Movie Reviews - 2023 posts
Monday September 04, 2023
Movie Review: No More Bets (2023)
The last newly released Chinese movie I saw at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle was Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man 4” in early January 2020. Then you know what happened. Wuhan, China got very, very sick. Then the world got very, very sick. Then we stopped going to movies.
This past weekend was the first time since the pandemic began that I returned to Pacific Place to see a newly released Chinese film.
It’s been a long time.
I meant less since the pandemic began and more since China produced popular films about the crazy antics (the “Detective Chinatown” series) or the heroism (“Wolf Warrior 2”) of Chinese abroad. Now the lesson is an old, familiar one: Don’t trust foreigners! They actually say that at the end of this film: Don’t trust high-paying jobs—unless they’re in China. Stay here.
The girl’s in the bag and the cat’s off the balcony
“No More Bets” is not a good movie and let’s begin with that English title. The Chinese version is <<孤注一擲>> (guzhu yizhi), which translates to “Stake All On One Throw.“ That would be a better title. How about “Roll of the Dice”? Or “Big Stakes”? Or if some mucky-muck insists on the “Bets” thing, why not “All Bets Are Off”?
Pan Sheng (Zhang Yixing of the Chinese-Korean boy band EXO) is a rising computer programmer whose promotion is given to some nepo baby, and at first he’s like, “Whatevs, it’s all good.” A second later, he’s storming out of the company meeting, hacking his usurper’s presentation with emojis, and accepting a dream job in Singapore.
Which quickly turns into a nightmare. He and his peers barely get a moment in the “Crazy Rich Asians” city before they’re attacked in a back alley, hooded, and driven to another country. I think they call it “Canan”? The script on storefronts looks Thai but it could be Cambodian. Apologies. My SE Asian studies don’t go far.
Instead of the promised high-rise apartments they wind up in a place that is a mix of prison camp (barb wire fences, sleeping on thin mats) and modern corporation. People are routinely beaten for not toeing the line but they also have to attend gung-ho, call-and-response company meetings, where they’re extolled to do their best because they’re all on the same team. Holy fuck. Just give me the prison camp.
It’s a fraud factory, and there’s a whole bunch of data mining and data scraping going on. Here’s the real oddity: Pan is prized for his programming/hacking skills but he tries to escape by writing messages? On paper? I mean, I could do that. The first one he has to swallow in the toilet to avoid detection; the second, on a US$20 bill, gets everyone into trouble. Can’t he just, I don’t know, hide a message in a computer program?
A lot of the fraud involves online gambling, with hot, well-dressed ladies at card tables enticing online schnooks into betting the house. One of these women, Liang Anna (Gina Jin), helps Pan, or he helps her, but either way we then get her backstory. She was a fashion model in mainland China but her photo somehow wound up on a scandalous site, and rather than her company suing the bastards they think she’s at fault and drop her like a hot potato. Then a friend suggests the international gig.
Then we get the story of one of the schnooks, a recent grad named Tian (Taiwanese actor Talu Wang), who, maybe because of Liang’s photo, or just because he already has that predilection, gets suckered into online gambling. He does OK for a bit, then not, then suddenly it’s really, really bad, and his girlfriend, Song (Zhou Ye), is worried. At one point, gangsters show up at his family’s apartment to demand debts he owes, and to show they mean business they throw his cat over the high-rise balcony.
That’s the moment the movie lost me. We still get another 10-15 minutes of his handwringing, histrionic downfall, but I could give a fuck. Dude, you caused the death of your cat. If that doesn’t wake you up, nothing will.
(I'm serious, btw.)
Anyway, things get so bad he flops off a balcony voluntarily and winds up in a coma. Song tries to find the people responsible for his addiction, but the police, even the kindly Zhao Dongran (Young Mei), are mostly ineffectual. Meanwhile, abroad, various attempts at escape from the prison/company lead to various punishments. The main bad guy, Lu (Eric Wang), improbably takes a shine to Pan, and then, less improbably, toward Liang, in a different, more earthy way. For the latter, I gotta say: What took him so long? Why are these guys even kidnapping models in the first place if not for the sex? All the women do is sit at Vegas-like gambling tables and motion toward cards or chips or what have you, and couldn’t you deep fake that? I get why you need Pan but not why you need Liang.
After Pan owns up to writing on the US$20 bill, his leg is broken and he’s put in a small cage. Liang tries to escape on a bus but is betrayed by the cops, dragged to the waterfront, stuffed into a sack with stones, and tossed into the sea. The girl’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river. At least it wasn’t a cat.
How does she escape? She’s pulled back up with a crane because Lu’s right-hand man, An (Sunny Sun), heretofore a sadistic asshole, doesn’t want her to die. Does he have a crush on her? Is he developing a conscience? We get no clue. It comes out of nowhere.
Ultimately, Liang finds her way back to China, and, reluctantly, into Police Zhao’s task force, which returns to the SE Asian country to finally put a stop to it. Takes a while. One moment they’re disciplined and effectual, the next a step behind the bad guys. Rather than scenario writers, I imagine CCP members working levers. ”Well, we can’t show the police as incompetent … but we do need people to take this issue seriously, so..."
In the end, amid histrionics and melodrama, the factory is raided and the bad guys brought to justice—including Liang. Yes. She gets two years, or two years probation, or something, even though she was a victim through it all. Pan’s sentence is commuted because he helped break the case. But he’ll have a limp for the rest of his days.
Despite the melodrama, the story is “ripped from the headlines,” as they used to say. You can read the BBC report on Cambodian fraud factories here, and the closing credits include blurred-out interviews with real-life victims. Apparently fraud factories are a lucrative business. Also movies about fraud factories. This thing was released in China less than a month ago and it’s already grossed nearly half a billion U.S. That said, how does one view box office from a government-controlled movie industry? Did this one get a bigger push because they wanted its message out there? I imagine CCP members working levers.
Monday August 14, 2023
Movie Review: Barbie (2023)
Given everything writer-director Greta Gerwig had to work with—making a movie about a 1950s doll that is representative of sexism, repression and body-image issues, and somehow make it fun and funny and empowering, and with Mattel, the doll’s manufacturer, as one of the film’s producers—given all of that inevitable hassle, “Barbie” is pretty fucking amazing.
Given not all that … well, it’s still not bad. Beats another “Fast & Furious” or “Thor” or “Top Gun.” It’s about dolls but it relates to us. But it never has the emotional resonance of a “Toy Story” or “Inside Out.” It feels like it misses opportunities.
It’s a feminist movie, sure, but it’s trots out Feminism 101 talking points that anyone with ears has heard for decades. And it replaces a patriarchy with a matriarchy and says “Now we’re even.” OK?
Here’s a missed opportunity. A few years back, John Mulaney did a bit about his father’s generation. “My dad has no friends. And your dad has no friends. If you think your dad has friends you’re wrong. Your mom has friends and they have husbands. [Shakes head] Those are not your dad’s friends.” I flashed on this when Ken talked about how much he needed Barbie. That it was “Barbie and Ken,” and he was just “... and Ken,” and had no life of his own. And maybe she, or he, should’ve said that he really needed to hang with all the other Kens (and Allans, Kens’ friends!) rather than with the girl who didn’t need him.
And yes, I’m focusing on the men in a rare female-centric film; but I’m not suggesting more stuff with men, just different stuff with men.
But man did I laugh at the Zack Snyder joke.
Mean Boss Barbie
The movie begins with Barbie (Margot Robbie, perfect) having another dream day in her dream house, hanging with all the other Barbies—including Pres. Barbie (Issa Rae), scientist Barbie (Emma Mackey) and writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp)—and all but ignoring the super-needy Ken (Ryan Gosling, fantastic), whose job, he says, is not being a lifeguard but “the beach.” He just does “the beach.”
Then during a girls party at the dreamhouse, Barbie lets slip something about death and when the next day begins it’s … different. She wakes up tired and annoyed. Her breath stinks, the fake shower is cold and the fake drink tastes awful. What’s happening? The real disaster is back at the beach when she steps out of her high-heeled shoes. Rather than staying en pointe, her heels flop to the ground. Flat feet!
So she drives to meet Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, brilliant), who had been abused back in the day, and who suggests a symbiotic relationship has developed between Barbie and the girl playing with her in the real world. And Barbie needs to travel to the real world to work it all out.
Ken smuggles himself aboard, of course, joining the chorus as Barbie sings the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” and they travel through various Barbie-scapes until they land in that real-world locale closest to a Barbie-scape: Malibu Beach, Calif. She immediately feels weird and he immediately feels empowered. Because sexism. It’s the real world, not the Barbie one.
But which real world? That’s what I kept wondering. It feels like the early ’90s—you see images of Bill Clinton and Sylvester Stallone—but no one says it exactly. The Mattel board is just white dudes (led by Will Ferrell), and they’re all fine with it, and no one brings up diversity. That doesn’t feel like today or even this century. I mean, I’m never in these boardrooms, so maybe I’m wrong, but the PR push for the last several decades is certainly toward inclusion. So it all feels off. And it winds up being fish-in-a-barrel stuff.
Turns out, too, Barbie’s not symbiotically connected with a little girl, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), but her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), who is dealing with both the patriarchy and a teen daughter who’s grown cold to her. To be honest, the latter is the bigger issue for mom but the movie doesn’t go there. No one says, “Patriarchy sucks, sure, but teen daughters are the worst.” Sasha, who softens, remains one of the movie’s heroes.
Anyway there’s a lot of chase scenes—both cops and Mattel execs are after her—and Barbie talks to an old woman at a bus stop and an old woman in a kitchen (Rhea Perlman playing Ruth, the doll’s creator), and then she and Gloria and Sasha all return to Barbie-land, which is now Douche-ville thanks to the lessons about patriarchy that Ken brought back from the real world. SCOTUS justices are now just bikini babes. Why and how did that happen? The analogy the movie uses isn’t bad: like Native Americans against European diseases, the Barbies had no natural immunity against patriarchal brainwashing and fell hard and fast. It still doesn’t speak well of women—or Barbies—but onward.
It's Gloria who inadvertently finds the cure that shakes the Barbies from their brainwashing when she rants about how impossible it is to be a woman:
You have to be thin but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean. You have to lead but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.
Can I complain about this complaint? It’s supposed to be gender-specific but is it? Certainly not all of it. “You have to be a boss but you can’t be mean” is true for men, too, and anyway why would you want to be mean? “You have to lead but you can’t squash other people’s ideas” is also true for men, and, again, why would you want to squash other people’s ideas? If other people’s ideas are better than yours, shit, use them, and reward the person. Half the complaints, too, are less against the patriarchy and feel more internecine: the thin/healthy, mom/professional debates women have amongst themselves.
Worse, none of it would mean anything to someone reared in a Barbieocracy. But it’s the thing that wakes them up? Then they use their sexual wiles to get all the Kens jealous of each other, leading to a Ken War at the very moment the Kens are attempting to vote in the patriarchy permanently. Man, if we could just do the same with Republicans.
There’s some great lines. At one point, Allan (Michael Cera, so good, welcome back!) tries to hitch a ride into the real world with Gloria and Sasha. Called on it, he exclaims:
Allans have been in the real word before—no one’s noticed! NSYNC? They’re all Allans! Even that one!
The movie also gets meta. When Barbie breaks down, saying she’s not pretty anymore, our narrator (Helen Mirren) interrupts the proceedings: “Note to filmmakers: Margot Robbie is not the actress to get this point across.”
But the line that made me love the movie forever is one that writer Barbie says as she snaps out of her bimbo state:
It’s like I’ve been in a dream where I was really invested in the Zack Snyder cut of “Justice League.”
I had a good time, and I’m glad the movie is swamping the worldwide box office. Yeah, it’s a product; yeah, you could say it's about the biggest product-placement movie of all time. It’s still worthwhile. I just hope it leads to more interesting discussions than we’re having.
Monday August 07, 2023
Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)
Really? No one on the internet—meaning everyone in the world—has mentioned Pom Klementieff going full Adam Ant in the latest “Mission: Impossible”? I had to create this image myself? C’mon, kids, don’t make the old man do the heavy lifting. I’m Tom Cruise’s age.
I hate to say it but I was bored again. Bored with the last one, bored with this one. As Elton sang, I’ve seen this movie, too.
I went with friends who dug it, who feel “M:I” movies are “a cut above,” and they’re not wrong: great stunts, slam-bang action, exotic locales. They ratchet all that up to make it pop. It’s the same but bigger.
At least this time the plot doesn’t revolve around an IMF traitor: Jon Voight, Dougray Scott, Billy Cruddup, Henry Cavill—they all betrayed us. Now not. Maybe because IMF barely exists? It’s a skeleton crew, just Tom, Ving, Simon and maybe Rebecca as longtime love interest Ilsa Faust. Wait, did I say longtime? I was thinking of Michelle Monaghan as Julia, the nurse to whom he was engaged back in III, and who shows up in IV and maybe V, and anyway this movie reveals an even earlier love interest, Marie (Mariela Garriga), whom Ethan can’t protect and who dies. There’s so much vague love/vague tragedy in Ethan’s life—all with tall leggy brunettes—it’s hard to keep up. His stunts get bigger and his love gets vaguer.
Two halves of a doohickey
Most of the M:I rules that I laid out last time still apply. No matter how many times Ethan saves the world, he always begins the next movie under suspicion by replaceable bureaucratic types. There’s a crazy man (Gabriel, Esai Morales) with crazy terrorist plans (liaison to a sentient AI called “The Entity”), and he makes it personal with Ethan (Gabriel is the guy who killed Marie). Ethan runs through exotic cities in his super upright motion, does crazy stunts, saves the day. Well, in this one he saves the morning, since it's To Be Continued. It’s two and a half hours but “Part One.” That was part of the weight I felt watching. Five hours of this?
It didn’t help that last month I saw the latest “Indiana Jones,” which begins with a battle atop a moving train and concerns a worldwide search for two halves of a doohickey that can end life as we know it. “M:I7”? It concerns a worldwide search for two halves of a doohickey that can end life as we know it and ends with a battle atop a moving train. Completely different.
The two halves here are keys, and together they form a cruciform key, and it unlocks … what again? Early on, there’s a top-level intelligence briefing between Denlinger (Cary Elwes) and great supporting TV players like Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss, NSA), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma, DIA) and DA Buckner (Charles Parnell, NRO). This is when the boredom first hit me. Not because it was expository but because it felt fake. It wasn’t one person bringing Denlinger up to speed with a PowerPoint but everyone in the room taking turns, as coordinated as an Astaire-Rogers routine. “That’s not how it goes,” I thought. By trying to make it exciting, they made it dull. For me anyway.
I forget—did Ethan get one of the keys from Ilsa in the desert? I think he did. You could’ve lost that scene. The other key he’s planning to intercept at the Dubai Airport, but then, oops, international pickpocket and leggy brunette Grace (Hayley Atwell) takes it first, and there’s a lot of back and forth, and flirting, and masks coming off, and all the while Ethan is also being pursued by U.S. agents led by Nucky’s brother (Shea Whigham playing Briggs), while “the Entity” toys with Luther and Benji with a fake bomb scare. Then it’s Rome, then Venice, and there’s car chases and foot races, and masks coming off. That’s where Ilsa sacrifices herself to save Grace, and where Ethan vows revenge against Gabriel, her killer. Except he can’t vow too much revenge since only Gabriel knows what is the what with the cruciform key—although apparently everyone knows it’s the only thing that can save the world. We don’t know what it’s for but it’s the only thing that matters!
The final set piece is on the Orient Express. By now Grace has been recruited to IMF and her mission is to sneak on disguised as Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, reprising her role as the White Widow) and buy or sell half the key—I already forget which. There’s a moment, I guess, where she’s tempted to take the money and run, but it only would’ve been interesting if she’d taken the money and run. She doesn’t. She’s a true soldier. The untrue soldier is Denlinger, who shows up and wants a meet-and-greet with the Entity, but he plays all his cards right away, telling Gabriel that the key unlocks a chamber in the Russian sub we saw at the beginning of the movie, the Sevastopol, which contains the Beta version of the Entity (or something), so it can be used to get at the Entity (or something). Job done, Denlinger is killed.
The point is, Ethan can’t get on the train, so he has to hang glide into it, and does at the exact moment Grace is about to be killed by Gabriel. Gabriel and Ethan then play “find the sausage,” or, I guess, “the key.” Gabriel leaves thinking he has it, but … psych!
The stunt with the train is great—car by slow car crashing into a valley below, with Grace and Ethan escaping by the skin of their teeth each time. In the end they’re saved by Paris (Klementieff), the superhot assassin in Gabriel’s employ, whom Ethan chose not to kill in Venice.
“Why did you save me?” she asks, dying.
“Because you’re superhot,” he answers.
Kidding. He has no answer. No masks come off.
Pink is the new green
I’ll toss this out now: I think Gabriel is the Entity. That’s how Gabriel is so superefficient, and how he knew Paris would betray him. He’s sentient AI. It’s also how Esai Morales looks so good after all these decades. Seriously, bro, looking good.
Throughout, we get a lot of dull friend/family talk, like in one of the godawful Fast/Furious movies. Benji says friends are the most important thing to him, by which he means colleagues (Luther and Ethan), since he has no other life; Ethan tells newly indoctrinated Grace that her life means more to him than his own. Etc.
Is it all metaphor? IMF is like Cruise’s production team, and the doubting replaceable bureaucrats are like studio heads who don’t know if Cruise can do it again, so each time he has to prove himself. Ethan has to save the world and Tom has to save the box office.
He didn’t. This was supposed to be another summer of Tom, after last year's “Top Gun” triumph, but the seventh “M:I” and the fifth “Indiana” and the last of the DCEU (“The Flash”) all underperformed. This is the summer of Barbie, boys. Pink is the new green.
I guess half a billion worldwide is nothing to sneeze at but the previous one nearly did $800 million:
|2000||Mission: Impossible II||$215||3||$546||1|
|2006||Mission: Impossible III||$134||14||$398||8|
|2011||Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol||$209||7||$694||5|
|2015||Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation||$195||11||$682||8|
|2018||Mission: Impossible - Fallout||$220||8||$791||8|
|2023||Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One||$144||15||$453||8|
Look at the domestic hit Tom took in 2006 from his couch jumping, Brooke diatribe, and general weirdness. Talk about a mask coming off.
Wouldn’t it be great if Ethan let us down in the finale next summer? He can’t save the world, all his friends die, and AI wins? Imagine the betrayal on the faces shuffling out of the theater. Or if Ethan is the IMF betrayer this time—the way Jim Phelps/Jon Voight was in the first? Wow. That would be Tom Cruise’s most daring stunt ever.
Monday July 31, 2023
Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)
In a movie in which an 81-year-old man (Harrison Ford), playing a 69-year-old man (Indiana Jones), outraces New York subways on a horse, survives fistfights, gunshots wounds, tuk-tuk car crashes and rapid scuba-diving resurfacings, not to mention attacks from eels, scorpions and spiders, and then, why not, travels back through time in a Nazi war plane to 212 B.C. and meets Archimedes, the great philosopher-mathematician, during the Siege of Syracuse, amid all of this, I, of course, couldn’t get past the following incongruity:
Would a kid really be wearing a Bob Griese jersey in August 1969?
I mean, it’s possible: Griese was around. He was a rookie in ’67. But there were bigger NFL QB names back then: Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Bart Starr. Plus jerseys or jersey-shirts weren’t prevalent yet. A blank 12 jersey in Dolphins colors feels more like a ’70s thing.
But everything else? Yeah, why not.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is the fifth installment in the series, and at 2.5 hours, plus .5 for the previews, it was a tad long for this old man. But both my wife and I felt it was a little better than its word of mouth.
More: It seems like the past and future of movies all at once.
Everything old is new again
It’s the past of movies for obvious reasons: he old. We first saw Indy in the summer of 1981 in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—the No. 1 movie of the year and still No. 22 all-time adjusted for inflation—and then kept revisiting him: in 1984 (“Temple of Doom,” No. 2 for the year), 1989 (“Last Crusade,” No. 2) and 2008 (“Crystal Skull,” No. 3). He’s nostalgic. He’s the good old days. You can feel it in the number of times director James Mangold holds the camera on his iconic fedora and bullwhip. What is it—four times? Five? Twelve? Find someone who looks at you the way James Mangold looks at Indiana Jones’ fedora, basically.
And here’s the thing: Indiana Jones started out nostalgic. In the 1970s, George Lucas wanted to create a throwback to Saturday afternoon movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, but with A-production values, and Steven Spielberg said “Sign me up!” And it totally worked. Which means we’re now nostalgic for that time when we were nostalgic for that other time. That’s why the movie feels like it’s the past.
It feels like the future because of that opening sequence.
Near the end of WWII, Nazis are trying to scram from one of their many occupied countries when they capture an enemy agent and bring him hooded before Col. Weber (Thomas Kretschmann). When the hood is removed … ta da! … it’s Indiana Jones! Looking great. Thanks to CG and AI and who knows what other acronyms, he looks about 35 again. And sure, when he first speaks, we get that old-man Harrison growl and you’re like, “OK, that’s not fooling anybody.” But then that problem goes away, and suddenly we’re getting brand new scenes of Indiana Jones in his prime running from Nazis and battling them atop trains. It’s amazing.
And worrisome. We are now that much closer to the day when we won’t need new actors, when CGI and AI storytellers will give us new James Bond movies starring 1964 Sean Connery, or new “Star Wars” films with the ’77 crew, or maybe 1978 Christopher Reeve and 1989 Michael Keaton teaming up as Superman and Batman. Or did they already do that in “The Flash”? At what point does the culture stagnate? And have we already reached that point? And what does it do to us as a result? Would we do something stupid like, I don't know, elect a sociopathic game show host as president?
Anyway, that’s why it felt both exciting and depressing.
Indy’s latest holy grail is introduced in that opener: the titular Dial created by Archimedes, which supposedly reveals fissures in time that allow for time travel. Indy doesn’t buy any of that hocus-pocus but his Brit companion Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) is less skeptical, while their Nazi nemesis, Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), is all in. But he only has half of it. And then he gets punched off the train. Auf wiedersehen.
Cut to: Moon Day 1969. Initially I thought that meant July 20, the small step/great leap day, but here it’s the day the Apollo 11 astronauts are feted with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. That actually happened, by the way, and it was huge, and it was followed by a ticker-tape parade in Chicago and then a state dinner in LA presided over by Pres. Nixon—who, yes, could’ve used the Archimedes Dial himself—but parade day back then wasn’t called “Moon Day.” The newspaper usage of “Moon Day” in 1969 mostly concerned legislative talk to turn July 20 into a national holiday. Yes, didn’t happen.
If life for Indy in 1945 was exciting, by 1969 it’s just annoying. His wife has left him, his neighbors are damn hippies listening to that damn Beatles music (“Magical Mystery Tour”), and his students don’t know the answers. Oh, and he’s being forced to retire. Oh, and his son from the previous movie, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), died during the Vietnam War. No surprise, really. In 2008, LeBeouf was a huge rising star and now he’s problematic. So: Vietnam War.
Wait, one of Indy’s students does know the answers! Except she’s not his student. She’s his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), yes, the daughter of ol’ Basil, now deceased. Turns out she’s a bit larcenous, too. She wants the half of the Archimedes Dial that Indy took from her father—not for academic reasons but to sell to the highest bidder in Tangier. Another group (coincidentally?) shows up at the same time: Indy’s old nemesis Dr. Voller, with henchmen Klaber (Boyd Holbrook of “Narcos”: good) and Hauke (Olivier Richters: huge). Colleagues at Hunter College are killed, there’s a chase through the Apollo 11 ticker-tape parade, and Indy escapes on a horse but is of course blamed for the murders. And now we’re off to the races.
In Tangier, we’re introduced to the Griese jersey-wearing kid Teddy (Ethann Isidore), Helena’s larcenous sidekick, when Voller & Co. show up for another round of chase-me-I’m-yours. Then it’s the Aegean Sea, for scuba-diving with Indy’s old friend Renaldo (Antonio Banderas) and more chasing. Then Sicily and Archimedes’ Tomb. Each is a roller-coaster ride, and along the way Helena becomes less larcenous while Indy becomes more of a believer in the destiny of the Dial—particularly when they spot a wristwatch on Archimedes’ skeletal frame. But it’s at this moment, when they have both halves of the Dial, that Voller & Co. finally catch up and … yoink! They take both the Dial and Indy.
Voller/Mads is great, by the way. He wants Indy along not as a hostage but as a peer. He’s excited to show him what he’s done, and he wants Indy to be excited, too. Plus his plan is wonderfully ironic. Whenever the idea of time machines is brought up, the answer for many in the western world is to go back and kill Hitler. Which is exactly what Voller wants to do! Except he wants to do it to preserve Nazi victories. He wants to go back to ’39—maybe before Poland?—and kill him then. He wants a sensible Nazi Germany. I guess he’s nostalgic, too. Make Nazism Great Again.
Of course he overshoots the mark and winds up in 212 B.C.
Did anyone else think the warring factions in the Siege of Syracuse dealt with the sudden appearance of a WWII airplane with something like aplomb? They call it a dragon and start throwing spears, but c’mon, has any of them seen a dragon? Is no one deathly afraid of this huge metal thing in the sky? Also 212 B.C. spears turn out to be pretty effective. They actually down the thing and burn the Nazis. We knew how to make spears then. We knew how to burn Nazis.
Did anyone else think Helena—not to mention the movie—discounts Teddy’s achievements rather quickly? On the 1969 runway, he not only commandeers a plane and flies it for the first time, he pilots it through the timehole, then lands the sucker next to the warplane wreckage. He’s the reason they’re able to return. Otherwise they’re stuck there. How about a “Thank god” from her? Instead, she’s all, “Great work, kid, now don’t get cocky!” basically.
Because by this point she’s dealing with an Indiana Jones that doesn’t want to return to 1969. He’d rather hang with Archimedes in 212 B.C. than listen to one more Beatles song. I get it: archaeology. It’s the past as present. But talk about mucking with the timeline. Was anyone else disappointed in our longstanding hero?
Thankfully, Helena saves the day—and shortens the movie—by cold-cocking him. When he wakes up, it’s 1969 again. Think about all the heavy lifting she has to do here: drag Indy to Teddy’s plane in 212 B.C., fly with Teddy back through the timehole and somehow land on exactly the right century/year/day/time when they left; then (I assume) she has to drag him back to America, and New York City, and his apartment, and put him to bed. And while he’s still sleeping it off (helluva punch, girl), she reunites him with Karen Allen! She gets her to return! She gives him a reason to live! Then she takes Sallah (John Rhys-Davies: thinner) and all of his kids out for ice cream to give the lovebirds a moment.
Not bad for a woman who just wanted to sell half the Dial to the highest bidder in Tangier.
I’d heard Waller-Bridge wasn’t good, or her character was annoying, or something, but, no, she’s fine, it’s just that the character is inconsistent. She changes 180 degrees for no apparent reason. Plus you’d have to believe that Toby Jones, god bless him, sired this tall drink of water. That’s the Bob Griese jersey all over again.
Tuesday July 04, 2023
Movie Review: 100 Years of Warner Bros. (2023)
The brothers Warner: Sam, Harry, Jack and Albert. Sam was the visionary, Harry the businessman. Jack was the shvontz.
At first, I was pleasantly surprised.
Yes, it’s a four-part documentary on Warner Bros., produced by Warner Bros., and so a little self-congratulatory. But they got Morgan Freeman to narrate; and in that first episode, which takes us from the studio’s creation in 1923 until the late 1960s, when the last Warner, Jack, finally stepped down, they don’t ignore the bad shit: the blackface of “The Jazz Singer”; Jack taking credit—and the Oscar—for “Casablanca”; the cravenness of Jack before HUAC; Jack wresting control of the company from his two remaining brothers, possibly leading to the death of Harry in 1958. OK, so the problem was mostly Jack. James Cagney used to call him the Shvontz, Yiddish for “prick,” and the doc doesn’t ignore or whitewash any of it. That’s kind of cool.
And then the deeper we get into the series, and the closer we get to the present, the ickier it becomes.
CEOs come and go
I guess the second episode (late ’60s to early ’80s) isn’t bad. Merged with 7 Arts, and floundering, Warner Bros. was purchased by a gregarious former car salesman named Steve Ross, whose main question was: Do we still make movies? Is that still viable?
Turns out: Yes! And he hired three guys, Ted Ashley as CEO, Frank Wells as vice chair and John Calley to head production; and they in turn hired popular filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Mel Brooks, and true artists like Stanley Kubrick, and let them do what they do. Martin Scorsese talks about looking for a distributor for “Mean Streets,” and not only being turned down by Paramount but kind of insulted: “Please leave,” he was told. But the guys at Warners? They knew those streets, they knew those people, and Scorsese walked out of the Warners screening stunned that he had a distribution deal.
“The thing about Warner Bros.,” Scorsese says, “they gave serious filmmakers a real home.”
So why didn’t he stay? “Taxi Driver” was Columbia, “Raging Bull” United Artists. The doc brags about Warners’ association with Terrence Malick and “Badlands,” so why was “Days of Heaven” done at Paramount? Why, after “THX 1138” at Warner Bros., did George Lucas go to Universal for “American Graffiti” and Fox for “Star Wars”? It looks like Warners got rooked there. They gave the kid his shot, then he made his box office hits, and remade the culture, elsewhere.
Some of the narration is already beginning to feel off. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, Morgan Freeman tells us, “played to America’s lifelong romance with law and order.” That’s one way of putting it. We’re also told that Warners “struck TV gold with a character from its comic division”—Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Don’t get me wrong, she made an impact; but in its three years on the air, per Nielsen, the show finished 45th, 66th and 59th. Not quite “TV gold.”
The emphasis on Carter is part of the doc’s revisionism, which keeps underlining the studio’s bonafides with women and people of color. Sometimes it’s deserved (“Roots”), but mostly it feels like pandering or ass-covering. At one point, Freeman intones, “Attentive to the mood on the streets, Warner Bros. made history when they signed multitalented artist Gordon Parks, the first Black director to helm a major studio-financed film.” The doc then spends more time on Parks and “The Learning Tree” (1969) than it does on James Cagney and his entire oeuvre. Yes, I’m biased in the matter, but c’mon, Cagney was synonymous with Warners for years and years. His battles with the studio—legendary—are also given short shrift; they make it seem it was just Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland when it was a triumvirate. Cagney was first but de Havilland did it best. He won his own freedom while she won everybody’s.
In the third episode (early ‘80s to late ’90s), Robert Daly and Terry Semel are now running things, and we get Steven Spielberg talking up his deal with Warners, and how it was a great place to work, blah blah, but again his best movies were elsewhere. With Warners he directed “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “A.I.” and “Ready Player One.” Not exactly your Spielberg fest. Yes, Warners bankrolled Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” and, yes, they took chances with Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” fueling nutjobs around the world; but we’re now getting as much TV (“ER” and “Friends”) as movies; while the importance of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” per the narrative, isn’t that it demonstrated the box-office pop of superhero flicks; it’s that its box office allowed Warners to talk merger from a position of strength.
By the time you get to the final episode the corporate bullshit is thick. They brag about “unscripted television,” such as “The Bachelor” and “The Voice,” then give us short clips from the following:
- “Little Big Shots”
- “The Jennifer Hudson Show”
- “Hogwarts Tournament of Houses”
These are shows? Or were shows? Yes, past tense. Just checked: two of them lasted only one season. But it’s women, people of color and Warners IP, so here ya go.
Do we need five minutes on “Two and a Half Men”? Do we need Morgan Freeman intoning lines like:
“From the ultimate superhero face-off to a motley crew of supervillains, DC was reshaping the comic book film landscape.”
That one actually made me laugh out loud. In the first part he’s referencing the idiotic “Batman v. Superman” (Rotten Tomatoes: 29%), and in the second it’s the idiotic “Suicide Squad” (26%). Reshaping is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.
And guess who isn’t mentioned at all? Zack Snyder. Obviously I’m not a fan, but it takes some impressive footwork to keep talking up Warners’ superhero universe in the 2010s without once mentioning the architect. They do this by promoting Patty Jenkins, director of Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman,” along with new CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who arrived in 2013 and “really wanted to expand the DC universe.” Sure he did. Because Marvel had already shown the way and Snyder was in the midst of doing it. Or fucking it up.
Talking of weekend b.o.
“100 Years” was directed by Leslie Iwerks, and if that names sounds familiar, yes, she’s the granddaughter of the beautifully named Ub Iwerks, who, in 1928, helped create Mickey Mouse with some schlub named Disney. One of the men got fabulously wealthy. So it was, so it always shall be.
Again, the doc has moments. I liked Clint Eastwood, frail now, deep into his 90s, talking about how he misses Steve Ross. That was sweet. And I could listen to Spielberg and Scorsese talk movies forever. Plus it’s valuable learning movies from the viewpoint of just one studio. I wouldn’t mind if other studios did this. While we still have other studios.
But business sucks up more and more of the story. Mergers come fast and furious (AOL, AT&T, Discovery), and those CEOs begin to come and go with a rapidity that makes your head spin. Tsujihara has a #MeToo moment in 2019, so he’s replaced by Ann Sarnoff, who lasts a year until she’s replaced by Hulu founder Jason Kilar, who is gone with the arrival of Discovery and David Zaslav in ’22. Just in time for the birthday party! Zaslav goes on and on about the importance of storytelling, and how he works from Jack Warner’s old office with one of the original Maltese Falcons on his desk to remind him of what matters: “The stuff that dreams are made of,” he says, quoting Sam Spade misquoting Shakespeare. That's here. In the real world, Zaslav rebrands HBO as “Max,“ lays off half the staff at Turner Classic Movies, and shelves completed movies such as ”Batgirl" for tax purposes. The Shvontz lives.
Monday June 26, 2023
Movie Review: Past Lives (2023)
“Past Lives” is not a movie for passive men. Or maybe it’s exactly the movie for passive men.
It centers around the Korean concept of in yun, or how relationships in past lives affect this life. If you’re walking on the street and brush sleeves with someone, perhaps you knew each other in another life; and if you’re lovers, it's assumed you knew each other over many lives. That’s how Nora (Greta Lee) describes it to Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer she meets at an artist’s colony in New York. When he asks if she believes all that, she says no, it’s just something Koreans say to seduce one another. And then she sits there, very upright and very still, until he realizes, oh, that’s a kind of invitation. And he bridges the gap between them to kiss her. They wind up married. That happens less than halfway through the film.
At the end of the film, our two main protagonists, Nora and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), are walking in silence on the streets of Brooklyn before his Uber arrives to take him to the airport and back to Seoul and out of her life again. It recalls the scene when they were 12, when her family was suddenly leaving for Canada and they walked up the hills of Seoul for the last time in silence. Now, as they wait for his Uber, they talk about in yun again, and what it means in their relationship. They stare at each other and smile, and she’s very upright and very still, and she waits, and waits, and their bodies sway a little … and then his Uber arrives and he turns to put his suitcase in the backseat. As he does this, he misses how distraught she looks.
There is talk in the film about how, for Hae Sung, Nora is the woman who leaves, while for Arthur she’s the woman who stays. It’s sad, but it’s just the way things are. It’s fate.
But Arthur also makes a move and Hae Sung doesn’t. Arthur bridges the gap. Kids: Learn to bridge the gap.
Writer-director Celine Song gives us Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship in three stages:
- Age 12, when they’re best friends
- Age 24, when they reconnect via Facebook
- Age 36, when they meet in New York
In any romance, it’s the writer’s job to keep the lovers apart for two hours—we want anticipation, not closure—and Song’s answers to this age-old dilemma are unique. Phase one is easy. They’re just kids and her parents decide to move away. End of story.
And that would’ve been the end of the story at almost any time before, say, the mid-90s. They grow up, she does her thing in Canada/America, he does his in Korea, they never see each other again. Maybe they think about each other occasionally, as she does here: What was the name of that boy I had a crazy crush on? By now it’s 2010 or 2011, she’s living in New York, and she and mom are having fun looking up old friends online. So she googles Hae Sung and discovers he's been asking about her on Facebook. And that’s how they reconnect—via IMs and Skype and FaceTime. And they revel in each other’s faces.
Nora is ambitious and hard-edged most of the time, but around Hae Sung she softens. She does that Asian girl quirk of saying “Hmm” a lot—sometimes in thought, sometimes in agreement with others, sometimes in agreement with herself. She’s almost tingly around him, while he gets happy and bashful. All of which answers the writer’s dilemma. What keeps the lovers apart? They’re already apart.
Yes, but what keeps them apart? New York-to-Seoul is 15 hours. They could take the next step. So why don’t they? Now it gets murky. I would argue they don’t trust it enough. I would argue they’re both on their own path, being pushed along by their own currents, and each allows themselves to be pushed—she to a writers colony, he to China to study Mandarin. Maybe she sees he’s not a NYC guy, too, and that’s what she wants, because that’s the life she wants. So she says let’s take a break from this for a few months, and in that time she meets Arthur. And this never returns. And 12 years go by. And now it’s now.
Why does he visit her now? I never really got that, either, but he finally takes the 15-hour trip to NYC (he bridges that gap), and they meet in Central Park, and it’s so, so charming. “Wah,” she says, a Korean version of “Whoa.” Then he says it. And they keep saying it as they look at each other. After all this time, they can’t believe this other person, this missing piece of themselves, is here. It's just lovely. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie where I felt that two people belonged together more than these two.
So what keeps the lovers apart at the end?
I think it’s still the currents. She’s married, Arthur is nice (despite the video games), and she wants a writing life. But it’s also the gap that Hae Sung doesn’t bridge as they wait for the Uber. Or maybe he doesn’t bridge it because he suspects all of the aforementioned, and to close the gap, to give in to their love, would make her miserable in a different way. And he senses that and leaves her alone. And leaves.
I was a little disappointed in them, actually. They seemed so in love. Not everybody gets this. Don’t blow it. But that’s exactly what they do. They don't make enough of an effort. Is that why the film doesn’t quite resonate for me? Why it isn’t quite a tragedy? It’s a quiet, emotional film, but it doesn't sink in. It doesn’t bridge the gap.
There all the time
Or maybe you have to believe in reincarnation to make it work. His last line to her is: “See you then.” He’s talking about the next life. Not a bad line. I also liked something he says to her earlier:
If you had never left Seoul, would I still have looked for you?
I think he means: Do we fall in love if someone is there all the time? Or does love require absence? The absence doesn’t have to be physical, it could be the mere sense that the other is not all there, that they’re not fully committed. I’ve thought about this in my own life—that what we think of as love is just an incompleteness, a yearning, and if the other person is there all the time, well, fuck, what do I do with that? You want me? What the fuck is the matter with you?
When we first see Nora and Hae Sung as children, they’re walking home through the narrow streets of Seoul (it looks like Bukchon Hanok Village, which my wife and I visited last month), and she’s crying because he got a higher exam score. Usually she gets the high score, and she’s so competitive that she’s not even talking to him. Which he doesn’t think is fair. It was his one time being first—she should be happy for him. We later learn that she cries a lot, and we later learn that he often consoles her, and when they’re adults, after he leaves in the Uber, she walks back to her brownstone where Arthur sits patiently waiting on the steps outside to see if his wife will return. She does, of course, but then she breaks down in his arms. She cries for this other man. And Arthur consoles her. The torch has been passed.
Saturday June 24, 2023
Movie Review: Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
I actually kind of liked this. At least I liked it more than most critics, whose reviews were tabulated by Rotten Tomatoes into a 49% rating. Normally it goes the other way. Normally I’m like, “Really? That high, huh?” But I thought this was breezy and fun.
I guess it helps that I came in with low expectations.
C.C. Beck’s source material is ridiculous: “Holy Moly” and “Big Red Cheese” and “Talky Tawny,” and dopey villains like Mister Mind, a super-intelligent worm that the movies keep teeing up in those mid-credit sequences but have wisely stayed away from (thus far). Basically the original Captain Marvel was created for kids for whom Superman was too complex. And yet these David F. Sandberg-directed movies make it work. Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a kid who turns into a manly superhero (Zachary Levi) with a magic word (“Shazam!”). Every other incarnation portrayed the superhero as a man—a rather dull man—but here they wisely make him a kid inside a man’s body. It’s Superman crossed with “Big.”
I also like the sense of place we got here. The Shazamily has six members, but I’d say the city of Philadelphia is a close seventh. When the kids screw up, they’re known as the Philly Phiascos. When the baddies create chaos by planting a golden apple in our realm, it’s planted at Citizens Bank Park, home of the NL champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Kind of a bummer when I found out they never actually filmed in Philadelphia. Georgia. Tax breaks. So it goes.
The mightiest of mortal beings
Before the plot kicks in, we get the usual small emotional conflicts. Billy is worried about “aging out” of his foster home, and maybe as a result he’s over-managing the group. Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) wants to go off to college, while the entire group is not exactly getting kudos from the city. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge weakens and its supports snap, and the Shazamily shows up and rescues everybody, but can’t save the bridge. Rather than talk infrastructure, etc., the news media blames the superheroes. Everyone is J. Jonah Jameson now.
Meanwhile, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is being bullied at school. Is that still a thing? Jocks mocking the other-abled? Then a new, impossibly pretty girl named Anthea shows up (Rachel Zegler, Maria from “West Side Story”), and Freddy, no fool, stands up for her. She’s grateful, and maybe interested, but, oops, she’s with the bad guys, the Daughters of Atlas, who don’t like what the Wizard has done with Daddyo’s powers. (Atlas is that first “A” in Shazam!) So why is she hanging at Freddy’s high school? Because of that mid-credits scene in the first film, when Shazam and Superman buoy up Freddy in the lunchroom. Since Freddy apparently knows Shazam, she’s going to use him to find Shazam. Instead, he shows up as his own alter ego, Captain Marvel Jr., and they steal his powers with a thunderstick-y thing. They’re taking all the powers back, not just Daddyo’s.
I call him Captain Marvel Jr. above but the movie doesn’t call him that. It’s a running gag with a meta, intellectual property wink. The team is called the Phiascos in part because they’re unnamed; and they’re unnamed in part because Marvel owns the copyright to “Captain Marvel,” even though their Captain Marvel came way, way later*; so in this movie, everyone keeps suggesting different names for our heroes. Freddy wants to call himself “Captain Everypower,” one guy suggests “High Voltage” and I think “Captain Thunder”—the original Captain Marvel’s original name—is even tossed out. Eventually the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) tells him his real superhero name: “Shazam.” Sure.
* It’s a bit ironic that DC owns the copyright to the original Captain Marvel but not to the name, since they’re the ones that sued Fawcett Comics for Superman infringement—and won—allowing Marvel to eventually swoop in and grab the name. Live by IP, die by IP.
Oh, during the battle, one guy does use the original name, and I’m ashamed to say I missed who it was. Shazam has just been zapped, the citizenry cheer him on, and one guy shouts, “You’re the best, Captain Marvel!” His dopey red shirt with yellow collar/cuffs should’ve been the giveaway. It’s Michael Gray, who played Billy Batson in the live-action, Saturday-morning “Shazam!” TV series in the mid-1970s. I watched it all the time. Highways and byways of the land, baby! It’s a nice cameo. The original 1940s Billy Batson, Frank Coghlan Jr., guested on Michael's show in 1974, so this is a nice pass-the-torch moment. We'll see if they do it again in 2072.
The other Daughters of Atlas are Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), and they’re hardly of one mind. Lucy Liu wants serious vengies, Maria from “West Side Story” keeps empathizing with the humans (and Freddy), while the Grand Dame is stuck in the middle. When she gets too stuck, Lucy Liu simply eliminates her, then removes Anthea’s powers. She also puts a dome over Philly—I forget why—and unleashes “Jason and the Argonauts”-type monsters on the citizenry.
By this point, everyone in the Shazamily has lost their powers except for Billy. So what do the others do?
To be honest, they haven’t had much to do in the first place. I’m sure it’s tough for the filmmakers: six characters with super alter egos, each played by a different actor (except for Mary), so how do you make sure everyone gets proper face time? It’s mostly the Zach and Jack show. Even Asher Angel as Billy, the nominal star of the first, gets short shrift here. Pedro (Jovan Armand) comes out as gay, which … is that still a thing? Having to come out? It feels like we're this close from it not being anything. I forget what Eugene’s bit is, but Darla (Faithe Herman) likes animals. She has a kitty cat named Tawny—a shout-out to the Talking Tiger—and during the battle they are told that the one mythic beast that can take on the others is a unicorn. And she loves unicorns. (She's a little girl.) Except, wait, these aren’t good unicorns. They hate everybody. So what might tame them?
Get ready for the most blatant product-placement in movie history. Faced with a charging unicorn, cutie-pie Darla stands there with a confident smile, and at the last moment tosses into the air … Skittles! This stops the unicorn cold. It sniffs the air, then begins eating them off the ground while Darla whispers the product’s slogan: Taste the rainbow.
That’s pretty awful. I mean, whatever the Reese’s Pieces slogan was, E.T. never said it. At the same time, unicorns and rainbows cracked me up. It’s the 10-year-old girl dream combo.
Or 70 years past the life of the author
I know the movie doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but it has moments. Example: At the Rock of Eternity, the kids get a sentient feather pen named Steve, and they use it to send a letter to the Daughters of Atlas. Hespera reads the letter aloud, straight-faced, vaguely confused and impeccably Helen Mirren:
Dear Daughters of Atlas. Violence is not the answer. Oh, great first sentence. Thanks, Darla. We’d like to make a trade. We’ll give up our powers if you give us Freddy. Add “unharmed” or they’re gonna monkey’s paw you. Smart, Eugene. Steve, add “unharmed.” Then, like, “Yours tru…” No. “Sincerely.” “Best.” Maybe just “Signed, The Champions.” Should we proofread it? Nah, Steve doesn’t make mistakes, just writes what you say. Great, I feel good about this. Me, too. Anyone else want a Gatorade? Do we have red?
In the end, Shazam sacrifices himself to defeat Lucy Liu. But at his gravesite, his crush and ours, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), shows up, and, as a god herself, reactivates the thunderstick, restoring various powers and, yes, bringing Shazam back to life. It’s an OK scene, and always nice to see Gal, but I was hoping they’d just let him lie. Learn the Leo’s-face-disappearing-into-the-void lesson of “Titanic.” But he’s IP. IP lives forever. Or at least 100 years.
The second Billy cheering on the third, copyright laws be damned.
Tuesday June 20, 2023
Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
Did they intend to make Scott Lang’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), super annoying? Within the first 15 minutes, she:
- Gets arrested protesting the SFPD breaking up a homeless encampment (she says she did it peacefully but she also shrinks a cop car down to Matchbox size, which she hands over to the police with a knowing smirk*).
- Dismisses the fact that dad, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), sure, helped save half the universe, but what’s he done for us lately? Why aren’t you saving the world AGAIN, Dad!
- Reveals she’s been sending signals to the quantum realm where Grandma, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer)**, was traumatized for 30 years.
- Gets everyone in her family sucked back into the quantum realm.
* I thought the point of Ant-Man was that even ant-sized he maintained the strength/weight of a full-sized human. So wouldn’t the cop car weigh like 2,500 pounds rather than 2.5?
** I get that she’s 65 now. But if that’s Grandma, call me Grandpa.
And while Cassie has moments of regret, as soon as they run into a tribe of oppressed peoples led by an angry female warrior named Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian), who glares angrily at Ant-Man as if he were Gen. Custer, Cassie’s all “We have to help these microscopic people, Dad!” rather than, you know, looking for ways to get out of the horror she got them into. But of course that’s the point of the movie. Early on, reading from his awful autobiography to a rapt room of kids and parents, Scott says: “Make mistakes. Take chances. Because if there’s one thing that life’s taught me, there’s always room to grow.” He says this cheesily, in that knowing-wink way of Paul Rudd, but it’s what Cassie does. She makes mistakes, takes chances, and in the final act rescues the angry female warrior and gives the speech that rallies the masses to take on Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).
She’s still super annoying.
Nothing but Star Wars
I avoided this one for a while. The quantum realm? No, thanks. Maybe others felt this way, too. (It didn’t do great at the box office.) Maybe Marvel had research indicating, “Yeah, no one cares about the quantum realm,” and rather than pivot they just tossed everything into it: giant cilium and cannister-head robots and 1970s-era Omni magazine far-out landscapes, and 1980s-era “Blade Runner” cityscapes. Not to mention bars out of “Star Wars.” It’s so “bars out of ‘Star Wars’” you’d expect a lawsuit if both properties weren’t owned by Disney. That’s creativity now—copying from whatever other IP you own. Oh look, jawas. Oh look, sandpeople. Oh look, Bill Murray.
Murray plays Lord Krylar, a self-important functionary with a thing for Grandma who gets his quickly and ironically—eaten by a type of critter he’d been eating, which was supersized by the original Ant-Man, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). He’s down there, too. He and Janet Van Dyne (Pfeiffer) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), a.k.a. the Wasp of the title. They get separated from the Langs and have their own adventure.
You know, for a title character, Wasp doesn’t factor in much—in the storyline or in our imaginations. Who is she? What’s her role? There’s nothing there. Scott has the father-daughter thing going, Grandma is guilt-ridden because she helped Kang before she realized who he was, and Hank, original Ant-Man, just gets off some good, breezy lines. Does Douglas act much any more? He did “The Kaminsky Method” TV series a few years ago—I might have to check that out. Otherwise he’s been sucked into the Marvel universe. But he’s so good. He’s fun.
I also liked Majors as Kang. I always thought of Kang as a semi-boring Iron Man villain but apparently he controls the multiverse, or whatever, and is being positioned as the new big supervillain. Majors plays him both infinitely sad and terrifying. You empathize until he shows his true self:
Let me make this easy for you. You will bring me what I need or I will kill your daughter in front of you, then make you relive that moment over and over again in time, endlessly, until you beg me to kill you.
What does Kang need here? A power core. That’s this movie’s Maguffin, or one of its many. Scott agrees to steal it, but then the Multiverse kicks in and suddenly there are thousands of Scotts. But Hope shows up, the Scotts band together for the good of Cassie (I guess none of them find her super annoying), and Scott and Hope team up to take on Kang. All the boxes are checked. Our titular heroes destroy the power core, Cassie somehow creates a portal back to Earth, and Kang is defeated by original Ant-Man and a horde of ants that were also sucked into the quantum realm and became hyper-intelligent. More irony, since Kang was forever dismissing Scott’s power: “You … talk to ants!” Oops.
Stick ’em up
Mostly, though, I was bored. It took several sittings before I finished. I worked it down like a kid eating broccoli. Without the nutritional value.
At least they seem to be setting up something big in the Marvel universe again. Post-credits, we got all the Kangs ready to take over all of their various multiverses. That certainly beats whatever they’ve been doing since 2019, but do they have to keep going bigger? Thanos killed half the universe and now the Kangs are messing with the fabric of all time and space. Part of me misses bank robbers.
Monday June 12, 2023
Movie Review: Air (2023)
It’s a tale told in three sales pitches:
- To get in the door (“I don’t like to take no for an answer. And I actually think your son should be endorsed by someone with that exact mindset.”)
- To set up the meeting (“I believe in your son. I believe he’s different. And I believe you might be the only person on Earth who knows it.”)
- To seal the deal (“A shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it.”)
Schlubby Nike exec Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) has to make other pitches, too. He gets a feeling about Michael Jordan, the skinny guard from North Carolina who took the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA tournament, but he has to convince Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to bet it all on him, then he has to finesse the kid’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), to not get in the way.
But these pitches are semi-comic, the men he’s pitching to vaguely ridiculous. The pitches to the family, particularly the mom (force of nature Viola Davis), are heartfelt and poetic.
Aren’t they also a bit of a lie? They convince us that what matters is the words—the pitch—when it really comes down to the numbers: the $250k, the car, the specially designed sneaker, and a cut from all sales of the specially designed sneaker. That’s what wins the day. A pitch is just a pitch until someone comes up with the scratch.
“Air,” written by Alex Convery and directed by Affleck, is a fun, breezy movie, and I enjoyed it throughout, but I felt a little empty afterwards. These are our heroes now? These are our stories? A crummy commercial?
“Air’ also glosses over what I feel is the most important part of the story: the feeling.
The feeling about the shot
Haven’t we all had such feelings or premonitions? I had a very strong feeling that Donald Trump would win the 2016 presidential election, for example, particularly after James Comey opened his piehole 11 days beforehand. The Thursday before election day, I biked down to Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront, massively depressed, anticipating it all, actually thinking of the happy people passing by, “They don’t know what’s about to happen.” What is that? Is it nothing? Is it paranoia? Or is it tapping into … something? It’s either nothing or it’s everything.
Sonny not only has his feeling about MJ but he acts on it. He risks his career on it. Why?
In the movie, it goes back to The Shot. (The first “The Shot” for MJ.) James Worthy was the big man on the UNC team, he was supposed to take the last-minute, down-by-one shot, but watching the video Sonny realizes, no, he was just a decoy. It was always supposed to be the freshman. And why would UNC coach Dean Smith—who rarely played freshman—trust this one freshman over his superstar All-American with the national title on the line?
And why does no one else get it? Sonny’s in Beaverton, Oregon, but the NBA team down the block misses out. For a time I thought the movie was joking about all the kids in the ’84 draft—Jordan and Olajuwon and Barkley and Stockton?—but it turns out, yes, that draft was legendary and they were all in it. Olajuwon went first and Jordan went third. In between the Portland Trail Blazers picked poor Sam Bowie. The movie should’ve underlined the Oregon-ness of it all. “Why are you so sure when the professionals aren’t?”
Conventional wisdom winds up being represented not by the Blazers’ GM but by a poor cashier at the neighborhood 7-Eleven. Before the draft, he’s all: “Nah, lucky shot, and besides, Jordan is too small to be in the NBA, both him and Stockton.” After everything changes, he’s bitching about the Blazers not picking Jordan. “Everybody knew,” he says of Jordan, which makes Sonny smile. Right, everyone knew. “Air” opens with the Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” (“That ain’t working/That’s the way you do it…”), which is a song about an outsider bitching about an insider, the guy who doesn’t know how hard it is complaining about how easy it looks. And that’s the 7-Eleven cashier here. Poor cashier. Poor fictional cashier. I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ pompous bookstore CEO showing an elevator operator how to operate elevators in “You’ve Got Mail.”
Hey, Hollywood, leave those working-class kids alone. Pick on someone your own size.
On the spot
Nice cast anyway. Nice seeing Ben and Matt together again. Viola Davis, as mentioned, is her usual powerful self, while Julius Tennon makes a good, charismatic James Jordan, working on his car. I like some of the tennis-shoe history we get (Adidas/Nazis), though I would’ve liked more of it (Puma Clyde/Walt Frazier). The movie tries to dole out credit. Yes, Sonny saw, but Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) helped, Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) designed, Phil Knight signed off. He dared. Team effort. All for a guy who wasn’t exactly a team guy.
Oh right, the MLK story. Right. Marlon Wayans plays George Raveling, who warns Sonny about stepping around the agent to get to the family. But he also tells him about a day when he had his own feeling, when he felt like this event he’d heard about would be important. So he went. And there he heard a speech that meant a lot to him. Afterwards he congratulated the man who gave the speech, and the man thanked him and stuck the speech in his pocket. And when George looked for the words that meant so much to him, they weren’t there. Because the man had made them up on the spot.
The words he was looking for: “I have a dream.”
Most of that is true, by the way. George Raveling was at the March on Washington, and he was given the original copy of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which “I have a dream” does not appear. The problem? Yes, MLK deviated from his prepared speech to get to the dream, but he didn’t make it up on the spot. Read your Taylor Branch. It was part of a sermon he’d delivered the week before in Chicago and Detroit. As MLK paused, near the end of the prepared text, Mahalia Jackson, standing on the dais with him, supposedly said aloud, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Did he hear her? Not known. What is known? He did not, as the movie says, make “the whole speech up—right there on the spot.” But now we’ll have millions of people who believe he did. Thanks, Hollywood.
I’m curious: Are there great Hollywood movies that make heroes out of salesmen like this one does? It is a rarity. In “The Founder,” he’s half a dick, and in “Wolf of Wall Street” he’s 100% a dick. There’s Willy Loman, of course, but he’s tragic. What I wanted with this movie, what would’ve filled me rather than left me empty, was something closer to what Bennett Miller did with “Moneyball,” but I don’t know how you do that with this story. Do you mention that they were so successful that their product not only made billions but actually got people killed? Kids murdered each other over Air Jordans. But that’s not exactly feel-good.
Maybe the filmmakers did the best they could with the story they had. A dude had an idea, nobody thought it was good, they did it anyway, everybody made a ton of money. That’s not just a Hollywood ending; it’s the ending Hollywood hopes for itself every day.
Thursday June 01, 2023
Movie Review: Reggie (2023)
Someday I’d like a real documentary on Reggie Jackson.
Early on in this one, sitting on a stool and talking directly to the camera, Reggie says he’s uncomfortable with the doc because he’s not in control of it, but I’m curious how much of it he controlled. He tells the viewer, “The reason you’re uncomfortable with me is because I’m the truth,” except so much of what he says, or what is said about him, feels false. It’s not Reggie as we remember him but maybe the Reggie as he was in his head? Or as he wishes he’d been?
It’s Reggie redrawn as athlete-activist in the tradition of Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Henry Aaron, and I’m like: “I thought the point of Reggie was Reggie.” Hot dog. Not enough mustard. Straw that stirs the drink. Superduperstar. In a ’70s-era clip, a reporter asks him what thoughts were going through his head after some superduper feat and he responds, “The magnitude of me.” That feels closer to it. And sure, that line could’ve come from Ali—both were mouths that roared—but Ali did everything else: “What’s my name?,” “No Vietcong called me nigger.” He sacrificed his title and his livelihood for a principle and changed the laws of the nation. I’m not remembering any activism from Reggie and the doc doesn’t help. He just kind of gloms onto these guys.
Until, in one instance, he doesn’t. Until he shockingly throws one of them under the bus.
A lot of the doc is Reggie visiting with other athletes, some now deceased (Aaron, Vida Blue), and I’m sorry but lord these guys can be boring. Particularly the recent ones. I like Aaron Judge but here he sounds like the PR rep for Aaron Judge, Inc. Just stop already, guys. Be people. Reggie’s contemporaries are a bit more fun but they’re oddly segregated. He talks with Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers in one stadium, and Vida Blue and Dave Stewart in another. Stewart has the best story. In the early ’70s, he was an Oakland kid who hung out at the ballpark and Reggie befriended him. Stewart says the way Jackson treated him taught him how to treat kids when he became a professional. That’s nice. I wanted more of that.
Instead, Reggie visits Julius Erving, the great Dr. J., and the doc goes off the rails.
They’re talking about the fact that they, two Black men, were the preeminent athletes of the 1970s. Then Erving says this:
In terms of heroes and role models, they showed The Jackie Robinson Story in my school, and, you know, my mouth dropped. But for me, Jim Brown was hugely impactful in my life. With Jackie Robinson, it was turn the other cheek. And with Jim Brown, it was, “You need to get out of my face.”
And I’m like: Wait, what? Yes, for his first two seasons, Jackie had to turn the other cheek. That was part of the deal with Branch Rickey to change the sport and the culture and the country. It was nonviolent resistance before nonviolent resistance. But after that, Rickey let him loose. And Jackie let loose. Both barrels. Don’t these guys know that?
But Dr. J admits he doesn’t know baseball so I’m sure Reggie will correct him. No. He actually makes it worse:
I admire Jackie Robinson, but I wasn’t Jackie Robinson. I was Jim Brown. I was angry.
They didn’t think Jackie Robinson was angry? Did they think “The Jackie Robinson Story” truly reflected what was going on in his head and heart? He was furious. The true power of him turning the other cheek for two years was that he was never the guy to turn the other cheek. You don’t even have to read to know this, just watch Ken Burns “Baseball,” or the doc he did on Jackie Robinson. It’s all there. “Without that anger, you don’t get Jackie Robinson,” Howard Bryant says in the latter. “Do you want to know Jackie Robinson or don’t you?”
Seriously, I can’t believe they left that conversation in. Makes both men look really, really bad.
Filmmaker Alex Stapleton (“Corman’s World”) also screws up the chronology—like everyone these days. Reggie talks about playing minor league ball in Birmingham in 1967 and she shows us clips of firehoses and Bull Connor, and I’m like “That’s 1963.” I’m sure Birmingham ’67 wasn’t good for a Black kid from Philly but it was already a different era. A year later, Reggie makes the Majors and goes to Oakland, home of the Black Panther Party, and it’s like five years of American history truncated into one.
I like the early Oakland A’s clips. I could’ve used more of them. I could’ve used a shot of him hitting the top of the scoreboard at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1969—a 500+ foot shot. He had a first-half for the ages in 1969 when he was a real threat to Roger Maris’ homerun record. On July 29, he hit his 40th but couldn’t keep the pace: five in August, two in September, 47 for the year. He didn’t even win the HR title—Harmon Killebrew did with 49—but it’s the most homeruns Jackson ever hit in a season. The doc mentions none of this.
The doc doesn’t mention a lot. How did Reggie feel when Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season? That might’ve been worth probing. We get a lot of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, of course, but I think the doc is too kind to the latter and problematic with the former. It implies Billy was racist—a designation Rod Carew and Rickey Henderson would probably dispute. I think Billy just didn’t like Reggie. You could say he didn’t like the challenge of Reggie. Reggie could be challenging. He challenged Munson as team leader and challenged Billy as manager, and not necessarily in good ways. But the doc ignores the not-good ways. It tells Reggie’s side of things.
Take the “straw that stirs the drink” line. This is the quote as it appeared in the NY press in 1977:
I’m the straw that stirs the drink. It all comes back to me. Maybe I should say me and Munson—but really he doesn’t enter into it. … Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad.
In the doc, the full quote is barely visible, and then we get Reggie on his stool saying, “I had no idea it was going to get twisted like that.” Uhh … twisted like what? Into an insult? Not much twisting necessary there. Back then Reggie claimed he’d been misquoted, which led to this classic rejoinder from Munson: “For three thousand fucking words?”
In the '77 World Series, Reggie questioned starting Catfish Hunter in Game 2. He was probably right—Catfish got shelled—but it wasn’t smart to say. In the doc, he also complains about being platooned with Paul Blair, which isn’t quite accurate. Blair was a late-inning defensive replacement for Reggie, not a platoon. Even in those first World Series games.
Actually, that’s kind of fascinating. In ’77, Reggie had a Series for the ages, a Series that led to him being forever known as “Mr. October.” But it didn’t start out well. And it’s because it didn’t start out well that Thurman called him “Mr. October.” Initially, it was meant sarcastically.
The forgotten Mr. October
Let’s break it down.
In Game 1, Reggie went 1-2 with a single, a walk and HBP, and in the 9th inning, with the Yanks up by 1, Paul Blair replaced him in right field. The Dodgers tied the game so it went to extras, but the move didn’t hurt Billy’s rep: Blair drove in the winning run in the 12th.
In Game 2, Reggie went 0-4 with two Ks and a GDP as the Dodgers won 6-1. That’s when Reggie questioned Billy’s managerial acumen: “What’s he doing starting Catfish? He hasn’t pitched since Sept. 10. It’s not fair to the Cat and it’s not fair to us.” To which Billy replied: “If he wants to second-guess me, he can kiss my Dago butt.” Reggie also questioned being replaced defensively.
So of course in the next game (when Reggie went 1-3 with a single), Billy replaced him in the 7th inning. Did that light a fire? Because in Game 4, Reggie went 2-4 with a double and a homer—though Blair still came in in the 9th. It wasn’t until Game 5 (2-4, HR, 2 runs) that Jackson played the whole game. And in Game 6 (three homeruns on three swings, BB, 4 runs scored, 5 RBIs), yeah, no one’s pulling him, not even Billy Martin. World Series MVP. Legend. Mr. October.
Right. About that…
In the doc, Reggie says Thurman started the nickname after Reggie hit his 30th homerun in Detroit:
The press came in to talk to him and Thurman said, ‘I don’t feel like talking. I don’t want to talk. I’m hurt and I’m sore and I got to get my shoulder done and my knee wrapped in ice. Go talk to Mr. October, he’ll talk to you.’ And he just kind of threw it out there, you know, in sarcasm, annoyance, or whatever. And that kind of picked itself up from there.
That would’ve been Sept. 18.
The oddity is I can’t find any reference to it in any of the press from the period. Not in The New York Times, not the Daily News, not anywhere on newspapers.com.
In fact, the first reference to “Mr. October” that year wasn’t to Reggie Jackson. It was to Catfish Hunter. On Oct. 6, the Daily News teased a Mike Lupica column on the injured ace with this header:
The Daily News teaser during the '77 ALCS, before Reggie was ever referenced in the press as Mr. October.
So was Catfish the original Mr. October? Or does “the forgotten …” imply there’s one who isn’t forgotten? Either way, the first time the term is used for Reggie, and reported in the press, yes, it comes from Munson, but it comes after Game 2 when Reggie was 1-6 for the Series. And it’s not a compliment:
I wouldn’t be second-guessing the manager. I think it’s just a little heated argument. You know Reggie has not been doing all that well. He has been doing OK, but not all that well … and he wants to. I guess Billy just doesn’t realize that Reggie is ‘Mr. October.’
In one publication, Munson follows it up with “I read that somewhere.” In another, he says, “That’s what Reggie called himself, wasn’t it? ‘Mr. October’?”
So did Munson bestow the nickname ironically? Or was it a sarcastic reference to something Jackson already called himself? Even after Game 6, the press disagreed on its provenance. In one report, it was something his teammates called him; in another, teammate Mike Torrez exclaims, “Now I know why he calls himself Mr. October.” [Emphasis mine.]
Either way, what began as an insult became an honorific. Jackson turned it into an honorific. He willed it. That’s the amazing thing, and it should be the story, but it’s not the story. Not here anyway. The story here is much more ho-hum.
When Reggie was 1-6 for the Series.
What is the story here? That Reggie is an activist (vaguely), that he’s suffered from a lot of racism (definitely at times, just maybe other times), that even after his playing days, when he tried to buy ball clubs, they didn’t want him around. Not because he’s Reggie but because he’s Black. That’s what he keeps implying. He put together an ownership group to buy the Dodgers in ’98 but Rupert Murdoch got it instead. Because Rupert is part of the “boys club”? Or because he offered more? Who knows? But the doc doesn’t question Reggie’s POV. It also doesn’t bring up the fact that the Dodgers are now co-owned by Magic Johnson.
Meanwhile, Reggie tries to stay in the game. He tries to stay relevant in the game. And that’s why he winds up leaving the Yankees organization for the Astros. He felt a figurehead with the Yankees but felt utilized by the Astros. Sure. The doc shows him giving batting advice to Jose Altuve, a batting champion who seems confused about why he’s being given batting advice, and who then goes and hits a home run. “Reggie” implies the homer is because of Reggie.
Again, the doc gives us some great ’70s footage, where he’s shockingly polite around reporters. We also see his first spring training with the Yankees in ’77 when he’s wearing No. 20. That stunned me. Numbers matter so much in the sport. Reggie was No. 9 for both the A’s and O’s but that was Graig Nettles’ number with the Yanks, so I guess Jackson went with Frank Robinson’s number? Then why 44? I’m guessing because Terry Whitfield was wearing it, he got traded in March, so Reggie jumped to Henry Aaron’s number. The doc doesn’t mention any of this—I don’t blame it, it’s a little insidery—but the baseball nerd in me wants to know.
Anyway, I hope someday we get a real documentary on Reggie Jackson. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by cutting deeper, he’ll come across not only more fascinating but more sympathetic.
All previous entries