals isn't as good as in, say, “The Crown.” No one really looks like their counterparts. Stewart, whom I’ve always liked, who’s the only American ever to win the César for acting, is fine here. At moments, I’m reminded of Diana. And she does seem to be losing it. But people losing it rarely makes for good cinema—particularly when we’re stuck inside their point-of-view. She's one of the most beloved women in the world and ... all this angst and drama? I guess I should've cared more for her. I didn't. To be honest, I wound up kind of siding with the royals. Not, I assume, what the movie intended.
Monday February 07, 2022
Movie Review: Eternals (2021)
It wasn’t until someone referenced Thanos and “the Blip” that I remembered, “Oh right, this is Marvel.” It was so bad I was assuming it was DC/Warners.
Seriously, what a clusterfuck this is.
I’ll just raise one point, a minor point, really, but not minor at all. This is the moment I threw up my hands—and a little in my mouth. It takes place 1½ hours into a 2½ hour movie, and we’ve already been inundated with that Jack Kirby mythic-cosmic bullshit the entire time. Never a fan of that stuff. Seriously, once Jolly Jack left Yancy Street to wander the cosmos, well, what a noble mind was there o’erthrown.
Backstory. In 5,000 BC, a big Galactus-y thing named Arishem (voice: David Kaye) sends our titular heroes to Earth to save us from “Druids,” growly monstery things. They pretty much do so without breaking a sweat. Then they stick around. They’re not allowed to interfere in human wars and things like that; their only job is to save us periodically from the growly monstery, salivating things.
The Eternals don’t age but somehow they arrived in 5,000 BC with hairstyles that fit the 21st century. Attitudes, too. Oh, and they look as diverse as we want this century to look. Eternals are EOE. The actors hail from Mexico, Pakistan and Korea. Plus three Brits: Ireland, Scotland, England—and the English one is Asian. Plus three Americans: LA, Chicago, Fayetteville—and the latter two are Black. Plus one of those is deaf. She’s the first deaf superhero in the MCU! Plus they defy stereotypes. The Asian dude has the powerhouse punch while the big Black guy is the techie. What the? Plus the Black guy is gay. He’s the first openly gay superhero in the MCU! And the hot LA one suffers from Mahd Wy’ry. Whoa! She’s the first superhero with dementia in the MCU!
Representation is great, but I get the feeling the filmmakers were checking off boxes rather than looking after the story.
A bullet from the back of a bush
What is the story? They’re not the superheroes they think they are. They’re pawns in the game—synthetic creations sent here to make sure enough humans are created, so enough energy is created, so another celestial like Arishem can be born. The Earth will be destroyed in the process, but hey: omelette/eggs.
And it’s not just Earth. Arishem has seeded the galaxy with things that will create more of him. More me, less you. He’s like most of us that way.
Our heroes find out all this about 2/3 of the way through. Before then, they’re just trying to make do on Earth while awaiting the next step of Arishem. Examples: Sersi (Gemma Chan), the Asian Brit, works for the British museum or something; Phastos, the big Black guy (Brian Tyree Henry), fixes bikes in Chicago; while Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is a longtime Bollywood star. Nanjiani is my favorite here. He can’t really shake his standup-comic background and seems slightly amused by it all. Most of the others are dully serious.
Oh right. They also have names that echo through the ages. They’re the reason certain Greek myths were created since they first landed in Greece: Sersi is Circe, Ajak (Selma Hayek) is Ajax, Ikaris (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) is Icarus. It’s like the “Who Mourns for Adonais?” episode of the original series of “Star Trek“ but without the pathos.
Also like “Trek,” there are many conversations on whether humanity is worth saving. You’d think the Avengers defeating Thanos and literally saving half of all life in the universe would’ve ended that back-and-forth, but no, it’s still ongoing. And it’s the reason why I threw up my hands—and a little in my mouth. Phastos, for one, gave up on humanity long ago. Can you guess why?
Not the Holocaust, or the Rape of Nanjing, or the Battle of Verdun. I mean, I’m not a military historian but check out this list of casualties by battle, and the amount of casualties, particularly during WWI, and you wonder why it took Phastos so long. And I get it, battles are between soldiers, and the U.S. decimated civilians in Hiroshima; and yes, it’s the tech that bothers him, and how he helped the tech increase over the years until it led to the A-bomb. Even so, it doesn’t feel like the perspective of “an Eternal” who’s lived for 7,000 years. It feels like the perspective of an American who’s studied some undergrad history, mostly 20th century, and read maybe John Hershey’s account, and handwringingly thinks, “Oh, this is so bad that we did this” when, in the history of humanity’s pointless cruelty and destruction, Hiroshima feels like a blip. No pun intended.
His epitaph plain
Anyway, the movie was already dead to me by this point. Too many characters doing too little for too long. Too many arguments about nothing we care about. The best Marvel teams argue amongst themselves but we need to see them working together first. “Civil War” didn’t happen until after “Avengers.” This begins with ”Civil War.“ And a ”Civil War" that has no consequences.
Even after the big reveal that they’re pawns in the game, they still fight with each other: half of the Eternals back Arishem, half back humanity.
The screenplay is by several people without many writing credits: Kaz Firpo, Ryan Firpo, Patrick Burleigh and director Chloe Zhao, who won a deserved Oscar last year for “Nomadland.” Then she got sucked into this.
One wonders if this continues. Are the Eternals part of a bigger MCU plan? Phase Whatever? Because this is the first MCU movie to get a “rotten” rating from Rotten Tomatoes: 48%. And it didn’t do great at the box office, either, $164m/$402m, despite being released before Omicron. (Now there’s a name for a supervillain.) “Shang-Chi,” released in the midst of Delta, did better. Maybe because, for half the film, it stayed close to Yancy Street.
Monday January 24, 2022
Movie Review: The Tender Bar (2021)
I tend to like coming-of-age stories, and even better if they have an uncle figure that shows the kid the ways of the world. Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back” was a great recent example. So I was looking forward to this movie.
Nothing at stake
The kid is JR (Daniel Ranieri), all big dark eyes and passive curiosity, who is forced to move into his grandparents’ house with his mother (Lily Rabe), after his father, a radio DJ known as “The Voice” (Max Martini), abandons them in the early 1970s. It’s Manhasset, Long Island, a working class neighborhood, but good working class: loud but not racist; good-natured busting chops rather than ball-busting.
Mom hates the move back—she seems broken and way too self-pitying to care about—while JR loves it. Along with Grandpa and Grandma (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), other prodigal children live there: a non-descript aunt, and Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who owns and runs the titular working class bar, The Dickens, named after Charles, with Dickens’ books lining a top shelf. JR hangs there and the regulars are nice to him. Uncle Charlie teaches him about life. Don’t carry your money like a drunk. Hold doors. Change tires. Keep your shit together.
It’s sweet, but you kind of wonder about Uncle Charlie’s living situation. Doesn’t he have a business? Doesn’t he keep his shit together? Shouldn’t his advice on being a man include “Don’t live with your parents”?
We get mini-dramas. Dad is supposed to take JR to a Mets game but never shows. A school shrink tells JR he has no identity because he’s “Jr.” to a father with no name, so Uncle Charlie takes him down a peg. There’s a father-son lunch at the school so Grandpa dresses up and impresses everyone. “Don't tell anybody I’m a good grandfather,” Grandpa tells JR afterwards. “Everybody will want one.”
That’s a nice line—and it’s great seeing Christopher Lloyd again—but overall there’s not much at stake here. Does JR have friends? Is he bullied? This small, smart kid with big dark eyes shows up in a tough working class town and nothing? Do we even see another kid in the first half of the film?
His mom wants him to go to Harvard or Yale and become a lawyer. Meanwhile, Uncle Charlie is an autodidact who’s got a whole closet stacked with books and keeps pushing him to read. He leans toward Charlie. He creates a family newspaper. He shows promise on the Wordy Gurdy puzzle.
Then he’s a teenager, Tye Sheridan, all full lips and long nose, and he gets into Yale on a scholarship, but even here there’s not much at stake. Despite his working-class background, a lot of shit comes easy to him. He makes friends easy, he gets a beautiful girl, Sidney (Brianna Middleton), easy, he loses her easy, she breaks his heart easy. He graduates, is aimless, Sidney suggests he get a job at The New York Times, and he does. Then he finally has it out with his father, now a drunk in North Carolina. That’s when there’s a little something at stake, because Max Martini just emanates potential violence. In NC, he drinks too much, beats his woman and JR finally stands up to him. He yells at him. And then? That’s it. There’s no fight. The father just walks away. Next we see, he’s arrested. Easy.
In the end, JR decides to move to Manhattan and become a writer, and Uncle Charlie gives him the keys to his beautiful sky-blue 1968 Cadillac Deville—which would seem to be the last thing you’d want in Manhattan. As he drives away, in voiceover (Ron Livingstone), JR muses about how lawyers become lawyers after they go to law school and pass the bar. But writers?
You’re a writer the minute you say you are. Nobody gives you a diploma. You have to prove it—at least to yourself.
Another movie romantic about writers from an industry that never was.
“The Tender Bar” is based on a popular memoir by J.R. Moehringer but the movie feels like someone read the book and was recounting bits back to us. It’s all surface. I cared a little about the kid, not much about the young adult, not at all about the mom. Affleck is good but he’s not Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back.” Whatever digs into you and makes you care about characters isn’t here.
Certain anachronisms jarred. “Do puzzles, and you don’t get Alzheimer’s,” Uncle Charlie declares in the Wordy Gurdy scene, and I’m like “Did people talk much about Alzheimer’s in the mid-1970s? And its connection with puzzles?” (They didn’t.) JR is off for Yale, class of ’86, which makes this 1982, and he’s got a Farrah Fawcett poster on his wall? And Sidney has one of Leif Garrett? Uncle Charlie is Uncle Charlie and no one references “My Three Sons”?
As a director, George Clooney started out with a bang: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Then he did “Leatherheads,” “The Ides of March,” “The Monuments Men.” Blah, blah and blah. All of those films seemed like good ideas, too.
Monday January 17, 2022
Movie Review: The French Dispatch (2021)
“These were his people,” the narrator (Angelica Huston) says of the writers that Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), the Editor in Chief of The French Dispatch, coddles, coaxes and ferociously protects. This was early in the film, and as she said it I thought the same. My kind of people. My kind of topic. My kind of movie.
And then … not.
Where does the movie go wrong? It's divided into three different stories that are all part of a single issue of the titular publication, a New Yorker-like weekly that hails from, of all places, Liberty, Kansas, the near-geographic center of the United States. So rather than one complete film we get three or four shorts connected through this conceit. So that's part of it.
But where writer-director Wes Anderson truly loses me is with the writers. Or the writing. It doesn’t seem very New Yorker-like. It doesn’t seem very literary.
OK, I’ll just say it: They're lousy writers.
Here’s an example of the writing of The French Dispatch writers:
What sounds will punctuate the night? And what mysteries will they foretell? Perhaps the doubtful old maxim speaks true: All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.
Ick. It’s annunciated by Owen Wilson, who plays Herbsaint Sazerac, a writer who keeps riding his bicycle down Metro stairs and waxing philosophic and nostalgic about the seedier side of life in Ennui-sur-Blasé (great name), the French home of The French Dispatch. His section is the first in the magazine, and thus, after intros, including the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr., the first in the movie. It’s how we learn about the town before learning about its tales.
Sazerac is supposedly based on Joseph Mitchell of “Joe Gould’s Secret” fame, who often wrote about the seedier side of life in New York: its hoboes, bars, rats. Except Mitchell was a great, great writer:
Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years.
Is that unfair? Picking a classic opener? Here’s a less well-known lede:
Within a few blocks of virtually every large newspaper in the United States except The Christian Science Monitor there is a saloon haunted by reporters, a saloon which also functions as a bank, as a sanitarium, as a gymnasium, and sometimes as a home.
I was expecting more of that in “The French Dispatch” and we didn't come close. I suppose it’s a lot to ask of Wes Anderson: to recreate three or four great writers and their styles, or imagine three or four great writers and their styles. But it’s the one detail he doesn’t get right. And it might be the most important.
These are the three main writers and their stories:
- J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), who gives a lecture on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a convicted murderer and celebrated modern artist, and Rosenthaler's relationship with his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux) and the art dealer who recognizes his genius, Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody).
- Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), based on Mavis Gallant, who is the no-bullshit chronicler of young revolutionaries Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) during a student uprising in Ennui-sur-Blasé.
- Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), apparently some combo of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling (and Capote for his memory recall?), who recites verbatim his story about the kidnapping of the child of the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), as well as the haute cuisine of his chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park), which is designed to be eaten by cops.
The first was the longest and a lot of fun. Not sure who Berensen is based on, but at the lectern Swinton gives the writer a Barbara Walters-type speech impediment.
It’s the second story where I lost energy. Mavis Gallant reported on the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, one of many such uprisings during that turbulent year, and most of the world took it all so seriously. Gallant did not. She viewed the student revolutionaries with a jaundiced eye. “Did they really think that they could destroy capitalism by setting the Bourse on fire?” she wrote, among other things. Of course, McDormand is the perfect choice for such a no-bullshit writer; the problem is the rest of it. The kids in the story are obviously just kids. They’re play acting. They’re revolutionaries in the way that Max Fischer in “Rushmore” is a playwright— Chalamet’s Zeffirelli in particular would rather play chess and smoke a pipe that storm any Bastille. Hell, their slogan is “Les enfants son grognons”: The children are grumpy. They know it. So using McDormand to pop their pretensions, such as they are, is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. What was revelatory for Gallant’s readers is obvious to Anderson’s viewers.
The third story restores some balance. It's absurd in a way that has motion. (The second section was also too static.) There are cops and robbers and chases. And Roebuck seems a better writer than the others. Or maybe his prose sounds better coming from Jeffrey Wright.
Plus it's poignant. The standoff between kidnappers and cops ends when Chef Nescaffier is sent to cook a meal for the kidnappers, but he’s made to taste the food first. He does even though it's poisoned. Most of the bad guys die, he and his strong stomach survive, and afterwards, to Wright, he tries to describe the new and piquant flavor of the poison. I love that bit: this new and exciting taste which is deadly. And then we get the best dialogue of the movie:
Wright: I admire your bravery, lieutenant.
Nescaffier: I’m not brave. I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody. [pause] I’m a foreigner, you know.
Wright: This city is full of us, isn’t it? I’m one myself.
Nescaffier: Seeking something missing. Missing something left behind.
First, I loved the line about not being in the mood to be a disappointment to everyone. Feels like it’s true of half the decisions I’ve made in my life. In fact, initially, I thought the follow-up about being a foreigner was an intrusion, since the earlier line is universal and the foreigner line is not. It muddied the waters, I thought. But that line sets up the rest of it, which is profound. And it's universal again: “Seeking something missing, missing something left behind.” That’s all of us moving through life. All of us are seeking the missing thing; all of us are missing the things we’ve left behind. Maybe it’s universal because, in a sense, in this existence, we’re all foreigners. We all just wound up here. The world is full of us, isn’t it?
I hope “The French Dispatch” is one of those movies that gets better on the second viewing. There will certainly be a lot to notice. This is just a sample from the end credits: its New Yorker-y type covers:
What fun. Anderson has a romantic view of all of it—of editors and writers and caring greatly about the written word. Most of that world has long gone away. Writing is now content, and the people who make the decisions aren’t exactly Arthur Howitzer, Jr. But The New Yorker lives. Subscribe.
Monday January 03, 2022
Movie Review: Being the Ricardos (2021)
I don’t know if it should've been Debra Messing but it definitely should not have been Nicole Kidman. Great actress, but, as my wife says, she doesn't have a funny bone in her body. You kind of need that for Lucille Ball. Plus she’s just had too much work done. Her face looks odd. The eyes mostly. And it means she can't really do Lucy's outsized facial expressions. Stop getting work done, everyone.
But it definitely should have been Javier Bardem as Ricky Ricardo, despite the idiot controversy over his casting. Oh no, a Spanish actor is playing a Cuban character! Right. He played one 20 years ago in “Before Night Falls” and no one said boo. He played a gay, Cuban poet even though he’s not gay, Cuban or a poet. It’s called acting. He’s great here, too. He brings life to every scene. Stop it, everyone.
Hey, maybe it shouldn’t have been Aaron Sorkin?
The week that was
I’d forgotten it was. Then 15 minutes in, I was like, “This feels like an Aaron Sorkin movie,” and in kind of a good way? Sharp, quick. Fifteen minutes later: “Yeah, this really seems like an Aaron Sorkin movie,” and not in a good way: maximizing every scene for argumentation. Then there’s that scene that made me laugh out loud: The three “I Love Lucy” writers want to talk to Ricky Ricardo and he says, “Walk me to the stage, we’re an hour behind.” It’s like Spike Lee’s dolly shot. Is it signature or have you just become a parody of yourself?
In the early 1960s, there was a satirical British show called “That Was the Week That Was” (great title), and that’s pretty much this. At some point during the run of the “Lucy” show, 1) Lucy was accused of being a communist, 2) the network wanted to hide her pregnancy rather than write it in, and 3) Ricky fooled around. Sorkin stuffs it all into the same week.
And that’s not enough. Did Vivian Vance try to lose weight and did Lucy passive-aggressively tell her not to? Did show writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) try to convince Lucy her whole multimillion-dollar shtick—the bumbling and the WAAAH!—was infantilizing women and needed to end? Who knows, but Sorkin shoves all that in, too.
It’s the Pugh confrontation that made me throw up my hands. It felt like a consciousness-raising session from the 1970s rather than a 1953 tete-a-tete between a writer and the biggest star on television about the character they both created. And the timing is ridiculous. “Hey, I know Walter Winchell just floated the accusation that you’re a communist, which is enough to ruin careers and lives forever, not to mention Confidential’s story about Desi’s affairs, which is enough to ruin marriages, but let me nitpick the character that’s bankrolled both of us as if I were a Women’s Studies undergrad in 1987. Because surely you have nothing else on your mind.”
Sorkin doesn’t even get the small things right. We’re going to “tape” the show? Wasn’t it on kinescope? And why did Sorkin pretend “The Big Street” was released in the late ’40s rather than 1942? World of difference. World war of difference. And what was that line about Lucy competing for roles with Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Judy Holliday? When were those three, let alone those four, ever up for the same role? “Hey, if Hayworth turns down ‘Gilda,’ see if you can’t get Bette Davis.”
I haven’t even gotten to J. Edgar Hoover yet. Good god. “Being the Ricardos” is, in part, a movie about the blacklist, about how the blacklist destroys lives, and who’s the unseen hero? The guy who shows up at the end to save the day? J. Edgar Hoover. Philip Loeb must be rolling over in his grave.
They should’ve mentioned Philip Loeb. “You saw what this did to Philip.” A line like that. Or Jean Muir? John Garfield? Red Channels? Why not bring in some context? You know, for kids.
Here’s the context. Loeb was a star on the TV sitcom “The Goldbergs,” basically its Desi, when Red Channels accused him of being a communist. He denied it, but the sponsor, General Foods, wanted him gone, and he was. Then he couldn’t get work. Then he killed himself with an overdose of pills. Hecky Brown from “The Front,” played by his friend Zero Mostel, and written by his friend Walter Bernstein, is based on him. And yes, he killed himself in 1955, and this is set in 1953, but I’ll take this anachronism. Truncate the motherfucker.
Instead, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, who with HUAC and Hollywood’s Motion Picture Alliance (hiya, Ayn!) helped create the blacklist, is the hero.
What bugs me about Sorkin
I think I’m getting closer to what bugs me about Sorkin. My nephew Jordan, a bigger fan than I am (I believe), hits it on the mark when he says Sorkin rarely seems to be writing for characters. “It feels like everyone is just him being smart.”
I really noticed it in one of the opening scenes, where the cast is gathered around for a table read, and everyone is arguing back against Lucy. Often dismissively. Including director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham), a freelancer, brought in for that one episode. He talks over the biggest star on television and I’m like “Really? I get sexism, I get the egos of directors, but really? A guest on the set?” Turns out Glass is a fictionalization, of course.
Are there no brown-nosers? No hangers-on? Does Sorkin not understand power dynamics?
Compare that with the scene a few years earlier when the execs at CBS Television tell Lucy they want to take her radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” and make it a TV series. She says sure, but only if Desi can play my husband. She was trying to save her marriage, you see, by giving the two of them the same work schedule, but the execs pushed back. A white woman and a foreign man? Won’t fly. But she puts her foot down and wins the day.
In other words, when she has no power, she gets her way; and when she has all the power in the world, she gets walked over. Stretching out the debate is what matters in Sorkin's world.
In another move designed to placate Desi, Lucy talks to executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) about having Desi share his credit. Oppenheimer obfuscates. First, he’s condescending to Desi, telling him he’s the title character of the show, since he’s the “I” in “I Love Lucy,” implying he doesn’t need any more, and for that Desi threatens to pull his lungs out. So Lucy goes back to Oppenheimer and says “Why couldn’t you do this little thing for me?” My immediate thought: “It’s not a little thing. It’s his credit. She should know that.” And then they argue for like two minutes before Oppenheimer yells at her, “It’s not a little thing!” and she gets it. However you maximize the argument, Sorkin takes that path.
But back to Hoover.
I knew about the pregnancy controversy. I knew about Ricky fooling around. But I didn’t know that during the blacklist the biggest star on television was accused of being a communist. But yes, it happened in September 1953.
And J. Edgar Hoover exonerated her?
Kind of. I found this 1991 article about the incident excerpted from Warren G. Harris’ 1990 book “Lucy and Desi.” Apparently after the LUCY IS A RED story broke in the Los Angeles Herald-Express, Desi phoned Hoover, whom he’d met at race tracks, and who assured him that Lucy was “100% clear as far as we’re concerned.” But that was a private conversation. It wasn’t before a live studio audience, as Sorkin has it. No, according to Harris, here’s how it went down. CBS’s PR dept. convinced Desi to convince Rep. Donald Jackson (R-CA) and other members of HUAC to hold a press conference saying Lucy’s been cleared. He did that and they did that. Then Desi asked AP reporter James Bacon to phone him with a report as soon as it was over. Bacon did that. And that’s the big phone call they got in front of the live studio audience. Bacon, not Hoover.
Afterwards, as was his nature, Hoover kept tabs on Lucy and Desi throughout the ’50s and ’60s. That’s our hero here.
I get why Sorkin did it. J. Edgar Hoover is a bigger name than Donald Jackson or James Bacon. And it’s like Nixon going to China. You’re going to accuse Nixon of being pro-communist? You’re going to accuse Hoover of being a com-symp? But Sorkin still shouldn’t have done it. It’s an insult to anyone who was ever blacklisted.
Debra Messing dodged a bullet.
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