erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2023 posts

Tuesday February 20, 2024

Movie Review: Maestro (2023)


I didn’t like them. Sorry. I thought they were affected and annoying. Or he was affected and she was annoying. I came away thinking they were monumentally privileged people making bad decisions. It felt like watching a couple air decades-long resentments at a dinner party, and that’s not my idea of a party.

“Maestro” focuses on the great heterosexual relationship of a great homosexual, which … sure? It feels like there’s a story there, and I guess this is it, but shouldn’t we have focused more on the music? Or felt the music? The genius of it?

Maybe I’m just tone deaf.

Elliptical is the word that kept coming to mind as I watched. Then I looked up its definition to make sure I was using it correctly. 

  1. : of, relating to, or marked by extreme economy of speech or writing
  2. : of or relating to deliberate obscurity

I was thinking of the second definition but the first applies, too. There’s extreme economy in scenes—we zip past years and decades, and from black-and-white to color—while there’s deliberate obscurity within the longer set pieces. Or writer-director Bradley Cooper is the first, and actor Bradley Cooper is the second. Characters talk around matters. Do we ever hear the word gay or homosexual? Instead, it’s “You’re getting sloppy.” It’s “Don’t you dare tell her the truth!” Which, yes, is the way people talked about homosexuality back then. It’s also the way couples today and forever talk about the most important things in their relationship. Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre (Cooper and Carey Mulligan) have their shorthand like the rest of us. They have their deliberate obscurity for fear of looking too deeply into the thing.

The movie ends with Bernstein asking an interviewer “Any questions?” and here’s mine: Why does she air her resentments when she does? He announces to the family that he’s finally finished his mass, “Mass: XVII. Pax: Communion,” so why does she jump in the pool, fully clothed, and sit at its bottom like Benjamin Braddock? Shouldn’t the moment be celebrated?

Well, it’s the boy, obviously, Tommy (Gideon Glick). Meeting him at a party at their home in the Dakota, Leonard pats his hair, and kisses him in the hallway outside, where they’re caught by Felicia; then he still him to their summer home. He holds hands with him during the premiere of the Mass. But he’s had his flings before, and she knew who he was when they married. Why is this different?

Because Tommy is less fling than muse. She thought the boys were the sex and she was the love, but they were the love, too. Or at least Tommy is. From an earlier conversation:

Leonard: “Summer sang in me a little while, it sings in me no more.” Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Felicia: If the summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. And if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music.

And he can’t. He’s a great conductor, a great educator, who’s produced a few great works, but not many, and everyone, particularly him, is wondering where it all is. And then the boy shows up and he finds it. He finds summer. That’s why she dunks herself in the pool and leaves his things in the hallway outside. All the time she thought she’d been helping and then she begins to wonder if it was the opposite. Or maybe she began to wonder, with the women’s movement, “What about me?”

That’s interesting, isn’t it? The second half of the movie is a clash of people who denied what they were, only to be allowed it late in life by worldwide movements—women’s and gay. It comes a bit late for her. The parade passes her by.

Throughout I had questions about his place in American culture. How did his involvement with “Omnibus” happen? How was it received? One assumes well. He educated the populace. The movie gives us Snoopy, small and large, but not the “Peanuts” of it all. Bernstein was there, early on, beloved by Charles Schulz:

I was born in 1963 and LEONARD BERNSTEIN was a name I always heard but didn’t know why. Probably because he did so many things: conductor, composer, activist. Probably because most of what he did was above me. Is. The movie helps with this but not enough. What did he do differently as a conductor? Why did he stand out? The movie feels like it was made for people who know what conductors actually do and that’s not me. It’s not many of us. It’s like we need someone to educate us on it. 

My favorite scene was after Felicia admonishes—demands—that Lenny not to tell their daughter, Jamie (Maya Hawke), the truth about the rumors she’s heard. So they talk. Father and daughter. It’s the most extended scene with one of his children. Generally he doesn’t seem too immersed in their lives. They’re there, in the background, as he moves through whatever the story is, but here the kid is finally part of the story. So they walk and sit and talk in the usual elliptical manner. And he tells that her people are just jealous.

Jamie: So those rumors aren’t true.
Leonard: No, darling.
Jamie: Thank you … for coming to talk to me. I’m relieved.

And you get this absolute sadness in his eyes. His daughter is relieved he’s not who he really is. It’s heartbreaking. For a moment, it looks like he’s about to come clean, but no. He doesn’t come clean until Felicia bates him to do it. He follows her lead.

I liked a lot of Cooper's directorial touches: how, in the beginning, the long curtains of his bedroom look like the curtains of a stage about to rise; how the note from his daughter floats down to him through the Dakota’s stairwell. I liked the doctor who tells her she has cancer—the way he sits on the stool and holds her hand and breaks the news without bullshit. God, I love this guy, whoever he is. And the scene where Leonard screams into a pillow because she's dying. I’ve been there a lot lately. The pain our pillows have felt.

“Maestro” tries to take in the immensity of the century as it relates to art and culture and politics and sex, and maybe that’s too much for a two hour movie. There’s a lot of talent in the room trying to depict all the talent that used to be in the room, and Lord knows I appreciate the attempt. But the movie gets a lot less interesting to me when she arrives. Then it becomes about them. And I just didn’t care about them.

Posted at 07:50 AM on Tuesday February 20, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Tuesday February 13, 2024

Movie Review: The Zone of Interest (2023)


In case you’re wondering: Yes, Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz for much of the war, responsible, in his own telling, for gassing and incinerating 2 ½ million human beings. And yes, he did have that awful haircut.

And in case you need the comeuppance the movie doesn’t give you: In March 1946, he was captured by British soldiers in Schleswig-Holstein. He insisted he was a simple gardener but the soldiers removed an expensive ring he was wearing with his name on the inside band, and there went that. In April, he testified in the Nuremberg trials, then was put on trial in Poland in March 1947. Found guilty on April 2, he was hanged on April 16. At Auschwitz. He was killed near the crematorium where he helped kill 2 ½ million Jews.

Sadly, his wife Hedwig remarried, moved to the U.S., and lived to be 90.

Life is beautiful
As soon as I heard the movie’s concept—what was life like for the family of the commandant at Auschwitz?—I was intrigued. I mostly wondered if it was mere character study or if writer-director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”), working from a novel by Martin Amis, focused on a kind of insular drama. They’re living next to the great horror of the 20th century, but they think the story is this—the little drama they’re going through. 

It’s a little of both. The movie opens with the family having a picnic near a river, and at one point we see Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) taking it all in, breathing in deeply, and appreciating all he has. Then, damn, back to work. He holds meetings. Efficiencies are suggested. While one furnace is cooling, he’s told, another can be ready. It can be around-the-clock. That makes sense to him. He approves. 

At home we see Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tending her garden. There are chores (mostly done by servants), and getting the kids off to school (ditto), but somebody has to organize all that, and that’s her. New clothes arrive. Or new-old clothes. They’re dumped on the dining room table. Some are kids clothes. Do we want any of them? Hedwig tries on a fur coat and admires herself in a full-length mirror. She has tea with neighbor ladies who talk and gossip. You see this diamond? one says. I found it in some toothpaste. They’re sneaky that way.

That’s the character study. The little drama arrives when Höss finds out he’s been promoted to deputy inspector of all concentration camps and the family will be relocated to Oranienburg, near Berlin. Isn’t that good news? No. He doesn’t want to leave. And Hedwig, when she finds out, really doesn’t want to leave. She puts her foot down. He can go back to Germany, she says. Why should they go, too? They’ve built this beautiful life here, amidst the lebensraum Herr Hitler promised (and delivered!), and she’s the envy of everyone who visits. Her mother is envious. It’s theirs. Why should they go? No, they won’t go. Life is too beautiful at Auschwitz.

The movie, or at least this mini-conflict within the movie, is reminiscent of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” isn’t it? But instead of the much talked-about 1904 World’s Fair, there’s the barely talked-about horror next door. 

How does this horror manifest itself? In small ways—like in the above ladies-who-lunch dialogue and sorting through kids clothes. There are thrumping nightmares from a sleepwalking child and disturbing closeups of flora. During a weekend excursion in the river, Rudolf steps on human remains. Hedwig’s mother leaves abruptly, apparently horrified by the smokestacks working in the distance, and afterwards a disgruntled Hedwig threatens the housekeeper—reminding her that her husband could turn her into ash. In Rudolf’s office, he schtups a female prisoner, then washes his genitalia in a basement sink. They are being warped by it all, if they didn’t arrive that way.

The great horror
Another question I had going in: Does the movie isolate the Germans, make them an aberration in history, or does it make us wonder what horrors we’re ignoring as we putter around our own (real or metaphoric) gardens? Thankfully, I think it leans toward the latter. At the least, the mood of the movie seeps in. Driving home, my wife commented on how pretty the lights at Denny Park looked, and it sounded like a horrific Hedwig line to me. It sounded wrong—the banality of it. And yes, it’s not the same but it’s enough the same. At the least, we’re all ignoring the great horror just to get through the day.

Höss, although we don’t see his comeuppance, does suffer a bit. After another round of meetings, descending an echoing staircase by himself, he begins to retch. Turns out he’s retching nothing; nothing is coming up. Then we flash forward to present-day Auschwitz: workers silently, methodically, preparing for the arrival of another batch, another trainload—but tourists now, witnesses to the evil we don't see in this movie. Then we flash back to Höss on the staircase. Was this a vision for him? Is that what led to the retching? 

See “Zone of Interest” in a movie theater. It’s worth it, but caveat: conversations could be stilted afterwards.

Posted at 07:08 AM on Tuesday February 13, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday January 29, 2024

Movie Review: American Fiction (2023)


It’s been a while since I’ve identified with a movie character as much as I did with Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the movie’s main theme, race, nor with Monk’s own racial attitudes. It has to do with everything else: west coast, separated from family, distant and not just geographically, a writer whose work nobody gives a shit about, and who is, on the wrong side of 55, increasingly grumpy and fed up with the world.

I felt seen.

OK, I’ll bring race into it, too. I am frustrated by all we can’t talk about, or won’t talk about, and it’s a list that feels like it’s growing rather than ebbing. I like that early scene in the college classroom when the white female student objects to the title of the short story they’re discussing, Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” which is written on the blackboard in big letters. She’s offended by that. She says so. And Monk sighs and says if he can get past it, she can.

And for that, and other missteps, he’s given a leave of absence from the college.

Here’s some of what I think is going on there. In order for the student to prove her racial innocence, she takes ownership of a word—meant to disparage him—away from him. She gets to own it and hide it away from everyone. And is that what’s been happening in the larger culture? We say “the n word,” rather than what the n word is, not to protect black people but to protect white people.

More offended than thou means more innocent than thou, which is the current game. And it’s getting old.

Heavy lifting
There are two forces pressing in on Monk in the early going: family and monetary needs back home in Boston; and the awful African-American books being elevated by white culture, such as “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), while his own novel, an adaptation of Aeschylus, is deemed “not black enough” and can’t find a publisher.

Some of this latter, to be honest, feels a little dated. The novel on which the movie is based, “Erasure” by Percival Everett, was published in 2001, and its author was apparently riffing off of 1990s books like “Push,” by Sapphire, which became the movie “Precious.” And is that still a thing? Also an adaptation of Aeschylus not finding a publisher isn’t exactly a racial problem; it’s wider. There’s a scene, too, where Monk goes into a bookstore, asks after his books, and an employee takes him to the “black” section. Incensed, since there’s nothing inherently black about his books except their author, he grabs an armful and redistributes them, over the hapless employee’s objections, to the classics section.

Thoughts from 2023-24:

  • He should be happy there’s a bookstore
  • He should be happy they have his books
  • He should be happy they have enough of his books—three copies each of four different titles, it looks like—that he can grab an armful of them

That’s the dated thing. Or the ego thing. And the ego thing should’ve been tempered by now. He’s 55. He should know better.

I loved the early conversations with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor at a clinic in Boston, who’s been doing the heavy lifting in family matters. Reminded me of my sister and I. They talk through serious issues, like what to do about their mom’s creeping dementia, and they joke and tease like siblings. She is so fun, in fact, and they have such good rapport, I wondered why Monk was so disengaged from his family. And then in the midst of drinks, in the midst of laughter, she has a heart attack and dies, and we’re crushed along with him. Not just because she was a great character but we worry for the movie. Wait, we’re left with just him? Who’s he going to play off of?

But that’s the point: Now he’s got to do the heavy lifting. There’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Night Comes On,” that I’ve been thinking about a lot since my brother died, and it fits both me and Monk: “I needed so much/To have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way.” Now he doesn’t have that remove.

And Mom (Leslie Uggams) is getting worse. The family has a longtime housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), but she’s getting up in years, too, and anyway she has a new suitor, and by the end of the movie she’ll be married. So Monk looks into nursing homes, trying to figure out what they can afford. It felt like things I’ve done. “Yeah, it’s $5,000+ per month, more for a single, and how do we afford that? And do they just keep taking her money until she doesn’t have any? And then it’s Medicaid? How does it work?”* All of those issues.

(*One way it works is that if it wasn’t for Medicaid, our family would be bankrupt. So thank you LBJ.)

Late one night, drinking, feeling the financial pressure, and tired of the Sintara Goldens of the world, he begins writing his own ghetto-ish story, recreated in his study, between Willy the Wonker (Keith David) and Van Go Jenkins (Okierete Onaodowan, Hercules Mulligan of “Hamilton” fame). It’s supposed to be a fuck you to the literary world, and that’s all it’s supposed to be, which is a little odd. He needs the money, and this is where the money is. Grab it. But I guess this is the way he gets to stay innocent. Because white publishers don’t get the joke; they love the book and want to give him a $750,000 advance. His attempts to sabotage all this goes nowhere.

Along the way there’s a budding romance with a neighbor above his paygrade, Coraline (Erika Alexander), and a budding relationship with his younger brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), whose marriage ended when his wife found him sleeping with another man. He’s out now, and into drugs and drink (despite the six-pack abs), and all of that felt a bit ’90s, too. A Clifford today wouldn’t go the heterosexual marriage route. He’d know who he was.

Peace sign
Does the movie not go deep enough? That was my initial feeling. At one point, both Monk and Golden wind up on a prestigious literary committee that is attempting to diversify, and where he has to rule on his own book, which was published with a punny pseudonym: Stagg R. Leigh. The white people on the committee love it. Golden doesn’t, which surprises him. You can see him thinking, “Wait, I was just doing what you were doing. So why is yours valid and mine not?” They talk about it briefly but she doesn’t know the parameters of the discussion. She doesn’t know she’s talking with the author. That felt like a good, unexplored area: the divide between what she felt was good and not, and authentic and not, in black literature.

Everything spirals away from Monk—but successfully: the book is a hit, it gets picked up by Hollywood, but his self-disgust ruins his relationship with Coraline. Then the movie becomes a kind of satire of Hollywood’s racial attitudes rather than the literary world’s. We get a multiverse of endings. Should it be this? Should it be that? Felt like a cop out.

I like the scene at the end in the Hollywood backlot where Monk gets into the convertible and locks eyes with the black extra in slave gear, eating his lunch, who flashes him the sideways peace sign. Monk nods. There’s a lot in that nod. There’s a lot in Jeffrey Wright’s eyes there.

“American Fiction” was adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson, who also did the recent, great “Watchmen” series on HBO, an ur-superhero tale that introduced the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to most Americans. I look forward to more from him. I’d like him to go back to that opening scene, the white student offended, and drill the fuck down.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Monday January 29, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Friday January 19, 2024

Movie Review: Asteroid City (2023)


My wife and I watched “Asteroid City” last September and came away disappointed. “Didn’t quite get that,” was the general feeling.

I recently watched it again hoping for a different reaction.


Junior stargazers
What’s the point of the story within the story within the story? Why does it have to be a kind of documentary, with an Edward R. Murrow-esque narrator (Bryan Cranston), talking about playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his final play, which is … this movie? How do the extra layers add anything? For me, they mostly detract. They confer artificiality—that Wes Anderson staple. Maybe that’s why he wanted them.

Right, he does this a lot. The three stories of “The French Dispatch” are three stories from The French Dispatch. In “Grand Budapest,” the story of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave F. is told through F. Murray Abraham’s Mr. Moustafa. Etc. But this felt a frame too far for me.

The desert town of Asteroid City, pop. 87, hosts an annual Junior Stargazers convention during the coldest part of the Cold War. Atom bombs are detonating in the distance (to shrugs), the military is there to encourage young minds (to beat the Russians), while the townsfolk try to make do. There’s a mechanic (Matt Dillon), who doesn’t seem to be cheating anyone, and a motel manager (Steve Carell), who is selling real estate via vending machines. They are two of the 87. There’s also a diner.

Into this sleepy berg, family station wagon sputtering and clanking and breaking down, come the Steenbecks: father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer; eldest Woodrow (Jake Ryan), a Junior Stargazer; and the three daughters, who come off like the witches of “Macbeth,” all toil and trouble. Augie had planned on stopping at Asteroid City for Woodrow, then driving on to California and the estate of Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), but the car trouble necessitates Stanley coming there, which he’s not happy to do. Particularly since Augie has put off his fatherly duty of telling the kids their mother died two weeks earlier. 

Another Junior Stargazer is Dinah (Grace Edwards), whose mother is movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Midge would like respite from the noise and the crowds but gawkers still prevail—star gazers, you could say—even if they’re deadpan stargazers like Augie, who takes a photo of Midge from across the diner. They have bungalows opposite each other, and from open windows flirt in that deadpan Wes Anderson manner. In this way, they draw closer.

I like how all the men, even the self-assured Stanley Zak, buckle a bit in Midge’s presence. This bit made me laugh out loud:

Midge: I do a nude scene. You want to see it?
[Long pause]
Augie: Huh? Did I say yes?
Midge: You didn’t say anything.
Augie: Uh, I mean yes. My mouth … My mouth didn’t speak.

Their junior counterparts, Woodrow and Dinah, also draw closer. All the pretty girls like all the smart boys in Wes Anderson’s world.

You know how young couples become friends through the children? The movie is a bit like that. We meet the families through the Junior Stargazers—though none as well as Augie and Midge. There’s a nice scene where five of our JSes play a memory game around a table. You have to repeat the names that each person has mentioned before adding your own: Cleopatra leads to Jagadish Chandra Bose leads to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek leads to Paracelsus, etc. Most names are long, international, and science-based. I would be out in the first round but they play for days.

The only other real standout among the kids is Clifford (Aristou Meehan), whose bit is to say “Dare me?” and, when no one does, to do the thing anyway. Liev Schrieber plays his father, J.J. Kellogg, a curmudgeon in a porkpie hat, who finally has enough and asks his son the meaning of these dares. It’s a poignant scene. The boy, seeming to reflect on it for the first time, says, “Maybe it’s because I’m afraid, otherwise, nobody will notice my existence … in the universe.” It’s like he recognizes its truth as he's saying it; for the first time he’s wholly vulnerable. His father, too, is touched, and for once agrees to play the game. “Dare you what?” he says. “Climb that cactus out there,” the boy says, pointing. “Lord, no, no,” the father says.

I would’ve liked more of a focus on these families rather than the frame-within-the-frame-within-the-frame. Most of the characters orbit each other from a distance, curious but wary. We’re all junior stargazers.

The muchness
I guess the place is called Asteroid City because an asteroid crash-landed there at some point, and they’re there on its anniversary, and during the celebration, led by Gen. Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), an alien arrives to take the asteroid. That happens about halfway through, and leads to a military quarantine of the place. Everyone is stuck there, but the JSes band together to get word out.

Wes immerses us in all the 1950s Southwest-specific bric-a-brac: from A-bomb tests to road-runners. Apparently he’s said that the quarantine idea wouldn’t have happened without our own COVID-19 version, but our version didn’t involve escapades, and anyway, for me, the alien and the quarantine detracts from everything else: the orbiting, and the curiosity, and the dares. The humanity.

Also detracting is just the wealth of characters and talent in the room. I haven’t mentioned half of them. Maya Hawke plays a young schoolteacher leading kids on a field trip, and Rupert Friend plays a singing cowboy interested in her, and not orbiting at all but actually dancing. Tilda Swinton is a scientist, Willem Dafoe is a German acting teacher with maybe two lines, Margot Robbie plays an actress who had the part of Midge before Mercedes Ford (also Johansson), and who, across balconies, has a scene with Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie (also Schwartzman). It’s the muchness of it all that detracts. I wanted Wes to focus. But all the stars came out.

Posted at 08:36 AM on Friday January 19, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday January 08, 2024

Movie Review: Dumb Money (2023)


I began getting anxious about a quarter of the way in. Took a while to figure out why.

The bad guys are short sellers, men such as Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), who are betting against a company called GameStop during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. They live in mansions, have expensive tastes. They’re not necessarily dicks but they’re not us, either. They float above it all. They’re worth billions. Fuck 'em. (BTW: Is Rogen doomed to play men named Plotkin the rest of his life? Feels like it.)

The good guys are led by Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a working class schlub, who frequents a subreddit called WallStreetBets under the pseudonym “Roaring Kitty,” live-streaming his opinions. And his main opinion is that GameStop is a good bet. “I like the stock!” he says, over and over, without really explaining why a brick-and-mortar company in the midst of the internet/pandemic age is a good bet. Yes, as he says, kids will want to play more video games during a pandemic. But will they visit a store at a dying mall to buy them?

Anyway he convinces a disparate group of the young and working class to join him in his quest to save GameStop and screw over the short sellers. Among the ones we see:

  • Jenny (America Ferrera), a nurse in debt
  • Marcos (Anthony Ramos), a GameStop employee
  • Riri and Harmony (Myha’la and Talia Ryder), two hot college students in debt

They all invest, mostly via an app called RobinHood. And the stock goes up! They’re not only beating back the bad guys but getting rich! Some are up a quarter mil! Gill is a millionaire!

Here’s the problem. Their strength is holding the line as a group, but they can only get at this money, at this prize, if they don’t hold the line—if they cash in as individuals. The scheme, as portrayed here, was built to fail. It was pretending an individual game (Wall Street) was a team game. That might work for a time, particularly if people are in it for laughs, but all bets are off when real money enters the fray.

And that’s why I was feeling anxious.

Unmerry unpranksters
Maybe the anxiety was also this: Is this even a good thing? GameStop’s stock was worth a few bucks in 2019, rose to about $20 when this all started, and reached a peak of … wait for it … $483 a share in late Jan. 2021. Is that an accurate valuation? The movie doesn’t care. “Woo woo, screw the jerks! Power to the people!”

Hell, what we see of GameStop? The demands store manager Brad (Dane DeHaan) makes of employee Marcos Garcia (Anthony Ramos) about pushing secondary products, etc.? They seem like a typical asshole corporation run by people without vision. I’m not even talking about poor Brad. He’s not making these policies; he’s just a middle man. But the movie, and Marcos, treat him as a villain, too. It’s another example of the film’s short-sightedness. (Nice seeing Dane DeHaan again, even in a small, unsympathetic role.)

In real life, wasn’t there more of a snarky vibe to this GameStop business? Most of the investors were in it for a laugh, right? They were anarchic pranksters thumbing their noses at the system. Here, most are true believers. They're dull and stolid. Thanks, no thanks. 

Once Plotkin realizes he’s losing playing solo against a team, he rallies his own team, including hedge fund managers Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), who are initially amused at his predicament, and then alarmed as they get sucked into the morass. At one point, the RobinHood app, run by Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt (Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota), stops working. You can’t buy GameStop stock on it; you can only sell. A glitch? Collusion? Either way the app boys come off as empty vessels who are in over their heads.

But fortunes are made. The college girls sell high. I guess Marcos does the same, though we don’t see that. Jenny, the nurse, gets screwed over. She’s too loyal to Keith and the stock. She’s too loyal to someone she doesn’t know and something she doesn’t use.

My old friend
I like Keith’s speech, via Zoom, to a congressional committee, on how we act like we know how Wall Street works but we don’t. We don’t get shorting. We’re the suckers. We’re the dumb money. World without end. 

The movie’s happy ending (for everyone but Jenny) implies that the hedge funds now have to pay attention to the dumb money because this kind of pile-on—this very specific social-media pile-on—could happen again. I guess? Not satisfying, though.

I’m curious what this movie could’ve looked like with a 1970s sensibility; if writers Lauren Shuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (“Orange is the New Black”), and director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya,” “Million Dollar Arm”), and all of the production companies associated with its making (Columbia, Sony, Black Bear, Ryder, Stage 6), hadn’t insisted on a happy ending. If it had allowed its heroes to be dicks and pranksters using the tech to have a smile at the expense of the suits. If it had been ambiguous about its morality. If, in the end, Keith had given us an uncertain look in the back of the bus while Simon & Garfunkel played on the soundtrack. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Posted at 09:25 AM on Monday January 08, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 04, 2024

Movie Review: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023)


I might not have been in the right mood for this. I saw “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” alone on Christmas Day at the Southdale Theater, about one month and half a mile removed from the murder of my brother at a bus stop on 66th and York Ave. in Edina, Minn. We were two days from his memorial and half the family was dealing with COVID. My step-mom got it, then my 91-year-old father, and several of us had been exposed, including my wife and I, so the two of us moved to a hotel in downtown Minneapolis to keep from exposing others. That was on a Wednesday. Saturday my wife tested positive, and we went to urgent care for paxlovid—which she couldn’t get because she was on antibiotics—and for a PCR test for me. Turns out I was negative. So I switched locations yet again to my deceased brother’s place in Richfield. The next day was Christmas. What do you do when it’s Christmas, your brother’s been murdered, and everyone in the family is social distancing? A movie sounded like a not-bad idea. I actually wanted to see other movies: “Boys in the Boat” maybe (but it was sold out at the Edina Theater), or “Wonka” maybe (but it was playing at the wrong time at Southdale), so I opted for this thing. Last choice on one of the worst days in the worst year of my life.

So I might not have been in the right mood for it.

That said, I only wanted what Hollywood was built on delivering: “Please make me forget for two hours, please.” Instead, I was almost happy to remember the horrors of my world because at least I could leave the stupidity of this one.

Pee in the face
“Lost Kingdom” is the last film in the DCEU, the interconnected superhero world Warner Bros. commissioned in the wake of Marvel’s triumphs and then handed off to Zack Snyder, a writer-director with neo-fascistic and douchebag tendencies. I thought hiring Snyder was a bad move when they announced it in 2010 and history hasn’t proven me wrong. At the same time, he did aspire to some kind of visual artistry. There’s no sense of aspiration from this thing other than to make money before the world ends.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa), forever called Arthur Curry by Snyder & Co., is now King of Atlantis (I’d forgotten), and father, with Mera (Amber Heard), to a new baby boy, Arthur Jr. Much of the opening is cutesy stuff for idiots. The baby is forever peeing on him during diaper changes, for example. One time, he dodges the stream but Mera redirects it—cause it’s water?—so it gets him in the face again. She laughs, the baby gurgles, and our hero gets a wuh-wuh look on his face. If that’s not bad enough, it felt like Momoa and Heard weren’t filming together. We'd see him and the baby, then her, then him and the baby. Apparently CGI can make underwater kingdoms but can't put two actors in the same shot.

Arthur doesn’t like being king—it’s a lot of blah blah, and he’s hampered from doing good work by the council—and meanwhile an enemy gathers: David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). I guess he was around in the first movie? I’d forgotten. He’s the son of a pirate that Aquaman killed in the first film so he’s bent on revenge in the second one. He and comic-relief Asian dude Stephen Shin (Randall Park) are excavating Atlantean artifacts when a black trident possesses David’s soul, giving him super powers. And hey, guess what? The entity possessing him also wants to destroy Atlantis! Win win. 

(Wouldn’t it have been dramatically interesting if the entity possessed someone who liked Atlantis? Like Stephen Shin? But onward.)

The possessed creature, now known as Black Mantis, is bent on stealing and releasing a mineral known as orichalcum, which, in ancient times, apparently overheated the planet. That’s what Mantis wants to do now. And it’s working! While the world dicks around, the oceans heat up. Mantis also steals the orichalcum reserves from Atlantis. That, more than an overheated ocean, is what alerts Arthur Curry to the problem. And it’s decided—by who, exactly?—that to find Kane/Mantis he needs to ally with his brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is stuck in a desert prison after being defeated by Arthur in the last movie. Right. I’d forgotten.

This thing is so stupid, I’ll let Wikipedia describe the next steps:

The two meet with the crime lord Kingfish, who provides information leading to a volcanic island in the South Pacific. While on the island, Arthur and Orm stumble across the black trident, which Orm learns was created by Kordax, the brother of King Atlan and ruler of the lost kingdom of Necrus who was imprisoned with blood magic following a failed attempt to usurp the throne. Realizing the blood of any of Atlan's descendants could release Kordax, the two make their way to Amnesty Bay, where they learn Kane has kidnapped Arthur Jr.

Oh, the exposition. Oh, the undersea travel. What’s important is that Mantis/Kordax needs the blood of an Atlantean, and he/they steal the baby. The baby.

At this point, I was hoping for a 1970s-era “Fantastic Four”/Franklin thing, where the child is more powerful than anyone realizes and takes care of the bad guy on its own. Doesn’t happen. Instead, underwater fights. Mantis does this, Aquaman does the other, Mera shows up to show women are powerful, too. The spirit of the Kordax winds up in the body of Orm but Arthur convinces Orm, through brotherly love or whatevs, to lay down his arms. Then he reveals Atlantis’ existence at a UN conference. I think they were hoping for a Black Panther/Wakanda vibe, but it just comes off as … seriously, nobody cares.

Door, ass, out
You know who I was wondering about throughout? So the villains who are superheating the earth include Mantis (who’s possessed), Shin (who’s torn), and Stingray (Jani Zhao), who’s … gungho? What’s her deal? Doesn’t she realize she’s making the world uninhabitable for her and hers? But she’s gungho to the end. She’s a true believer. She truly believes in the son of a pirate who is possessed by an ancient underwater king. Who wouldn’t be?

Momoa gets a screenwriting credit here because apparently some of this was his idea. That made me flash on  “Superman IV: The Quest of Peace.” Star Christopher Reeve wanted his character to handle the existential issue of the day, nuclear weapons, but, partnered with the cheap bastards at Golan & Globus, he just made a mess. For Momoa, it’s global warming and ditto. “Superman IV” also ended that series. 

Ultimately, this is the end the DCEU deserves. Now bang, whimper. Ours.

Posted at 07:00 AM on Thursday January 04, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 02, 2024

Movie Review: The Boys in the Boat (2023)


“The Boys in the Boat” is better than its 57% Rotten Tomatoes critics score but not as good as its 97% Rotten Tomatoes audience score. It’s a 65 percenter. It’s OK. I enjoyed watching it. I was moved a few times. I wanted to be moved more.

And not as good as the book, of course.

If you’d asked me when I’d read Daniel James Brown’s account of the University of Washington eight-man crew team that took on California, the east coast elites, and then the world in 1936, I would’ve guessed five years ago. It’s been 10. The book was published in 2013, and I probably read it that year or the next. I actually met Brown, who, per his author bio, “lives outside Seattle,” at the Port Townsend Film Festival in Sept. 2014. They’d asked him to host the showing of a favorite movie and he’d gone with … wait for it … “Breaking Away,” one of my all-time favorites. How could I not attend? It’s easy to see why the author of “Boys in the Boat” might choose “Breaking Away,” too. Both concern a team of young, working-class men who band together to win a race against incredible odds. I believe the announcer of the Little 500 even says something like that: One man may be exceptional … etc. etc. It takes a team.

In “Boat,” the teamwork requires an almost mystical precision.

About the boat
I don’t get some of the storytelling decisions by (I assume) director George Clooney, screenwriter Mark L. Smith, and probably suits at MGM or whatever suits own MGM. Maybe it was a matter of time and money? Those old standbys. Not having enough of either.

Why bookend it with an elderly Joe Rantz in the 1970s watching a nondescript crew team—as well as his own grandson in a one-man boat—dealing with the wakes created by a big loud motorboat? That’s not nearly as poignant as Brown’s own prologue about meeting the elderly Rantz, realizing the story he has to tell, and saying he’d like to write about it. Because it leads to this: 

Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”

I mean, that’s everything right there.

In the film, when we return to the 1930s, we see young Joe Rantz (Callum Turner, hunky) struggling to survive in a Hooverville in Seattle in 1936. I had two immediate thoughts:

  1. The Hoovervilles of 1936 sure look like the homeless encampments of today.
  2. Wait, 1936? And he’s not on the team yet?

In the book, and in life, Joe Rantz was actually recruited by Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton) from Roosevelt High School in 1933. Joe wasn’t thinking college until the offer came. That’s why he went. Then he and the freshman class of the 1933-34 crew team did amazing things. They rose and fell. They struggled. It took awhile to get in sync. That doesn’t happen overnight. 

In the movie it kinda does. In the movie, Rantz and the others join the team—to have a place to live and maybe some meals—and within a six-month span take over the world. It's as if the Beatles didn't need Hamburg or the Cavern Club. It's as if they didn't need their 10,000 hours.

I get truncating history for a two-hour film but here they also truncate the drama. The real drama, the real story, is how Joe has to unlearn what his own backstory had taught him about life: that he can’t rely on others. His mother died when he was young, his father remarried, his stepmom didn’t like him; and when his father decided to move the family to another state to find work, they didn’t take him along. As the car pulled out, his half-siblings were like, “Where’s Joe? Where’s Joe?” Left to fend for himself, kids. He was 14.

But he fended. He put himself through high school and got the college gig. Then he had to be part of a team. He had to trust—implicitly trust—and that took awhile. And we get some of that struggle in the movie, but it shows up oddly, and it’s intercut with a romance with a pretty girl (Hadley Robinson), who flirts with him like he’s George Clooney.

All of this comes to a head before the Poughkeepsie Regatta. In Seattle, Joe sees his old man again, who's returned to Seattle but still wants nothing to do with his son. Maybe before he saw Joe as the cast-off, and now he sees himself as the cast-off, with Joe getting his picture in the newspaper and all, or maybe he just feels way too guilty, but he says he’s fine with each of them going their own way. Does this gnaw at Joe? Anew? On the train platform, the pretty girl tells him she loves him, and he seems to not hear, but then returns to kiss her. So good, right? Except on the train, teammate Chuck Day (Thomas Elms) kids him with an unflattering nickname. Cottonwood Joe? Palooka Joe? No. Something that implies he’s poor. And they come to blows. But then Chuck apologizes and says his family only has money because they steal it. So he’s the same as Joe except he steals while Joe is honest. It’s a nice apology. So good, right? No, this is exactly when Joe goes out of rhythm with the team and is nearly replaced at the 11th hour. But then we get a version of that great scene from “An Officer and a Gentleman (also Pac NW), in which Richard Gere breaks down and admits he’s got nowhere else to go. That’s Joe to Coach Ulbrickson. But it’s mild. It’s everyday. It doesn’t really land. 

The advice that turned Joe toward the right path came from George Pocock (Peter Guinness), the man who built the shells the UW team races in, whose designs were ahead of their time, and who was in fact a kind of father-figure to Joe. They have a few scenes together. These also don’t quite land the way they should.

The losing of self
As the movie progresses, what is the conflict? Where is the drama? Basically this:

  • Will Joe get kicked out of school or make the team? He makes the team!
  • Will the kids beat Cal? They do!
  • Is Coach’s decision to elevate the JV squad a good one? It is!
  • Can Joe rejoin the team? He can!
  • Will they beat those east coast elites? They will!
  • Will they beat the Nazi bastards despite a bullshit lane assignment and a sickness befalling their strong, silent anchor Don Hume (Jack Mulhern)? Yes! In a literal photo finish!

Most of the above actually happened, but, again, liberties are taken.  Don Hume’s sickness was respiratory rather than flu-like. Coach elevated the JV squad, but at the beginning of the 1934-35 season and then snatched Poughkeepsie away from them. (If the boys are eight hearts beating as one, Coach Ulbrickson sometimes comes off as arrhythmia.)

Maybe there’s not enough Pocock in the film? In the book, his Zen-like quotes begin each chapter: Example: “What is the spiritual value of rowing? … The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.” What’s odd is that the team-effort thing is so much better communicated in the book, which is mostly a one-man job, rather than in the movie, which is wholly a team effort.

Will Clooney ever make a movie that wows? Did he ever? I remember liking his first, the Chuck Barris thing. His next, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” was a 2005 best-picture nominee, but it was merely OK for me and feels like it’s faded from view. “Ides of March” wanted to be a 1970s political/paranoid thriller and wasn’t. “Monuments Men” wasted great source material and an all-star cast. “The Tender Bar” felt too surface. Ditto this. 

Clooney does one thing I like. Back in 2014, reading about that last race in the Olympics for the gold, against the Brits, Italians and Nazis, I found myself all but rowing along. Brown describes the tension and the drama of the four-mile race so well that my body was literally moving back and forth in bed as if I were the ninth man in the boat. And that’s the moment Clooney puts us in there. The camera rows back and forth with the eight, and so do we. It’s a moment. I wish the movie had more of them.

Well, we’ll always have the book. They can’t take that away from us. Yet.

Posted at 06:22 AM on Tuesday January 02, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday December 18, 2023

Movie Review: Godzilla Minus One (2023)


Japan’s “Godzilla Minus One” is a huge step-up from the recent Hollywood Godzilla movies but that’s not hard; those were all pretty awful. Each one was a soap opera interspersed with attacks by a giant prehistoric lizard. Here, we get a character study … interspersed with attacks by a giant prehistoric lizard. Much better.

Shame about the ending, though.

Godzilla as metaphor
It’s the final days of World War II, and kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lands his plane on the crater-filled runway of Odo Island for repairs. Except head mechanic Sosaku Tachibana (Munetake Aoki) finds nothing wrong with it. Shikishima is quiet, burdened; it’s obvious he couldn’t kill himself for the Japanese empire. As he gazes at the horizon, carrying the weight of his guilt, he notices odd, deep-sea fish surfacing en masse. 

That night, when Odo is attacked by a giant prehistoric lizard the islanders call “Godzilla,” Tachibana orders Shikishima to get into his plane and fire his weapons at the monster. (Why is he so sure this will work? Who knows? Just play along.) Shikishima is actually brave enough to run to the plane but can’t bring himself to fire the weapons, and when he wakes the next morning, everyone but he and Tachibana have been killed. Tachibana hands him photos of the men whose lives his cowardice lost and curses him forever.

Twice coward now, Shikishima returns to a fire-bombed Tokyo, where he finds his childhood home razed and his parents dead. A neighbor lady, Sumiko Ota (Sakura Ando), who lost her own children, sees the kamikaze pilot alive, puts two and two together, and blames him for Japan losing the war. Thanks, lady.

I’d assumed that all of this was prologue, and at some point we’d cut to modern-day Japan, but no, the movie stays post-war. It’s both period piece and a kind of meta explanation for the Godzilla phenomenon. Why, within 10 years of World War II, did Japan make a movie about a giant monster that breathes fire and wreaks havoc from above? Why, indeed? Godzilla is us. Japan woke a sleeping giant, the U.S., that did exactly this. Godzilla could also be the A-bomb—both work as metaphors. To be honest, I never thought much about Godzilla metaphors before, but watching Shikishima and the others struggling to survive in the wreckage, and knowing what’s about to come, well, you can’t help but see the parallels. 

In the rubble, Shikishima meets a woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe), with a baby—not hers—and the three wind up living together in a shack. Platonically. He’s way too traumatized for anything else. Then he gets a well-paying job. Both Japan and the U.S. mined the waters around their island nation, and the new government hires men to remove the mines and blow them up. It’s dangerous work but Shikishima seems to want the danger. The man who couldn’t kill himself wants to die.

The movie is more Shikishima than Godzilla. Our questions about him as the movie progresses:

  • Will he fit in with the minesweeping crew? Yes.
  • Will he be able to fire his weapons at the mines? Yes—he’s a good shot.
  • Will he be able to fire his weapons at Godzilla, newly irradiated and enlarged (and enraged) by the A bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll? Yes.
  • Will Tachibana come back to haunt him? Yes, but not to haunt.
  • Will he and Noriko find true love? Why not. 

There’s a nice “What a hunk of junk” bit with the minesweeping boat, which is made of old, creaking wood. Shiki is told by its oft-bemused captain, Yoji Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), that the U.S. dropped mines that are attracted to metal. So: wood. The other two crewmembers are the affable former naval engineer with the nice hair, Kenji Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka); and Shiro Mizushima (Yuki Yamada), who doesn’t realize his good fortune of being too young for war. (I don’t know if Japan went the route of sending teenage boys to war, as the Germans did at the tail end, but I never bought that Shiro was too young to fight. For one thing, the actor playing him is 33.)

Oh, we also get a “Han Solo returns to take out the X-wings” vibe near the end, when Shiro returns at an opportune point to help with the final Godzilla battle. No surprise that, per Wiki, director Takashi Yamazaki was drawn to filmmaking by “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters.”

The film is oddly anti-government. It’s almost libertarian. Governments create problems (see: Bikini Atoll, WWII) but are nowhere on the solutions. This giant irradiated monster is heading toward Japan, and the U.S. is like, “Yeah, we’re busy with Russia now, how about we give you a couple of battleships and you take care of it, thanks.” And it’s not just the U.S. The Japanese government doesn’t want to tell the populace about Godzilla because they don’t want to cause a panic. The fuck? Plus they have no plan. No nothing. They’re not involved. When it’s time to tackle the big guy, it’s a consortium of private citizens.

The big brain of this group is the affable engineer with the nice hair, Kenji, who, because this Godzilla has the power to heal itself like Wolverine, suggests a rapid dunk with freon, then a rapid rise with inflatables, to kill it with decompression. Meanwhile, Shikishima’s got his own plans. During Godzilla’s attack on Ginza, he killed Noriko, so Shikishima plans to do what he couldn’t do during the war: ram a plane loaded with explosives down the throat of the bad guy. Banzai.

Along with “Star Wars” elements, there's a distinct “Jaws” vibe midway through.

33rd and counting
All of that goes down. The decompression weakens Godzilla, then Shikishima does the kamikaze thing and saves the day. Shikishima’s sacrifice is complete; he’s finally at peace.

Wait, what’s this? He ejected at the last minute? With an ejector shown to him by Tachibana? Who wants him to live? And Noriko is alive too? I think even Hollywood execs would blanch at so much happy ending out of nowhere.

Then we’re shown Godzilla regenerating. Because money.

Apparently this is the 33rd (!!!) Godzilla movie from the Toho Co.—i.e., not the Hollywood stuff—and I’ve seen, what, three or four of them? They seem to go in phases—one a year for five years, then nothing for six or nine years. The biggest fall-off in Godzilla production correlated with the Japanese economic miracle: Between 1975 and 1991 there were only two. Was life too good then? Does Godzilla only imperil Japan during moment of crises? 

I did like the quiet of this movie. I liked most of what it was trying to do.

Don't worry: Like James Bond, Godzilla will return in an exciting new adventure!

Posted at 05:58 AM on Monday December 18, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Saturday December 16, 2023

Movie Review: Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (2023)


Throughout Stephen Kijak’s doc, we get scenes from Rock Hudson’s movies that inform viewers of the real story behind the heterosexual facade. Basically they “Celluloid Closet” his oeuvre. 

  • In “Bengal Brigade” (1954), Rock’s character informs Arlene Dahl that he can’t marry her. “For a moment,” he says sadly, “I forgot who I am.”
  • In the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” an older woman tells him, cheerily, “You’re going to town tomorrow and find yourself some gay young playmate!”
  • In 1965’s “A Very Special Favor” he’s told: “Hiding in closets isn’t going to cure you.”

Even the 1950s tabloid press gets into the act:


One assumes these quotes are taken out of context, but there are a lot of them. Did the screenwriters know what they were doing? Did Rock? When did gay mean gay? When did in the closet mean in the closet? If all of this was done with a wink, they were certainly dancing on the parapet 

Maybe everyone just had the urge to say some small truth. Or a large one.

The personification of Americana
Rock Hudson was the biggest male movie star in the final years of the studio system. According to Quigley, he was among the top three box office performers from 1959 to 1964, and No. 1 in ’57 and ’59. Then everything changed. JFK was assassinated, the Beatles landed, and Hollywood, struggling to survive in the TV era, began to cut loose the decrepit Production Code in order to show what couldn’t be shown on television (sex and violence, mostly); to get people out of their homes again.

To be honest, Rock’s movie persona, or the movies he made in his heyday, never interested me in the way that, say, early 1960s Paul Newman movies did. I have no interest in the pillow talk movies, or in Douglas Sirk’s weepies, which cinephiles have elevated over the years. (Martin Scorsese has even given them his imprimatur.) Straight, Rock Hudson doesn’t do it for me. Gay, he’s fascinating.

“Rock Hudson is playing a man called Rock Hudson, who is the personification of Americana,” actress and film historian Illeana Douglas says here. “The identity was given to him. And he slipped into it and played it for the rest of his life.”

I’d go further: He was a gay man playing a macho straight man for a homophobic culture. A tall Midwestern kid named Roy Harold Scherer Jr. went to war, came to Hollywood, and was molded by gay talent agent Henry Willson, who, per the doc, taught his clients how to be heterosexual. Willson fixed teeth and effeminacy, and he gave his boys brawny names: Tab Hunter, Guy Madison, and, yes, Rock Hudson—a name so unyielding “The Flintstones” didn’t know what to do with it. In that cartoon world, Cary Grant became Cary Granite, Tony Curtis became Stoney Curtis, and Rock Hudson became … Rock Quarry? It was a name beyond parody.

Rock was toiling amid early 1950s B westerns and “easterns” when gay producer Ross Hunter hooked him up with Sirk for a remake of the 1935 film “Magnificent Obsession,” which became one of the highest-grossing movies of 1954. It made him a star. Several years later, the Doris Day comedies put him in another realm.

The doc spends a lot of time on his late-career attempt to upgrade to more serious fare, with John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” (19660, an art film that bombed. What it doesn’t talk about? The roles he took immediately after:

  • Maj. Donald Craig in “Tobruk” (1967)
  • Capt. Mie Harmon in “A Fine Pair” (1968)
  • Cdr. James Ferraday in “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)
  • Col. James Langdon in “The Undefeated” (1969)
  • Maj. William Larrabee in “Darling Lili” (1970) 

In every movie, he’s a military officer in some dull action-adventure. It’s almost a return to his pre-“Magnificent Obsession” career. It was like he went, “Well, that didn’t work.” The Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall were all happening, and Rock was retreating back into the 1950s personsification of Americana.

Was he ever close to coming out? The doc interviews Armistead Maupin, of “Tales of the City” fame, who met Rock in the early 1970s when Rock came to San Francisco to shoot “McMillan & Wife.” Maupin was of the “out” generation, who felt Rock and his friends were slightly ridiculous—“The pride they took in hiding,” Maupin says. “I had a bee in my bonnet at the time. I said ‘You need to come out of the closet, and I’m the guy who can help you with that.’”

He says Rock listened; it was Rock’s partner Tom Clark who nixed the idea. “Not until my mother dies,” Tom said. To which Maupin adds, “If I was fucking Rock Hudson, I would want my mother to know immediately.”

(Maupin gets off some of the doc’s best lines. He met Rock at a party where Rock read aloud from Maupin’s work: “I think he expected it to charm the pants off me … and it more or less did.”)

For all of the closeting and hiding from the tabloid press (some of whom probably knew), and the FBI (which definitely knew), and the general public (including Rock’s wife Phyllis Gates, 1955-58, who claimed not to know), it’s surprising to me how open the gay community was even in the homophobic 1950s. There were pool parties and beach parties, out in the open, and Rock fucked everybody, and was known for fucking everybody. In the doc, there’s an audio clip of a 1974 phone conversation with a friend telling Rock about a new boy in town. “How is he equipped?” Rock asks.

That whole “Rock Hudson is marrying Jim Nabors” rumor from 1970 began as a gay joke, then spread to the straight press, where proper people were properly offended on his behalf. “How awful that someone would suggest such a thing!” was the right-minded implication back then, rather than “How awful that this is considered awful.” But that was me, too, into my 20s. Whenever a rumor arose that Such-and-Such was gay, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Just look at that phrase. It’s its own kind of homophobia.

Day, Taylor
In 1985 I was in college, reading Newsweek, when I was shocked by a photo of Rock Hudson with Doris Day. I remember scanning the text to see if they said anything on the why of it, but it was all about some Doris Day event, which Rock was supporting, and nothing on how hollowed-out and haggard he looked. The real news broke later that week. Maybe even later that day.

Then the media crapfest: Rock unable to return home from the Paris hospital; the outrage over his “Dynasty” appearances. He knew he had AIDS when he kissed Linda Evans! In voiceover, Evans talks about having to do that scene over and over because his kiss was so unromantic and dry; because, she says, he was protecting her. Yes. Every way except by telling the world who he was and what he had. And yes, that’s asking a lot. The world was a powerful mass and much of it wanted you different—or dead. I doubt I could’ve done it.

Elizabeth Taylor comes off well here. She was already advocating for AIDS awareness—chairing an LA “Commitment to Life” fundraiser—when Rock’s news broke. Who doesn’t come off well? The press. This was Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News in the early days of the AIDS crisis:

Scientists for the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta today released the results of a study which shows that the lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer. 

I’m hoping someday for a great Rock Hudson biopic. It’s all there: the irony and hypocrisy of mid-century America. And its tragedy.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Saturday December 16, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday December 11, 2023

Movie Review: The Holdovers (2023)


At Barton Academy, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, several students are unable to return home during Christmas break 1970. It’s an annual occurrence, for which a teacher is always left in charge, and this year Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) gets the assignment. It’s not his year but he recently flunked the son of a U.S. senator, who was a big donor, incurring the wrath of the headmaster, Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman). So when the assigned teacher came up with a lame excuse (“My mother has lupus”), Hunham got tapped.

Few are happy about this—certainly not Hunham, and definitely not the kids. He teaches an ancient civilizations course, uses Latin liberally, and grades harshly. He’s walleyed, smells of fish, drinks too much. He’s disliked by students, faculty, staff. 

But over the course of winter break, he and the most obstreperous of the students, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sess), fight and bond, fight and bond, and bit by bit reveal more of themselves. It’s broken people finding each other, along with more of their own humanity. That’s a movie trope, often called “heartwarming,” but each scene feels genuine. There’s a stiltedness. Nothing quite lands in the way of movies. No scene is wholly satisfying. 

And I kind of liked that, but I still found Alexander Payne’s film, well, unsatisfying. And I don’t know if it’s because, deep down, I want the Hollywood of it all, or for a different, awful reason.

I just didn’t like the kid.

The journey
Angus should be thoroughly sympathetic. He’s shuttled from boarding school to boarding school, and the next stop is military academy and maybe Vietnam. His mother is recently remarried but she and hubby decide to go on a delayed honeymoon rather than host a family gathering. That’s why Angus is a holdover. And where’s his father? An early reveal comes in an argument with Paul:

Paul: You think I want to babysit you? I was praying your mother would pick up the phone, or your father would arrive in a helicopter or a flying saucer—
Angus: My father’s dead!

Except he's not. After Angus finagles a chaperoned trip to Boston, he abandons Paul in a movie theater where they’re watching Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man,” and when Paul catches up to him the truth is revealed: His dad is in a mental institution. He himself is taking anti-depressants. He’s sad about dad but worried that what happened to the old man will happen to him. He has no friends. One of the upper classmen is vaguely racist (Teddy Kountze, played by Brady Hepner), one is the supermellow star quarterback (Jason Smith, played by Michael Provost), while Angus is, you know, Angus. He stands up to Kountze’s backward racist barbs, sort of, and he’s empathetic when a smaller kid, a Korean kid, cries about missing his family. We should like him. So why don’t we? Or why don’t I?

Is it that he doesn’t let us in? He feels like elbows. He feels like thrashing.

How do you make an unlikeable character likeable? How does Paul Giamatti do it? Or do I just like his character because I’m closer to him? Both of us are on the wrong side of middle age, and wondering why what we know is considered useless while what we consider useless is everywhere in the culture. Mr. Hunham actually has a greater sense of humor about it than I do.

I like him because he has enthusiasms. He loves what he teaches, thinks it’s important, has standards and ethics he doesn’t compromise. He has wit, particularly in interactions with his students:

Kountze: Sir, I don’t understand.
Hunham: That is glaringly apparent.
Kountze: I can’t fail this class.
Hunham: Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze, I truly believe that you can.

And even as he tries to inculcate these kids with what he considers ancient, important wisdom, he has a shrugging acceptance of the way things are. “I find the world a bitter and complicated place,” he says, “and it seems to feel the same way about me.” At another point, as a lesson to the kids: “Life is a henhouse ladder: shitty and short.” He can’t help the walleye, he can’t help the fish smell, but he muddles through. I would rewatch the movie for him. 

The period details are amazing. Hanging in the dorm is that W.C. Fields black-and-white poster where he’s holding cards close to the chest and looking suspiciously around. (Mouse over the poster for a glance.) “One of my brothers had that poster,” my wife whispered to me. “We had it in the family rec room,” I whispered back. It was a thing seen everywhere back then and now nowhere. Who even knows W.C. Fields anymore? But there he was. Perfect.

At one point in Boston, they’re coming up out of a subway tunnel, and a woman is exiting in front of them, Jewish maybe, with a kind of black dress and a long dangling necklace of … a peace sign? I forget what it was. It just felt exact. So was all this the work of production designer Ryan Warren Smith? He was born in 1977 so wouldn’t know this stuff first-hand. Was it Smith working with Payne? A team effort?

It’s not just the details in the movie but the details surrounding it. You see it in the trailer: its stentorian voiceover; that final awkward hold on Giamatti’s shocked face. So perfectly ’70s. They have fun with it. The R rating in the beginning of the movie is that ultra-blue R rating screen from the ’70s. The Focus Features logo is full of the fat bends of the early 1970s.

Initially there are five holdovers, watched over by Mr. Hunham and the Black head of the kitchen, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s there because she lives there. She took the job way back when so her son could attend Barton. It’s a bit like Jenny Fields in “Garp.” Except when her son graduated, he couldn’t afford college like his rich white peers so he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He died in combat. She’s broken, too, but puts on a tired, brave face. Until she doesn’t. 

Four of the five kids wind up being helicoptered away—literally. Smith, the QB, is only there because his dad (who owns a helicopter plant or something) won’t let the kid come on the holiday ski trip unless he cuts his damn hair, and, though it’s never stated, it seems like the kid brokers a deal: take all of us holdovers and you get your wish. Near the end of the movie, we see him in the shower with short hair. I assume it’s him anyway. It’s the only time we see anyone with short hair.

Angus is the holdover who doesn’t go because his mom doesn’t pick up the phone. So he doesn’t even have peers anymore. And his thrashing and self-pity get worse.

What do we learn about Mr. Hunham in the process? That he was engaged once. That he suffers from a disease that causes the fish smell. That he got kicked out of Harvard for plagiarizing his roommate’s work, even though it was the opposite, and the roommate, the cheating rich kid, went on to success. Hunham was given a chance at Barton and clung to it. We learn that his enthusiasm for history and ancient Greece is genuine. 

What do we learn about the kid? The dad and the depression.

And Mary? We learn that “The Newlywed Game” and her drinking cover up a bottomless sorrow about her son that bursts forth at the Christmas party. We also learn she has a sister with a baby. We see her bring the sister her son’s old baby clothes. We learn she’s saving money so that some day that baby can go to college—so what happened to her son won’t happen to him. She’s given herself a reason to live.

Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson even give her the Jack Nicholson diner scene from “Five Easy Pieces.” You’ve got bread? And a toaster of some kind? For her, it’s cherries jubilees, which the restaurant won’t serve to the kid because of the brandy. So she orders the cherries and the ice cream to go. And in the parking lot, they douse it with their whisky and light it on fire and laugh. It’s their fuck you to the system, but this, too, doesn’t quite land. The fire gets out of control. They stomp on it with their feet. Life is not a Hollywood movie.

The sacrifice
I wondered how they would end it. School would start, and something would happen in ancient civ, and Hunham and Angus would share fond, knowing glances? There’s a bit of that, but short-lived. 

Because Angus’ awful mom and step-dad arrive, furious at the school and Mr. Hunham for allowing Angus to visit his father at a sanatorium. Now Dad thinks he’s returning home, and he tried to brain an orderly with the snow globe Angus gave him. The visit was the result of Angus’ machinations, but Hunham knows the next step for the kid is military school, then maybe Vietnam, and maybe an early grave. So he takes the bullet. He says it was all his idea. 

For that, he’s fired, but the kids hail him as a hero. Kidding. It’s the opposite. Rumors float about something untoward he did in the boys’ locker room—not that, just something stupid, like literally eating shit—and as he’s packing up his little car, which requires him to get in via the passenger seat (another great period detail), Angus comes over to talk, to thank him. They tell each other to stay strong. Again, the scene doesn’t land in a Hollywood way. You never really get the sense that Angus gets it—the sacrifice that was made on his behalf. 

I’m curious if Payne and Hemingson made the kid all elbows in order to make Hunham’s sacrifice more profound? Or is it more profound? It’s just messy. Hunham even seems to wonder over it.

At least now I know why the movie’s reception has been muted. But I don’t know. The more I write about it, the more I like it.

Posted at 09:38 AM on Monday December 11, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday November 20, 2023

Movie Review: The Killer (2023)


Does he always listen to “The Smiths” or does he mix it up? I.e., was he killing people to R.E.M. last month? Or the Beatles? Can you kill someone to “Shiny Happy People” or “All You Need Is Love”?

(I just flashed on a montage of slow-motion murder with “All You Need Is Love” on the soundtrack, and I think it would totally work—in that ironic, too-cool-for-school way.) 

Bigger question: Is he any good? He seems good. He’s a cold-blooded professional killer who looks like he knows what he’s doing, and who, in voiceover, keeps repeating the following mantra: “Stick to your plan. Anticipate, don't improvise. Trust no one. Never yield an advantage. Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” But does he follow any of his own advice? Isn’t most of the movie a battle no one’s paying him to fight? A battle where he keeps improvising and doesn’t stick to the plan? Doesn’t he miss his primary target and then leave a trail of blood in pursuit of the people who attacked his home and girlfriend, only to let off the man at the top?

And sure, that man at the top seems to genuinely not know the havoc he caused. He’s innocent … ish. But so is the cab driver and he got his brains splattered all over the front windshield. But then he was poor.

This charming man
David Fincher’s latest, and his second for Netflix (after the disappointing “Mank”), zips along and keeps us interested but in the end doesn’t resonate. For the thousandth time, I think of what Roger Ebert said about watching George Roy Hill’s “The World According to Garp.” He sat there thinking, “This is nice … this is nice …” and it got to the end and … “That’s it?” A lot of movies are like this.

Michael Fassbender plays our titular, unnamed anti-hero who travels the world using the aliases of 1970s sitcom characters: Felix Unger, Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Bob Hartley. Curious: Is this more than just a fun, pop-cultural aside? Is it a commentary on the dead-eyed hordes a childhood of watching TV creates? Wait, are we supposed to believe Fassbender is old enough to have grown up on this shit? He was actually born in ’77. These were my guys, not his. He’s not even 50 yet. Piker.

The first 15 minutes of the movie is Fassbender dealing with the boredom of a stakeout in Paris. We don’t know who he’s trying to kill but the target isn't arriving, so he spends the day, and much of the night, staring out the window of the empty, fifth-or-sixth-floor apartment waiting for an opportunity. We see him eat minimally, sleep minimally, stretch, do yoga. We hear him think. A lot. We get tons of voiceover.

The movie is based on a long-running graphic novel series of the same name by French writer Alexis Nolent (pen name: Matz) and French artist Luc Jacamon, and the voiceovers have a comic-book-y, Frank Miller-by-way-of-Mickey-Spillane quality to them—with maybe a little more wit and way more philosophy and statistics. Among the thoughts:

A hundred and forty million human beings are born every year, give or take. Worldwide population is approximately 7.8 billion. Every second, 1.8 people die—while 4.2 are born into that very same second. Nothing I've ever done will make any dent in these metrics.

At the same time, who's he talking to? Half of what he says doesn’t sound like stuff people think to themselves. Is this how he keeps himself interested? Pretending he has an audience? Pretending there's an us?

Eventually the target arrives, with a mistress or $1,000-a-night hooker, and, waiting a millisecond too long, or not anticipating properly, our guy, The Killer, TK, kills her rather than him. Then it’s off to the races. Leaving no trace, he escapes the country and returns to his estate in the Dominican Republic, only to find his house broken into and his girlfriend in the hospital. Two assailants. One beat her up and possibly raped her. The rest of the movie is his search for the people responsible. 

He’s very efficient but keeps screwing up. For the New Orleans lawyer who acts as go-between, he pumps three nails into his chest with a nail gun—cha-CHUNK, cha-CHUNK, cha-CHUNK—and thinks: “Early middle age, non-smoker, about 180 pounds. Should last six, seven minutes.” The guy slumps over immediately. “Shit.” In Florida, he lets himself get attacked by The Brute (Sala Baker), then miscalculates the dosage necessary to keep his pit bull asleep. Again and again, he’s wrong, and again and again, he thinks he’s righter than everyone. Is that the point?

I like the standoff with Tilda Swinton’s assassin over the flight of whisky at the high-end restaurant in NY. Question: Why did he eventually take the drink she offered? Because he figured one drink against her five wouldn’t put him at a disadvantage? Because he wanted her to think he was letting his guard down? I do like the way she gets it. She falls down some stairs, asks for a hand, and he seems to offer it—but instead of a helping hand there's a gun in it and he puts a bullet in her forehead. Then the reveals—to himself and us—the knife she was about to use on him. 

Chicago is where he finally finds The Client (Arliss Howard), but he’s a nondescript cretinous businessman whose security, per TK, isn’t exactly Mensa. “Good luck with the Wordle,” TK thinks. If you believe The Client, he agreed to a thing without knowing the thing. It was all the New Orleans lawyer. Or not. Maybe The Lawyer assumed The Client knew the thing when he didn’t. So our hero, or antihero, gets to the top and it is what it is: exposed, frayed wires. Nonsensical. No one's running the show. 

I know it’s over
Is there an epiphany for TK at the end? Is he changed by all that happens? Most of the movie, he seems above it all. Back in Paris, for example, as he’s looking through a rifle scope, maybe picking off innocent café patrons in his mind, he thinks about how throughout history the few have exploited the many, and “make sure you’re one of the few, not one of the many.” That’s his life advice to his nonexistent audience. Be one of the few. Like him. 

In the end, he’s back at his mansion in the DR, with the girlfriend who’s recovering from the attack. He serves her a cappuccino. They lay on lounge chairs. And he thinks about how security and fate are placebos, no one knows the future, the only life path is the one behind you. Then he thinks this: 

If, in the brief time we're all given, you can’t accept this, well, maybe you’re not one of the few.

[Long pause]

Maybe you’re just like me. One of the many.

Then behind his cool shades, his eye twitches.

Again, it was fun, just not much of a payoff. But it was nice seeing Michael F. again. Been awhile. Apparently the last movie he made/released was pre-pandemic: “Dark Phoenix.” This is better.

Posted at 06:51 AM on Monday November 20, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday November 13, 2023

Movie Review: Bottoms (2023)


That was fun. A little quirky, a little uneven maybe. Much of it feels improvised so the tone keeps fluctuating. What starts out true-to-life gets over-the-top quickly. There were times, watching, when I felt a little like Graham Chapman’s military officer in the “Monty Python” sketch: “Too silly, too silly, indeed. Get on with it now. … Get on with it.”

Like him, I assume I’m in the minority.

Groovy juvie
“Bottoms” is a high school comedy about two nerds who concoct schemes to get the pretty girls they’ve always dreamed about. But the two nerds are girls. That’s the selling point. It’s why something that’s basically a genre film feels new. Or newish.

PJ and Josie (Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) are best friends who like different, hot, popular girls. For Josie it’s Isabel (Havana Rose Liu—now that’s a name for the 21st century!), the cheerleader-girlfriend of high school QB and BMOC Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine). For PJ, it’s Isabel’s best friend, Brittany (Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford’s daughter/clone, who looks way too hot to exist in the real world), who is also a cheerleader, but mostly hangs and looks disdainful.

At the start of senior year, their friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz) talks up the rumor that PJ and Josie spent the summer in juvie, and the girls, particularly PJ, lean into it—more so when she realizes the hot girls think it’s cool. Through a series of oddities, this leads them to starting a girls-only “Fight Club” on campus. Basically our girls fake it until they make it. To show how tough she is, for example, Josie talks up how she almost killed a girl in juvie with her punch—and everyone believes it. Then to gain sympathy, she lays out the day-to-day horrors of juvie, and everyone believes that, too. (Admittedly, that one is more believable.)

And it works! Isabel breaks up with Jeff because he’s banging Hazel’s hot mom, Mrs. Calahan (Dagmare Dominczyk of “Succession”), causing Isabel to run into the arms (and bed) of Josie. PJ tries it with Brittany, but she’s straight, damnit.

Meanwhile, things get crazier and crazier. We go from Josie’s lie about nearly killing a girl to the rumor/reality that the rival high school, Huntington, actually kills locals during the big game. WTF? Some of the over-the-top is simply satiric: The football players wearing their unis—with shoulder pads and cleats—in class, for example. Meanwhile, Jeff’s toady, Tim (Miles Fowler), plots to end the fight club by: 1) having Hazel lose a match with the biggest football player to show how little they'd learned; and 2) spilling the beans that our girls were never in juvie and only started fight club to fuck hot girls. Yes, he really only needed the second one, particularly since Hazel holds her own.

But that’s our second-act downturn (the ostracism) before our third-act redemption: During the big game, the girls fight the Huntington team to the death (yes, to the death) while uncovering the Huntington scheme to kill Jeff via grapefruit juice. The good guys win. Josie gets the girl. 

One of us, one of us
Are there too many characters in this thing? I never really got the point of Stella-Rebecca (Virginia Tucker), a high school model. Sylvie (Summer Joy Campbell) is teeny but gungho, while Hazel keeps blowing up shit. There’s also Annie (Zamani Wilder), a nonentity until the big game, when Josie calls her “the smartest one” and “a black Republican.” Maybe such 11th hour exposition is the joke, but to me it just feels like 11th hour exposition.

And what era are we supposed to be in? It felt pre-#MeToo—the shit men say and get away with. Plus no smart phones. More and more movies do this to me. OK, when are we now?

The important thing is I laughed. I thought Sennott (co-writer, with director Emma Seligman) particularly funny. Plus it’s an important, widening perspective to have. It’s good to know that around women, lesbians are just as stupid as men.

Posted at 06:33 AM on Monday November 13, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Thursday November 09, 2023

Movie Review: Being Mary Tyler Moore (2023)


Oddly (or not), I thought of James Cagney, a hugely successful actor who enjoyed a 30-year run at the top while being nominated for three Oscars, winning one. But he always thought of himself as “an old song-and-dance man.” 

Mary Tyler Moore was a hugely successful comedianne who enjoyed a 20-year run at the top of the TV sitcom world, remaking the role of women on television and really in the world. She was nominated for lead actress in a comedy series 10 times, winning six; and yet, near the end of this doc, in one of those 1980s-era interviews with Rona Barrett or Barbara Walters or whomever, she says, “I will go to my grave thinking of myself as a failed dancer.”

She did keep going back to dance, didn’t she? She kept almost ruining her career with it.

Booing Brooks
After the successful run of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66), the world seemed her oyster. She was young and pretty and funny, “America’s Sweetheart,” and she nabbed the coveted role of Holly Golightly in the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” musical on Broadway. Except it was a huge bomb—managing only four previews before closing. Then she was cast as Miss Dorothy Brown to Julie Andrews’ “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which got OK reviews and did OK box office but felt thoroughly dated in the Sgt. Pepper-inflected summer of love. Then she was cast in a bunch of forgettable movies (“Don’t Just Stand There”), or unforgettably awful ones (“Change of Habit,” with Elvis). And there went the oyster. 

But! She clawed her way back and became America’s Sweetheart again during the hugely successful run of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77). And what did she turn to immediately after that? Song and dance, of course. She starred in “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour,” in which she played Mary McKinnon, star of a variety show, whose backstage dramas lead to a final rousing musical number. It lasted 11 episodes.

Was she hedging her bets? If I give you the sitcom, will you let me do some song and dance? Pretty please?

Why did she work so well in sitcom and not as a dancer? As Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, she was endearing. She was us, but better than us, because she looked like her but seemed like a person. As a dancer, she seems like a performer. She was trying too hard. There was a need there. During some of these interviews, too. My face hurt watching how much she smiled at Barbara and Rona. I’m like: No, it’s fine. No, you don’t have to turn the world on with that. The world will get along. Relax. It’s OK.

The doc delves into the post-Laura Petrie career difficulties (which I don’t remember) but not the post-Mary Richards’ ones (which I do). No mention of “The MTM Hour.” No mention of the later failed sitcoms: “Mary” (where she plays a fashion writer reduced to advice columnist for a Chicago tabloid); “Annie McGuire” (a politico who marries an engineer); ‘New York News” (she runs a newspaper). They lasted 11, 10 and 13 episodes, respectively.

Instead, we get personal stuff. Mom’s alcoholism. Dad’s distance. Her first failed marriage. Her successful marriage to Grant Tinker until it wasn’t. The death of her first son. The death of her brother. Her own alcoholism. Finding true love.

I’m more curious about her run as a dramatic actress—Oscar nom for “Ordinary People,” accolades for “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” on Broadway—and why it didn’t stick. Afterwards, she did one of those Dudley Moore bombs, “Six Weeks,” then it was back to weepy TV movies (“Heartsounds”) and failed sitcoms. Was she offered anything she regretted turning down? Or was not offered much since she was 45? Or did Hollywood not know what to do when America’s Sweetheart became America’s Ice Mom? 

We get some great talking heads but as voiceovers; I wouldn’t have minded seeing them, too. Particularly the parade of women for whom Mary Richards meant so much: Julie Louis-Dreyfuss, Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey. Watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” all of them were like: That’s a thing? That kind of career? I can do that? The shot of Oprah seeing Mary arrive on her show, and her jaw dropping, is just lovely: You feel how much Mary means to her. I wanted more of that.

I wanted more of this: During the “MTM,” run, we get footage of producer James L. Brooks attending a feminist conference where Gloria Steinem rakes “MTM” over the coals for not being feminist enough. Yes. Because Mary called Mr. Grant “Mr. Grant.” Brooks was booed for this. And yet this supposedly anti-feminist show inspired the next generation of powerful women. I was reminded of those studies showing how “Will & Grace”—another sitcom many on the left felt wasn’t radical enough—changed people’s perceptions of homosexuality for the better; how it maybe led to Obergefell. The idea being you make change not by haranguing people but by including the progressive or the radical within the context of the palatable—here, sitcom relationships—and you make those relationships intriguing enough and fun enough that people keep inviting them back into their home. Week after week. Year after year. 

I would’ve liked a discussion of that.

Work of art
“Being Mary Tyler Moore” was directed by James Adolphus, who admits, in a separate interview, that he hadn’t seen much of his subject’s work before he began. Like “The Dick Van Dyke Show”: not one episode. Or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”: ditto. So why was he chosen for this? No idea. But his lack of background shows.

I was surprised—and shouldn’t have been—by the anti-Semitism of the postwar period. “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” created by Carl Reiner, was originally supposed to star Reiner—but he was too Jewish, it was felt. They needed a WASP fronting the Jewish comedy. Then there was CBS’s reaction to the original idea of making Mary Richards a divorcee. Producers were told there were three no-nos at CBS:

  • No divorce
  • No moustaches
  • No Jews

So we’ve come a long way, baby. In other ways we’ve regressed. At one point someone mentions the Saturday night lineup on CBS during the early 1970s:

  • All in the Family
  • M*A*S*H
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • The Bob Newhart Show
  • The Carol Burnett Show

Holy crap. Look at that. That’s a work of art. We did that once.

Mary Tyler Moore was huge when I was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s. She was our girl. The show was our show. Look—Lake of the Isles! Lunds! A Fran Tarkenton jersey! All of this meant so much to a place that felt like, well, I guess the modern term is “flyover country.” We weren’t flown over then. Something landed.

Posted at 10:01 AM on Thursday November 09, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 04, 2023

Movie Review: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)


Watching, I assumed “Anatomy of a Fall,” which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was based on a hit novel that every women’s book group was currently reading. Nope, it’s an original screenplay by Arthur Harari and director Justine Triet, who wrote it specifically for German actress Sandra Hüller, who’s amazing.

But I was bored at times. It’s basically a “Lady or the Tiger?” proposition. Did she or didn’t she? Or: Was it an accident, suicide, or murder? Like in Frank R. Stockton’s short story, this one too is left ambiguous. It’s left for viewers to wrangle it out afterwards.

My main takeaway, though, is this: That’s one weird court system you’ve set up, France.

The non-smoking gun
It begins with dissonance. In a picturesque French chalet, two women talk and flirt over glasses of wine. Are they friends? No, it’s an interview, midday. The younger, hotter one (Camille Rutherford) is interviewing the older one, a novelist, Sandra Voyter (Hüller), but it’s odd. Why is Sandra flirting so? Why is the boy washing the dog upstairs and sniffing his coat? And when Sandra’s unseen husband begins banging away at a project in the attic, playing his music loudly, why doesn’t Sandra tell him to turn it down for a bit? She seems like the type not to suffer fools, but she suffers this. The flirtation, and the interview, end.

Then the boy, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who is blind or near blind, takes the dog for a walk, or the dog takes him, and when they return, Dad, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is laying on the snowy ground outside, a discarded rag doll, blood seeping from his head.

Here’s why I think she didn’t do it. When the boy yells for her, she comes outside, sleepily at first, and her reaction to seeing her husband’s rag-doll body—that electric jolt and movement toward the stairs—well, Sandra Hüller is actress enough to pull it off but not Sandra Voyter. And for an audience of no one? The boy can’t see. Hers is a natural reaction to sudden tragedy. 

And then the tragedy deepens. Police arrive, take measurements, ask questions. That top window is rather high. It would be tough for him to fall out of it, unless … Was he drunk? No, she says, he didn’t drink during the day. Was he suicidal? No, she says. Her matter-of-fact answers are eliminating all the explanations that might exonerate her. Basically, she’s forcing the cops to choose murder. And then they find a smoking gun.

Turns out Samuel recorded conversations. He was a failed writer and was using them to either spark his imagination or eliminate the need for it. And the day before his death, he recorded a doozy of an argument between himself and Sandra. We don’t hear this/see this until the 11th hour, and when we do, well, I had two thoughts: It’s one of the most realistic arguments between a couple I’ve seen in a movie; and … that’s their smoking gun? It’s a fight between a long-married couple, one successful and one not, whose sole offspring was blinded under their care. All that’s buried emerges.

Most of the movie is a trial in a French courtroom, where there’s a panel of judges, including a mostly ineffectual Presidente du tribunal (Anne Rotger), an avocat general who looks more like a skinhead (Antoine Reinartz), and a defense attorney and old family friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), whose got amazing fox-like eyes, and who may, inexplicably, have a thing for Sandra. I don’t know how accurate it all is to French jurisprudence, but one thing I liked is how free-floating the courtroom conversation can be. It’s not like in the U.S. where one person is in the witness box, impaneled to answer questions, and everyone else shut the fuck up. Here, the impaneled stands in the center of the courtroom, and others can be invited into the conversation. And apparently it’s OK for l’avocat general to propose outlandish theories in the middle of testimony? Like French talk shows, it got a little philosophical. As an American, familiar with U.S. courtroom dramas, I was like, “Can someone give me something substantial? A rock or pebble of a fact rather than all this air?”

The key throughout is the son, Daniel, who either heard or didn’t hear his parents’ final conversation before heading on his walk. But … is he protecting his mother? Is he withholding information? And if so, is he—who was closer to the father—about to cut her loose? One evening, we watch Renzi and Sandra drinking and flirting outside—the fliration is sudden and weird—and then we see Daniel in bed, listening to them; and the next day in trial he has extra closed-door testimony and that evening he demands that Mom stay somewhere else. It’s like he can’t stand being near her all of a sudden. (The way she breaks down and cries as she’s being driven away … holy crap.)

But he’s not cutting her loose.

His life as a dog
It’s a little complicated, involving vomit and aspirin, and whose vomit is it anyway, and he nearly kills his dog in the process, but amid it all he remembers his father talking about the dog, Snoop, and how he won’t be around forever, and he’s realizing retroactively, that Dad was actually talking about himself. He was talking about suicide.

The kid is great. A few times, in his speech, I flashed on Jean-Pierre Leaud from “400 Blows”—that boyhood attempt to sound more adult than you are. Or maybe it’s that French boys sound more adult than American boys. Or maybe it indicates the paucity of my French film knowledge. Anyway, I liked him. 

“Anatomy of a Fall” is a long, quiet film, too long and maybe too quiet, and its central character, Sandra, is not likable at all, which, yes, is part of the point. It helps with the lady-or-tiger question. She is, however, eminently believable. She feels like an acquaintance of an acquaintance that I can’t stand, and that winds up in my circle maybe two times a year. Oh crap, her again. Oh well. It’s why, at the end, when she’s exonerated, and she and Renzi are celebrating at a restaurant, drinking and flirting, and it looks like they might kiss, I had to shield my eyes.

Posted at 11:25 AM on Saturday November 04, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Monday October 30, 2023

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)


“Guardians 3” is one of the better superhero movies of 2023—we get action, humor, and one of the best arguments against animal testing ever in a popcorn movie—but does it go on too long? Does it undercut itself? Does it insist on giving everyone their unnecessary scene? Yes, yes and yes. It might also be too reliant on music to set the tone. But I like the music. 

It begins with Radiohead’s “Creep” and that’s who our heroes are, and who they think they are—misfits from around the galaxy:

I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

It ends with everyone dancing to Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” and that speaks not only to the end of the action and the defeat of the villain, and the various resolutions for our heroes’ personal dilemmas, but to what we’ve all been through: the COVID awfulness. And maybe the Trump awfulness? Or is it just James Gunn’s sign-off before taking over the DC Universe. Maybe Marvel was Gunn’s dog days.

Kidding. He was living the nerd dream. Is living it. He gets to decide what happens to Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. Him. That guy. He probably has Radiohead’s “Creep” in his head 24/7.

Lost souls
“Vol. 3” assumes we remember everything about the first two volumes, not to mention the various Avengerses, but I barely remember “Vol. 2.” Didn’t Star Lord/Peter (Chris Pratt) go looking for his father and find Kurt Russell/Ego? I guess (now that I’ve re-read my review) he realized that the Ravagers’ leader Yondu (Michael Rooker) was his real father, since he raised him and sacrificed for him, etc. The oddity is that, in this movie, I thought Yondu was Kraglin’s father. But he just passed on the flute-weapon to him? Apologies for not knowing chapters and verses, Marveldom. 

The movie opens in Knowhere, the Guardians HQ, with everyone dealing with their personal dilemmas—Peter keeps getting drunk because second Gamora (Zoe Saldana) doesn’t know and love him; Mantis (Pom Klementieff) thinks she isn’t taken seriously or something. During this quiet, and despite Radiohead, I thought of an old Cowboy Junkies’ song:

In the storm, you are my destination
In the port, you are my storm

Knowhere is the port and they’re each other’s storm. Then the real storm arrives in the form of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a golden-haired, golden-skinned man-baby that I vaguely remembered from my 1970s comic-collecting days. He cuts a swath through the Guardians and is only prevented from completing his mission when Nebula (Karen Gillan) stabs him through the chest. Even so, he all but kills Rocket Raccoon (voice: Bradley Cooper), but when the Guardians try to save Rocket with a med-pack they’re prevented by a “kill switch” because he’s the proprietary tech of Orgocorp. Which, yeah, feels a little meta.

From the beginning we get flashbacks to Rocket’s origins. He was experimented upon then tossed into a cage with other experimentees from Batch 89: Lylla, an otter with metal poles for arms; Teefs, a legless walrus, and Floor, a rabbit that I can’t even imagine what happened to her. They’re self-named. So is Rocket, who envisions great travels and blue sky. To the company, and particularly to the evil High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), he’s simply 89P134. “P13” for short. Which, yeah, feels a little “Les Miz.”

To get the code to override the kill-switch to save Rocket’s life, they fly to Orgocorp’s headquarters, an organic, gelatinous thingamajig in space, and with the help of the second version of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is now a Ravager (i.e., space pirate), they have to sneak inside, dodge various corporate security, led by Nathan Fillion, get into fights, etc. It’s fun. Oddly, the exposition on how they’re going to do this is given to us by Sylvester Stallone. Sly’s got talents but delivering exposition isn’t one of them. Anyway, they get what they need, but it wasn’t what they needed, so now they have to go to Counter-Earth, a “perfect society” that the High Evolutionary is creating with animal organisms that he has super-evolved into human-like states. Which, yeah, feels a little Dr. Moreau/“Island of Lost Souls.”

Landing their ship into a kind of ’90s suburbia, they’re aided by a bat family, then take off for the big corporate headquarters. Everyone is telling Star Lord he’s falling into a trap but he keeps insisting it’s a face-off, and they keep insisting it’s not a face-off if one side is way more powerful. Turns out Star Lord is kind of right—they jump out of corporate HQ with their maguffin and get what they need. It also turns out to be a pun from Gunn. In flashbacks we see the moment Rocket becomes Rocket—when he realizes he and his friends are going to be disposed of and plots their escape. The friends all die (Lylla's death scene is truly poignant) but Rocket attacks the High Evolutionary before flying out into the great blue sky he’d always dreamed of—but in that attack, we find out later, he’d clawed off the High Evolutionary’s face. For most of the movie, the dude is wearing a mask. So yes: face off.

Because they’re the Guardians, nothing is ever clean. Drax (Dave Bautista) suckers Mantis into going to HQ to rescue Peter and Groot, but now they’re not there, and the HQ is flying off because Counter-Earth is a failure and is being abandoned by the High Evolutionary. And so our heroes have to somehow:

  • Reunite
  • Defeat the superpowerful High Evolutionary
  • Save all the children in cages
  • Save all the animals in cages
  • Realize Drax is smarter than they think
  • Find closure for Rocket’s past
  • Find closure for Peter’s love for Gamora
  • Find closure for Kraglin calling Cosmo, the talking Soviet dog, a “bad dog,” and for Kraglin to master the flute-weapon thingy
  • Allow Warlock to join their community

Whew. It all goes down and everyone dances but it’s a bit much.

But, yes, fuck animal testing. I don’t know how we continue to let this happen.

I have to say, Bautista’s Drax is one of the great, original characters in the Marvel universe, and even in this third iteration they don’t waste him:

Quill: That’s why we’re going to break in!
Drax: And kill anyone who gets in our way!!!
Quill: Not kill anyone!
Drax: Kill a few people.
Quill: Kill no people!
Drax: Kill one guy. One stupid guy no one loves.
Quill: Now you’re just making it sad.

So when did Peter branch out of his 1970s playlist? When he got the Zune last go-round? And why do I know Will Poulter? He was immediately familiar and I couldn’t figure out why. “Detroit”? Was it just that? And trailers for “We’re the Millers”? Oh, “The Revenant”! Third-billed. Probably that. But he seems even more familiar. One wonders if it’s a quality some people have: seeming familiar. I bet it helps.

Post-credits, we get the re-formed “Guardians,” including Warlock, and led by Rocket, and … I just wish they’d let Peter die in space, as he seemed to be doing. It felt like it had the chance to be poignant. But of course not. He’s too valuable. He’s the proprietary tech of Orgocorp.

Early days, not dog days.

Posted at 08:46 AM on Monday October 30, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  
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