Movie Reviews - 2016 posts
Wednesday April 08, 2020
Movie Review: For the Love of Spock (2016)
My wife Patricia isn’t a “Star Trek” fan—kind of despises it, actually—but she watched all of the documentary “For the Love of Spock” with me the other night. It was my second viewing. My first happened in Oct. 2016 when I was staying at my sister’s place in Minneapolis shortly after my mother’s stroke. One night, laying in bed with my laptop after another emotionally draining day, I found the documentary on Netflix. I’m long past my Trekkie days but I figured I’d watch a few minutes before falling asleep. I wound up watching the whole thing. It was a balm.
Not sure why it made me feel so good. Because it was something familiar at a time when everything was so horribly unfamiliar? Because it showcases a son’s love for a parent? The doc is directed by Adam Nimoy and was originally meant to focus on Spock, the character, but became about his dad, too, after Leonard Nimoy died in February 2015. It’s my past and our imagined future—both simpler times, both nostalgic. Watching it with my wife, during the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, when life again is so horribly unfamiliar, I remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years. It just poured out of me:
“Hey, William Windom! From ‘My World and Welcome to It’? Late ’60s sitcom? He’s like a James Thurber type? This is from a second-season Trek episode, ‘The Doomsday Machine.’ Oh, and ‘Corbomite Maneuver.’ Who could forget that? You know who turns out to be inside this ship? You know the scary face we saw earlier? That’s Balock and that’s the image that shows up on the viewscreen, but it’s a façade. Like Oz in “Oz.” The real creature running things is this little kid played Clint Howard, Ron’s brother, a few years before ‘Gentle Ben.’”
I know. But she put up with me.
Something that’s a curiosity
Nimoy invented a lot of the character, didn’t he? “Enemy Within” called for him to deck evil Kirk, which didn’t seem very Vulcan to him, so he invented the neck pinch. In “Amok Time,” we visit Vulcan for the first time and he figured they’d need a greeting of their own, so he reached into his Jewish heritage and came up with the Vulcan salute. (Unmentioned: It would only work if Celia Lovsky, the actress playing T’Pau, could return the greeting—and she actually couldn’t do it. But she could manipulate her fingers into the salute off camera, and that’s how they made it work.)
Patricia [trying the Vulcan salute]: I can’t do it.
Me: [showing off with both hands] I think I had to practice before I got it.
Patricia: I didn’t know he was Jewish.
Me: Shatner, too. I think? They‘re both in Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” anyway: You don’t need “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock”/ Cause you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock—both Jewish!
The neck pinch and the salute added to the coolness factor of Spock—who was already the coolest character on the show. I particularly like the idea of coming up with a salute that’s accompanied by the phrase “Live long and prosper,” and seeing it doing exactly that.
At the same time, Nimoy keeps giving credit to others in the development of the character. He said the change from Jeffrey Hunter (an internal actor) to William Shatner (not) helped because it allowed Nimoy to pull back and emote less. Nimoy says he got a great note from the director of an early episode when the ship is being attacked and there’s all of this excitement and energy, which he got caught up in, and he says his line, “Fascinating!” full of that energy. “And [the director] said, ‘Be different,” Nimoy recalls. “‘Be the scientist. Be detached. See it as something that’s a curiosity rather than a threat.’” Nice. Since the episode they show in conjunction with this story is the aforementioned “Corbomite Maneuver,” that director was Joseph Sargent, who directed no other “Trek” episode, but went on to feature films and TV movies, including James Cagney’s final performance in “Terrible Joe Moran.” His most respected work is probably “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three”; his least is “Goldengirl” or “Jaws: The Revenge.” It’s a nice shout-out.
Nimoy’s early admission that before “Trek” he never had an acting gig that lasted longer than two weeks makes the scrambling nature of his post-“Trek” career more understandable. At the same time, I wish we’d seen more of that pre-“Trek” career. We get a montage of shots but it lasts maybe 30 seconds? I would’ve liked a deeper cut. On IMDb he has 69 credits before “Star Trek” and some of those involve multiple episodes. He had a great, lean look, with high cheekbones, and he wound up playing Native Americans a lot: Yellow Wolf and Yellow Bear, Little Hawk and Chief Black Hawk, Oontah and John Walking Fox. He wound up playing hungry people, too. People scrapping for their last best chance.
The doc also barely touches on the ludicrous singing career—he should’ve gotten more shit for that. It celebrates the kerchiefs he wore a lot in the late ’60s/early’70s ... but no. It delves a bit into his drawbacks as a father and husband—his tendency to pick work over family. Which is understandable. He was born in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, when the lesson was: Keep working because you never know when it’s going to go away. It's a lesson we may be relearning.
The alien in our midst
You know what I totally grooved on? Those photos of Nimoy, with Spock haircut, in late 1960s suburbia. I find them—sorry—fascinating. That mix of the future and the present—which is now our past. I always liked those episodes where they returned to our time, particularly “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” so maybe this is part of that. Or maybe I like the idea of someone so iconic hanging with us.
During its three-year run, “Star Trek” was nominated for a total of 13 Emmys and won bupkis. The noms came from what you’d expect—editing, effects … and Nimoy. He was the only actor to be nominated—and he was nominated every season. Who did he lose to? The Emmy categories were a bit odd back then. First time he lost to Eli Wallach in “The Poppy is Also a Flower”—but it’s a TV movie, a one-off, rather than a continuing series. The next year he lost to Milburn Stone, who played Doc on “Gunsmoke,” so that’s at least in the same territory. The oddity is Stone played Doc for 20 seasons and this is the only time he was nominated. At least for the ’68-’69 show, the Emmys changed the award to supporting actor for a continued performance. At the same time, they didn’t differentiate between drama and comedy, so Nimoy lost to Werner Klemperer from “Hogan’s Heroes.” So it goes.
To me, some of the best literary movements in 20th century America came out of the assimilation dynamic—Jewish-American, African-American, Southern American—and Adam Nimoy’s doc makes it clear that the power of Mr. Spock comes from that tension as well. He’s the alien in our midst. It’s why resonates; and probably why he endures more than the other characters. He's the survivor. Mr. Spock was the only character in the original pilot to make the jump to the original series, while Nimoy was the only actor from the original series to make the jump to the feature-film reboot. Spock lives long, and he continues to prosper.
Thanks, Adam, for twice helping me through tough times.
My autographed copy of the program for “Vincent,” which I saw at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1978.
Wednesday July 18, 2018
Movie Review: My Beloved Bodyguard (2016)
I was intrigued by the description on Netflix, where the American title is simply “The Bodyguard”:
A retired security officer with dementia befriends a little girl whose father is running from the mob. To save her, his old skills start to kick in.
I envisioned a combo of “Gran Torino” and “The Bourne Identity.” Ordinary old dude, suddenly ... POW! ... and all the bad dudes are on the ground, and all the townsfolk are looking at him in amazement.
And starring Sammo Hung? How can it be bad?
First off, everyone already knows about the martial arts skills. “Old Ding? Yeah, he’s a former Center Security Bureau officer. Bad dude. Way up there. Now he’s losing it. Too bad.” We get a female voiceover explaining everything. Everything. It’s awful. Can no one write scenes? Dialogue?
Second, there’s the way he’s losing it. He’s going to identify the movie’s leering villain, Choi (Feng Jia-yi), but during the police lineup can’t remember his face. He forgets his key, but it’s on a string around his neck. It’s all rather sanitized. Plus Sammo, bless his heart, isn’t actor enough to pull it off. He just stands there, blinking. A better director might’ve helped him out but he’s the director—his first movie since “Once Upon a Time in China and America” in 1997.
The sideplots and side characters suck, too. His doctor (Feng Shaofeng of the “Monkey King” movies) tells him all of his organs are failing and he needs multiple operations; then he smiles and says, “I’m joking. Other than your memory issues, you’re fine.” Funny, doc. Always good to joke with a dementia patient. A neighbor lady, Mrs. Park (Li QinQin), keeps making a play for him, but her age and neediness (and his reluctance) are played for laughs. There’s a recurring bit with three old men sitting on the sidelines and commenting upon the proceedings, and they’re played by old Hong Kong mainstays Tsui Hark, Dean Shek and Karl Maka. It should be great stuff—like the three old men in “Do the Right Thing”—but something either gets lost in translation or it wasn’t good to begin with.
But the biggest problem? The girl Sammo is supposed to save. Good god, she’s obnoxious.
Her name is Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), and she runs away from her gambling, good-for-nothing father (Andy Lau) to hang with Ding. How does she lay low? She puts on his old Chinese guard outfit, with all the medals, and pretends to be a headless ghost. He tells her not to wear it. Three times. “Fat men are supposed to be funny!” she yells before pouting and stomping off. At night, he gently fixes the wound on her forehead (from her father?) and in the morning she’s repaid his ministrations by fixing a bandage on his forehead with the words “Serves you right” and a frowny face. They pass an ice cream stand. “Buy one for me!” she yells. They go fishing; she complains he catches too many fish. He looks at her with love but she was nails on a chalkboard to me.
The plot. Andy Lau owes the local gangster gambling debts so agrees to do a job: steal a bag from Russian mobsters across the border. He does, but with the Russians in pursuit, and Choi refuses to forgive the debt—if he was ever going to—so Andy keeps the bag. Now he’s got Chinese and Russian gangsters after him.
One night, Choi’s men show up at Ding’s place, grab the girl, and demand to know where the father is. Here’s our moment. We’re finally going to get what we came for. But it takes Ding forever to move. It’s less “Bourne” and more slow-mo. Once a fight finally happens, he breaks bones. I’ve never seen a martial arts movie with more bone snapping in the soundtrack. Is the little girl amazed? Nah, she faints. Then the authorities move her to nearby relatives. But they can’t stand her (see?), so she flees back to Ding, who keeps buying her ice cream.
Then she goes missing.
I should add there’s a dull backstory about Ding losing his granddaughter. One day, they went out and only he came back. Maybe that was the beginning of his dementia? We’re never sure. But his daughter never forgives him, nor he himself. Trying to protect this horrible brat, the movie suggests, is his way of making amends.
And that’s why he confronts Choi. Using a newspaper photograph, Ding hobbles around town until he finds the autoshop that is the front for gambling operations run by Choi, and he demands to know what they’ve done with the girl. When they give him nothing, he fights and breaks limbs. They keep coming at him with knives rather than guns. (One gun and he’s done.) Then the Russians arrive, start killing the Chinese, and the main bad Russian dude take a swipe at him. This may be my favorite part of the movie. He looks back, does a double-take (how could he have missed?) and takes several, more serious swipes. And still misses. Then the battle is engaged. Ding takes them all out. He risks life and limb to find the girl.
Guess where she is? Oh, at a friend’s house. She just never bothered to tell anyone.
Old “Three Dragons” costar Yuen Biao makes an appearance as a friendly cop to whom Ding shows a tape recorder that includes Choi’s bragging confession for murder. But it’s blank. Either Ding never turned it on or he erased it. Here’s the weird thing: By the time he shows the recorder, Choi is already dead. So it doesn’t matter that it’s blank. But the movie treats it like it’s a sad thing with consequences.
Ding winds up living with the girl, who, as she matures, takes care of him in his dotage and dementia. She’s the narrative voiceover, of course.
Look again at that plot description at the top of this review. Someone can still make a good movie of that. But this isn’t it. Not nearly.
Saturday March 10, 2018
Movie Review: Riphagen (2016)
“Riphagen” is the story of Dries Riphagen (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge), a real-life Dutch gangster who stole from and betrayed and sent to the gas chambers more than 200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. He's the anti-Schindler.
And he gets away in the end. It’s infuriating.
Not because he gets away. Because several people, including our ostensible hero, Jan (Kay Greidanhus), have the drop on him and let him talk his way out of it. Again and again. And again. Three times, by my count.
The real story is both sobering and damning. It’s about how opportunists survive and thrive, relying on the naiveté or opportunism or helplessness of others. The filmmakers reduce this to B-movie shtick. They fuck it up.
A confederacy of Dutchies
First, we don’t even find out that Riphagen was a gangster. That his nickname was “Al Capone.” That he joined the anti-Semitic National Socialist Dutch Workers’ Party prior to Nazi occupation. I had to look all that up.
Maybe we don't get any of this because the movie begins with the conceit that Riphagen might be helping Jews. He discovers an older Jewish woman in an attic, sets her up in an apartment, takes her out for meals, tells her a sob story about how his Jewish wife was killed, decks an anti-Semite in her presence, and in this manner, and despite the fact that he’s a dead ringer for Lex Luthor, her suspicions slowly turn to trust. So much so that she brings in other Jewish friends who entrust their money and lives to him. And when he gets it all? That’s when he betrays them.
As we knew he would.
Seriously, even if we don’t know the history going in (as I didn’t), it’s how the movie is sold. “Riphagen” is about “a Dutch traitor” who helped “round up Jews.” So when he does, it’s not exactly a shock. Plus isn’t Riphagen infamous enough in the Netherlands that the beginning conceit is wasted on them? Wouldn’t it be like Norway making a movie called “Quisling” whose big reveal is that, hey, he collaborated with the Nazis! Quisling! Of all people!
The movie keeps mixing real-life events/people with fictional elements—but not in that good E.L. Doctorow way:
- Anna Raadsveld (a Kim Darby lookalike) plays Betje Wary, a weepy-eyed Jewish girl pressured by Riphagen into betraying her friends in the Dutch underground. The real Betje seems more calculating.
- Sieger Sloot plays Frits Kerkhoven, a member of the Dutch underground during the war and the Dutch secret service after, who is fooled by Riphagen. The real Frits seems less of a rube. Apparently he helped smuggle Riphagen to Belgium; then in Spain he brought him suit and shoes lined with diamonds. He aided and abetted.
Our hero, as far as I know, is fictional. Jan is a handsome, big-eyed, worried-looking kid, who is both cop and member of the Dutch resistance. He’s part of a (real life) raid on a printing plant in The Hague. Then he’s part of a (fictional) romance with Betje that goes nowhere. He makes out with her, she’s confused by a fake badge he has, she begs off. So he just goes home to his beautiful wife. Wait, what? Then Riphagen forces a teary-eyed Betje to betray everyone. She does, teary-eyed. Resistance members like Charley Hartog are killed (this happened, too), so Jan goes into hiding. After the war, he emerges, pursues Riphagen, gets the drop on him, but talks too much and only wounds him. But Riphagen plays it like he’s dead.
Half the movie is a postwar battle between Wim Sanders (Michel Sluysman) and Louis Einthoven (Mark Reitman) over control of the National Security Service. Both are historical personages. For some reason, here, Sanders has it in for Jan and trusts Riphagen. The real Sanders, I believe, tried to use Riphagen, the way Riphagen knew he would. In other words, Riphagen sold himself as what he was, a traitor, because that way Sanders knew he had useful information.
In the movie, it’s just stupid. Jan searches for Betje, who can prove his innocence and Riphagen’s villainy, but Frits finds her first, then, like a doofus, leaves her alone near Riphagen ... who threatens her life. So of course she gets panicky and teary-eyed again. But why? War is over, girlfriend. One word and Riphagen is hanging. One word from you. You have the power. Instead, with tapes rolling, she blames ... herself. I wanted to slap my forehead. Or her.
Eventually Riphagen reveals his villainy to all—ha ha!—knowing the politicians can’t own up to their ineptitude without destroying their careers. So they make matters worse: Sanders actually drives Riphagen to Belgium. Thankfully, Jan pursues, gets the drop on him, is ready to shoot. He tells him to get on his knees. Me: “C’mon. Pull the trigger already. Or just shoot him in the knees. That’ll make him bend, right? And that way you won’t have to worry that he’ll suddenly overpower you and strangle you and kill y—
Don’t cry for him
So the fictional Jan dies while the real Riphagen gets away—first, we’re told, to Spain, then Argentina, where he became friends with the Perons. All of that seems more interesting than the fictional stuff we’re given; where everyone but Riphagen is an idiot.
Maybe they were? The afterword also mentions that the Dutch government finally put a bounty on Riphagen ... in 1988. Late much, Holland? They discover he'd died in a Swiss sanitarium in 1973. Apparently he spent the ’60s having a swinging time in Spain, Germany and Switzerland. Way to stay on top of things, Europe.
Koningsbrugge has a powerful presence, Greidanhus is a handsome kid, and the raw material for a good/great movie is here. This ain't it.
Tuesday July 18, 2017
Movie Review: Paterson (2016)
You assume going in that the title character of “Paterson” is a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver: “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”); but the title character could also be where he lives, Paterson, New Jersey, a working class town that is the home, or at least a home, to American poets: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello.
The movie, a week in the life of the bus driver, is a veritable love letter to the city. Every ride on every bus is a history lesson into one of its famous residents. On Monday two black kids talk “Hurricane” Carter. On Wednesday two white kids (the now-teenage stars of “Moonrise Kingdom”) discuss Italian anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci. There are clippings of other famous residents behind the bar at the little dive Paterson goes to every night, and it seems our bus driver can't sit anywhere in town without someone wanting to talk poetry with him. Is this a Paterson, N.J. thing? Because it's not an American thing. Not in my lifetime.
Paterson, the character, is oddly disconnected. So is Paterson, N.J., seemingly, from the worst aspects of modern life. There are no addicts on these buses, no homeless, no one who raises their voice. Everyone's so fucking polite. One day the bus breaks down, and the kids on it are docile and helpful, and the old folks on it are worried but reassured. Two guys talk girls, but pathetically rather than predatorily. They tell stories of “hot girls” who were interested in them and how, well, they just didn’t follow through. The guys didn't. They had work the next day or some such. They had excuses.
No one really follows through in this movie. It’s oddly sexless. It’s an old man’s rhythm, and I guess writer-director Jim Jarmusch is an old man now.
The Jarmusch Variations
Here’s Jarmusch on “Paterson”:
I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life: that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.
Well, he did that. Every day, Paterson wakes up between 6 and 6:30 next to his hot, enthusastic, often annoying girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), kisses her, then trundles down for coffee and Cheerios and to think his thoughts, which wind up as poems in his secret notebook. Then it’s off to work. It’s early autumn, jacket weather, but always pleasant; no rain, wind, or blinding sun. At the terminal, Donnie (Rizwan Manji), Paterson’s colleague and/or supervisor, wakes him from his poetry reverie with complaints about his own life; then it’s the drive. Evenings, Paterson returns to their small house with the crooked mailbox out front to hear Laura’s latest enthusiasms: what she’s painted black and white; how she wants to make a mint selling cupcakes; how she wants to learn guitar and become a great country singer in Nashville like Tammy Wynnette. After dinner, he takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk and always winds up at the local bar, where Paterson nurses a beer, chats with the bar’s owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and where we get another installment of Everett’s pathetic attempts to win over Marie (William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, respectively).
At times, I liked the day-to-dayness of it, its appreciation of small things and moments and just being, but more often I felt trapped. The movie is insular to the point of suffocation. Does Paterson have other friends? Does Laura? How did they meet? He was in the military once—we see the photo. So is this mundaneness designed to protect him from the drama he experienced there? I wondered if Paterson felt as suffocated by his life as I did; if he was going to snap. Nope. It’s Everett who snaps. He pulls a gun on Marie, propeling Paterson into action, into saving the day. But the gun is a prop, Everett’s pulled it before, and Paterson’s heroism is completely unnecessary. It’s a neutered moment in a movie—a life—full of them.
Half an hour in, I figured if anything was going to “happen” it would be one of two things:
- Early on, a local tells Paterson that his dog is an expensive breed, the type that gets dognapped, so be careful. Paterson isn’t, leaving Marvin tied up outside the bar. So maybe Marvin gets napped?
- Laura pleads with Paterson to make copies of his poems before something happens to them and they’re lost forever. So maybe something happens to the poems?
It’s the latter. And it’s telegraphed.
On Saturday, Laura’s cupcakes are a hit at the farmers market, so they celebrate by going out to dinner and then to a 1932 horror film, “Island of Lost Souls,” one of the first cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Paterson leaves his notebook on the couch and when they return it’s chewed to bits by Marvin. Sunday, and the rest of the movie, is how Paterson deals with this loss. He finds that it matters to him. Serendipitously, at the Great Falls of Paterson, his favorite place, he runs into a Japanese tourist, a poetry lover who has traveled to Paterson because of Williams’ five-book series, “Paterson”; and after a slow conversation, the tourist gives Paterson a new blank notebook. Alone again, Paterson writes a new poem about the musical lyric “Or would you rather be a fish?” I actually liked that poem. It's the only poem of his that I liked.
And that’s pretty much it.
As you can tell, the movie didn’t do much for me. That Japanese tourist, despite carrying a book of translated poetry, says, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” and that’s what “Paterson” felt like to me. Its main character seems to be in a fugue state, and the movie puts us into a kind of fugue state, too. It’s not just disconnected; there seems to be a real fear of connection in it. It’s almost a horror film: an island of lost souls.
Thursday May 18, 2017
Movie Review: Denial (2016)
So the Holocaust still happened. Good to know.
I’m not sure who “Denial” is supposed to appeal to. The protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), is unlikeable; her advocates, the solicitor/barrister team of Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), aren’t given enough screentime to be interesting; and overall there’s just not much drama. Most of the drama, in fact, is provided by the unreasonableness of the protagonist, who favors emotional arguments in court over legal ones—but even this kind of drama only goes so far. Let’s face it: Hollywood, with its love of happy endings, isn’t going to make a movie in which a Holocaust denier wins.
Some background: In 1996, David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British scholar on Hitler and a recent Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt for libel for the depiction of him (as a liar, etc.) in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust.” He sued her in British court, where libel laws favor plaintiffs. In U.S. courts the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, while in British courts it’s on the defendant to prove it wasn’t. So she and her team have to prove Irving a liar. Which they do. Many times over.
The scenes in the courtroom are supposedly taken verbatim from the trial transcript. Would that the rest of the movie was; we might have had something. As is, there's nothing. Seriously. There's no depth to any of the characters, there's little drama, we don't even get a clear idea of what about the Holocaust can be proven and what can't. When in doubt, writer David Hare (“The Reader”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) simply send Lipstadt out jogging. I think we get four or five such scenes. It’s not an answer. To anything.
The creepiest thing about all of this? Many of the user reviews of the film on IMDb.com have been written by obvious Holocaust deniers. Some samples, without copy-edits:
- “I was not a Holocaust Denier ever but after watching the movie I became one. Not because of the historical facts exposed in the movie but I saw how the whole Holocaust saga had been hijacked by Jewish agenda.”
- “Irving,a famous best selling author,started having problems getting book contracts after the academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote about him giving him the Orwellian label of “denier”. He began to be blacklisted and his income was suffering and his response was to seek some justice.“
- ”David Irving is an extremely intelligent, well educated man. His work is very, very well researched. That is why they felt compelled to make this (really bad) movie about him, to try and discredit him."
What a shame a better movie slamming them and their man wasn’t made. They deserve it. They need to crawl back under their rocks and stay there.
Friday April 14, 2017
Movie Review: American Pastoral (2016)
In May 1997, I gave “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth a mixed review for The Seattle Times and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Oops? Nah. I still think I got it right. I think the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees do what the Academy does with the Fondas and Pacinos and Scorsese of the world: Here’s your award for the lesser thing because we forgot to give it to you for the greater thing. The greater thing for Roth was “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Portnoy,” and the Zuckerman trilogy, particularly “The Ghost Writer.”
The complaint I had about “Pastoral” is the complaint I would have about subsequent award-winning Roth novels, including “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America.” The subjects were fascinating: mid-century American puritanism/fascism. I just thought Roth’s writing talent had diminished. He replaced dialogue with diatribe. He got boring. Roth of all writers.
But shouldn’t that bode well for the movie version? The subject is still in place, after all, and the filmmakers—writer John Romano (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) and first-time feature director Ewan McGregor—can replace the diatribe with dialogue. In a way, they have to. It’s a movie.
But they blew it with the casting—particularly McGregor casting himself as Seymour “Swede” Levov. The towering, broad-shouldered, Jewish-American athlete of 1940's Weequahic High in Newark, New Jersey, was suddenly replaced with a tiny Scot.
The story is pretty much the same. It’s the tension of generations and decades. It’s the story of the political pendulum and how we keep swinging it, or on it, or getting cut by it.
The leftist corrections of the 1930s led to the McCarthyism of the early ’50s, which led to left-wing radicalism of the late ’60s and early '70s, which led to Reagan—who began to dismantle the leftist corrections of the 1930s. That’s my summation. Here, the ’50s is less Red Scare than idyll. It’s the American Eden from which we find ourselves banished. By both time and inclination, apparently.
In my review for The Times, I wrote:
The Swede seeks the American dream but gives birth to the American nightmare: a stuttering daughter who, in the counterculture ’60s, blows up their small-town postal station as a protest against the Vietnam War. It’s as if Mel Brooks sired Robert Redford, who sires Squeaky Fromme.
Or: It’s the first-generation American giving birth to the All-American giving birth to the anti-American.
In both novel and movie, the father, Lew (Pete Riegert), is loud, opinionated, very Jewish, and interesting; half the time I wanted to follow him around. The son is blond and bland, beautiful and dutiful. The daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning) starts out ultra-sensitive, becomes desensitized through politics, then, after all the trauma and tragedy, returns to the ultra-sensitivity of Jainism. She goes from crying about the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk half a world away, to killing her neighbors, to not wanting to harm microbes. So how did that second step occur? That’s the question the movie skirts. It just happens. She’s young and full of rage and easily indoctrinated into radical Weather Underground-style politics.
But this leads to a problem: We never really care about her, so we don’t really care about her father’s frantic search for her. He’s an innocent searching for innocence in a dirty world, and finding a dirty world. Shocking.
Turns out all the women around the Swede are all horrible human beings. His daughter commits acts of terrorism. His beauty-queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), retreats into facelifts and blankness and affairs with lesser men. His daughter’s radical colleague, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry, quite good), connives and taunts and spreads her legs for Swede. Meanwhile, his daughter’s shrink (Molly Parker—always playing someone you want to punch in the face) not only gives horrible advice but hides Merry and directs her to the underground ... where she is repeatedly raped and abused.
The only decent woman in the entire movie is Swede’s assistant at the Newark glove-making plant, Vicky (Uzo Aduba, “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black”), who sticks by him through it all. But even she has that odd moment when they’re handing out coffee and nosh to National Guardsmen during the Newark riots and she lectures the teeniest soldier on his responsibilities. She replaces dialogue with diatribe.
The Swede’s story is bookended by the 45th class reunion of Weequahic High—where Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), learns what happened to the idol of his youth—and the Swede’s funeral a day later. As Zuckerman is giving his thoughts via voiceover, a taxi pulls up, a blonde-haired woman gets out, and, as the camera follows her from behind, she slowly makes her way to the casket. Everyone stares. Is it or isn’t it?
Doesn’t matter. It doesn't resonate either way. If it's Merry, what does that mean? That she forgives her father? For what? That she forgives herself? Why? That she’s come to dance on his grave? One final act of self-renunciation? Who is she? In the end, a pawn in the game. Less the radical left’s than Roth’s.
Monday April 10, 2017
Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
History may be written by the winners but art is usually written by the losers: the guys who don’t score touchdowns, don’t hit homeruns, don’t get the girls. The guys who do these things? They usually terrorize the guys who don’t throughout junior high and high school, then wind up the one-note villains in their stories. Art is the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
With “Everybody Wants Some!!,” writer-director Richard Linklater offers a slight corrective.
The movie has been labeled a kind of spiritual sequel to Linklater’s classic “Dazed and Confused” (1993), which was about kids on the last day of school searching for a place amid mid-1970s anarchy and Texas testosterone. It’s got jocks, nerds, and everyone in between. This one is mostly just the jocks: a Texas university baseball team during the four days before the start of school in 1980. Remember Mitch, Linklater’s surrogate, the long-haired scrawny pitcher? Well, he’s back, more or less, in the form of Jake (Blake Jenner), our eyes and ears throughout “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Good news: He looks way more like a jock than Mitch ever did. Bad news: He’s boring.
We don’t mean to brag, we don’t mean to boast
The movie opens with Jake driving his muscle car, albums in the backseat, “My Sharona” blaring from the tape deck, to the off-campus housing where the baseball team lives. These guys spend their afternoons in perpetual competition with each other—playing Nerf basketball and ping pong, flicking each other’s knuckles—and their nights in search of booze and girls. Each night it’s a new place: first a disco, then a country bar, then a punk rock show, finally a theater gathering. For all their faults, they’re equal opportunity party animals.
And it’s not just Mitch/Jake. We get echoes of other “Dazed” characters:
- Mitch’s mentor, Randy “Pink” Floyd, is split into two characters: McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the top jock, who can cut a lobbed baseball in two with an axe, and Finnegan (Glen Powell), the witty, cynical soul of the team, who, if he doesn’t exactly take Jake under his wing, at least recognizes in him someone who gets the joke.
- Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the California stoner, hooks up with Slater (Rory Cochran), the Texas stoner. And just as the latter delivered a famous monologue about how Martha Washington was “a hip, hip lady” and the weird shit going on with a dollar bill, so Willoughby talks up how humans used to be telepathic and attempts to reclaim that skill with his stoned teammates. (Doesn’t work.)
- Jay (Juston Street), the weird, full of himself Detroiter, is a bit like Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion. Except here he’s eventually welcomed into the fold.
That’s one of the things I liked about the movie: the camaraderie of it all. These guys are ultra-competitive assholes but there’s a bond there. You’re on the team, you’re on the team.
Jay starts a bar fight, the others back him up, even though they can’t stand him. (There’s a nice touch when McReynolds moves to join the brawl and one of his teammates yells, “No, you fucking stay!” You protect your stars.) During batting practice, Jay is acting an asshole and tossing laser beams—until Reynolds takes him deep. Afterwards, Jay attempts to apologize (“Uh... nice hit”), and McReynolds tells Jay, “We’re cool.” And they are. After practice, Jay is with them at the creek, one of the team.
Some of the funniest lines comes from freshman catcher Plummer (Temple Baker), sleepy-eyed and slope-shouldered. At one point, he and three other guys are walking around campus, and he’s wondering who these guys are with their backpacks:
I know what we’re doing here. We’re playing baseball. ... All of these people. Never being more than some dude doing some job. Just like everybody else.
For some reason, that line has a “Diner” feel to me. It’s Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick saying, “You ever get the feeling that there’s something going on we don’t know about?”—but it’s the single-celled version of that. Fenwick knows he doesn’t know, and would like to know. Plummer knows he doesn’t know ... and can’t fathom. He’s repulsed. Repulsed, I should add, by the life he’ll eventually lead: some dude doing some job.
I also like this from the first day of class:
Plummer: Who’s this fuck?
Jake: I think that’s our professor.
Plummer: This guy?
Plummer: No shit.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these lines become as oft-quoted as those in “Dazed and Confused.”
But we like hot butter on our breakfast toast
What grinds the movie to a halt, sadly, is the romance between Jake and Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the theater major. They have a few OK conversations, and I like her line about theater being “Having the guts to look fucking stupid”; but overall I found both of them pretentious in a way the dumb jocks weren’t. Don’t know if that was Linklater’s goal or if it just turned out that way.
Linklater, being Linklater, gets the details right—from “My Sharona” to “Rapper’s Delight” to Space Invaders to pinball machines. He makes stupid jock language fun: “Play like you got some fucking semen in your sack, brum.
The movie even ends similarly to “Dazed.” There, Mitch puts on the headphones (against the drone of his parents) and drifts off after an all-night party. Here, Jake puts his head on his desk (against the drone of the professor) and drifts off after a four-night bender. It just doesn’t resonate as much. We care about Mitch, and Mike, and Slater, and Randy. They have vulnerabilities. These guys? They’re cocks of the walk. And a cock is only interesting for so long.
Friday April 07, 2017
Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is long, beautifully photographed, often silent, and mostly pointless.
Two 17th-century Jesuits from Portugal, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), hear about the torture and killing of their fellow priests in Shogun-era Japan—which is resisting the conversion of its people by any means necessary—as well as the supposed apostasy of their mentor, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), who, it is rumored, has not only renounced Christ but taken a Japanese wife, and ... they don’t buy it. They demand to travel to Japan to see and possibly rescue their mentor.
Everyone in the audience: “Bad idea.”
The rest of the movie, 2 hours and 40 minutes worth, is about what a bad idea it is.
Fire and water
We’ve already seen some of the torture—the modern-day crucifixions at the hot springs, in which scalding water, drip by drip, is poured onto the priests—but our guys haven’t, and they’re somewhat naïve. They’ll soon lose that. Along with everything else.
They’re guided to the coast of Japan by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a begrimed, half-mad Japanese they meet in Hong Kong, who lost his wife and family years earlier. In flashback, and in a test we see repeated throughout the movie, officials demand that they prove they’re not Christians by stepping on an image of Christ. Kichijiro does, the rest of his family doesn’t; so he goes free and they’re wrapped in hay and burned alive on the beach. For all that tragedy, Kichijiro winds up almost a comical figure in the movie: ready to traduce the priests and renounce Christ one moment, then unable to live with himself and scurrying back for absolution.
In Japan, the Jesuits are greeted gratefully and reverently by the villagers, who, it turns out, are often better Christians than they are: feeding, sheltering, sacrificing. But word gets out, and officials, led by the grunting Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and the initially silent, increasingly creepy Inoue (Issei Ogata), descend. Rodrigues has already counseled the village elders to step on the image of Christ to save themselves, and they do. But it’s all so easy. So Inoue changes the rules: They must spit on the image and curse the Virgin Mary as a whore. This they cannot do—except for Kichijiro, of course. The other three are tied to crosses and left to die of exposure and/or drowning with the coming tide That’s basically most of the movie: die by fire or water. Pick your poison.
After the two priests split up, we follow Rodrigues, who is betrayed by Kichijiro, captured, and broken down over months and years. Rather than kill him, and thus martyr him, the officials kill helpless Japanese because he’s not submitting to their will. At one point, from a distance, Rodrigues sees Garupe on the beach sacrifice himself for his flock, who are wrapped in hay, rowed into the ocean, and tossed overboard to drown. Garupe swims to save them but is drowned himself. Rodrigues cries to the heavens at the injustice.
That’s one of the oddities for me. Given the alternatives, Garupe’s death isn’t bad: It’s for a cause and doesn’t involve bodily torture. Yet there’s Rodrigues, crying to the heavens. This happens often. Rodrigues’ emotional reactions don’t quite mesh. At one point he seems to go mad—briefly—and I’m not sure why. Were scenes cut?
Eventually, Rodrigues comes face to face with Father Ferriera and learns that all the rumors are true: a wife taken, Christ renounced. Then Ferriera tries to convince Rodrigues to follow the same path of apostasy. We get more torture of others. Meanwhile, despite Rodrigues’ fervent prayers, God is silent.
But God, or at least Scorsese, gets in the last quiet word.
Silence vs. Waiting
At the very end, after Rodrigues’ conversion, and after he and Ferriera become, in essence, border agents for the officials—ensuring that no Christian icons, not to mention Christians, make it into the country—and after Ferriera’s death, and while Rodrigues himself is dying, once again we hear Rodrigues’ complaint about God’s silence. But then we hear another voice telling Rodrigues what he can’t hear: That He was never silent; that He was always next to him; that He suffered along with him. It’s the voice of God.
That’s an answer to the dilemma, I suppose: God hears, we can’t. It’s not a bad answer for someone like Scorsese, who once considered becoming a priest, and who has grappled with religious issues in both life and on film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun”). It may even be true. But it’s not particularly satisfying to a secularist like me.
A more satisfying rationale comes from someone I know, Craig Wright, a playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and minister, who, 20 years ago, wrote a song called “Heaven,” in which the singer asks the same question Rodrigues does. Except the metaphor is different: not silence but waiting:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
The answer, an alley-oop, doesn’t come via an 11th-hour deus ex machina, as Scorsese’s does, but through the singer’s own thought processes:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
That thought turns the bad into the blissful. “Silence” doesn’t do that for me. The final shot of Rodrigues, dead and stuffed into a barrel-sized Japanese coffin, but still, unseen, clutching the homemade crucifix in his hand, is that ... redemption? It indicates the Japanese didn’t break his spirit. Just everything else.
Wednesday April 05, 2017
Movie Review: Frantz (2016)
At first I thought he’d killed her fiancé (and their son) during the Great War, and that’s why this almond-eyed, sensitive Frenchman was visiting the grave of Frantz Hoffmeister in Quedlinburg, Germany in the spring of 1919. But after he told them the story about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war—seeing the Louvre together, and Manet’s painting of the man “with his head back”—and you realize the grief he’s feeling and the secret he still seems to be keeping, I wondered “Maybe they were lovers?”
Turns out it’s Door #1.
I liked “Frantz” a lot but didn’t quite love it. The French academy seems to feel the same way. It was nominated for 11 Césars and won one: cinematography.
It’s based on the 1932 Hollywood movie “Broken Lullabye,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which was based on the 1925 play by Maurice Rostand, L'homme que j'ai tué, or The Man I Killed. Both earlier versions focus on the French soldier seeking absolution, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”), but “Frantz,” written and directed by François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “8 Femme”), and filmed in black and white, makes the smarter decision, I believe, to focus on the girl, Anna (Paula Beer), the fiancée to the dead soldier. It adds mystery. It makes us wonder what the Frenchman is up to.
I was pulled into the post-Great War world right away. Anna buys flowers, looks at the new dresses in the shop window but walks away, down the street, past the two former soldiers who comment on how pretty she is, and into the cemetery ... where she finds flowers already on the grave of her fiancé. She asks a caretaker about them, and he says they were placed there by a Frenchman. Then he spits in contempt. “Right,” I thought. “That hatred doesn’t go away.”
Anna is still living with Frantz’s parents, Dr. and Frauline Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), and being pursued by Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who offers little but financial stability. Like much of the world at this point, she’s engaged to the dead.
The mystery of the Frenchman, and his connection to Frantz, wakes her up. She opens up, particularly to him, even as he seems wary of her, forever backing off. We get a beautiful scene where he agrees to play Frantz’s old violin for the family, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, and Ozon allows color to creep back into the film. It’s a bold move but it works. When Adrien faints, the world goes to black-and-white again. Eventually he tells Anna the truth: He was the French soldier who killed Frantz; he’d come to Quedlinburg to ask forgiveness. In the wake of this revelation, she turns cold, refuses to forgive him, but maintains the illusion of “Frantz’s friend” for the Hoffmeisters. He returns to France.
The second half is all Ozon—it wasn’t in the play or the original movie—and it doesn’t quite work.
Anna’s despair is so great—the man she was falling in love with killed the man she loved—that she tries to drown herself. A local saves her. Bedridden, she begins to contemplate settling for Kreutz when Mrs. Hoffmeister dismisses the notion. They had hoped, she says quietly, that Anna might wind up with Adrien. Caught in the illusion of “Frantz’s friend,” maybe even beginning to believe it herself, Anna travels to Paris to find him.
Some good moments. Manet’s painting in the Louvre turns out to be “Le Suicide,” and she worries Adrien has taken his own life. Through the hospitals she discovers the suicide-death of Rivoire. At this point I thought the movie would be bookended by Anna’s graveyard visits: first her fiancé, then the man who killed her fiancé. But that Rivoire turns out to be a colonel who lost his legs. She finds her Rivoire living in a country estate, with a prim mother and a fiancée of his own, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing, looking like Marion Cotillard’s not-as-pretty younger sister). Anna agrees to stay but, mirroring his fainting spell, she flees an evening piano recital. The next day at the train station, Anna forgives Adrien for Frantz’s death, while Adrien reveals that he’s getting married mostly for his mother, and Fanny, but not himself. They finally kiss, and for a moment he tries to change the course of events but she tells him it’s too late. We last see her back in the Louvre, at the Manet painting, telling another young mustached man that she likes the painting because it makes her want to live.
Shape of things to come
“Frantz” is gorgeously photographed, and has a deliberate pace and seeming simplicity. Another scene I loved is when Dr. Hoffmeister confronts Kreutz’s pro-German meeting group, who condemn his friendship with the Frenchman, saying: We celebrated when we slaughtered them and they celebrated when they slaughtered us. We cheered the death of children.
Stotzner is magnificent as the doctor—his bedrock gravitas, his searching eyes—and Beer is quite lovely as Anna: her neck; the way she moves. But the ending doesn’t resonate. More, what drives the plot, Adrien’s need for forgiveness from the family of the man he killed, is, to me, so monstrously selfish that I lost interest in the character. When it turns out he’s living on a country estate, my contempt doubled.
It’s worth seeing, though. I'd like to see more movies like it. Hovering in the background throughout is not only Frantz (as palpable a presence as Rebecca in “Rebecca”) but the war to come. Even if “Le Suicide” makes Anna want to live, we know she will live long enough to see more death than she can imagine.
Wednesday March 29, 2017
Movie Review: Rules Don't Apply (2016)
He waited too long.
Principal shooting on “Rules Don’t Apply” took place in 2014, but writer-director Warren Beatty kept tinkering with it throughout 2015, and the movie didn’t open until November 23, 2016—two weeks and a day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And these are the first words the still-shellshocked citizens of the U.S. got to see on screen:
“Never check an interesting fact.”
— Howard Hughes
(names and dates have been changed)
What’s supposed to be a sly wink at the audience, something to make us laugh at the chicanery of it all—and maybe even recall one of the most famous lines in movie history: “When the legend becomes fact ... print the legend,” from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—instead, post-Trump, comes off as a kind of horror about what we’ve allowed everyone to get away with, the truth-less, factcheck-less world in which we now spin. It immediately sets the wrong tone.
Then it get worse.
To be honest, I don’t know what Beatty was thinking. I don’t know what he thought the story was.
Here’s the story as I see it: In 1958, two kids fall in love but Howard Hughes (Beatty) gets in the way. She gets pregnant (by Hughes), he stays employed (by Hughes), and then six years later, in Acapulco, they rally ’round the old man enough that he’s able to rise up from his dementia and beat back a charlatan autobiographer. Yay! Then boy and girl go off into the sunset—with Hughes’ now 5-year-old kid in tow—even as the old man sinks back into silence and darkness.
The girl is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) a devout Baptist and the “Apple Blossom Queen” of Virginia, who arrives in Hollywood in 1958 with her suspicious, demanding mother, Lucy (Annette Bening, wasted), ready to take a screen test for the Hughes-produced film “Stella Starlight.” The boy is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a devout Methodist low-level employee of Hughes and wannabe real estate tycoon who drives Marla and 25 other Hughes starlets to and from school, dance lessons, auditions, etc., even as he’s constantly warned by his superior, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), not to get involved with them—and even as Levar does his level best to do just that. To no dramatic effect. Or plot point. Or anything.
There’s a great early shot of, I guess, Sunset Boulevard in 1958, done with, I imagine, lots of CGI, that made me happy. This is what CGI is for, I thought: resurrecting history. There’s also a nice montage of picking up the va-va-voomy starlets, as well as a fascinating moment when the girls get their weekly paychecks via clipboard dropped from a second-floor window like—as Lucy accurately states—a fishing line. But the movie loses itself quickly. The early scenes are rushed through. In one seven-minute stretch, I counted 14 separate scenes—three involving Frank’s visit with his girl and her family back in Fresno, which could’ve been cut altogether. But Beatty keeps them while giving short shrift to the others.
Where’s the emotional resonance? At one point, Lucy is lambasting Frank again from the backseat about how it’s been two weeks and Hughes hasn’t even seen Marla yet, and when is she going to get her screentest, and why isn’t he, Frank, doing something about it? Finally fed up, Fred pulls over, turns, and tells her he’s never seen Mr. Hughes, either. Ah ha! Except we’re already aware of this. Painfully so. The scene might’ve worked, if, say, the point-of-view had been Marla’s throughout, with Hollywood a dreamscape, and the driver mysterious and handsome, and then ... Oh! He’s just like me. He’s just another employee in the dark. Instead, this clunker.
We get a lot of clunkers. There’s a Bobby Darin joke that falls flatter than almost any line I’ve heard. Then it’s repeated 10 minutes later.
It all builds toward finally seeing the reclusive Hughes. She goes first, meeting him in his darkened bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel, where she anticipates a pass or worse. Instead, he’s a Warren Beatty character: distracted, kooky, harmless. She’s served a TV dinner rather than a sumptuous meal, and sax rather than sex, and when he looms close and points to her chest it’s to talk about the Rayon in her blouse rather than paw at what’s beneath it.
Then it’s his turn, meeting Hughes for 3 a.m. burgers on folding chairs in front of Hughes’ massive airplane, The Hercules—just one of the many Hughes bio bits Beatty tries to pack in. In this six-year period, 1958 to 1963, we get references to Jane Russell’s bra (really from 1943) as well as the faux autobiography (really from 1972). Hughes is in a plane crash, Hughes is testifying before Congress, Hughes exhibits the OCD habits that will undo him. He’s increasingly paranoid that his underlings will declare him mentally incompetent and put him in an institution. Then he learns that if he’s married, he can’t be committed without his wife’s approval. And that sets up the movie’s turning point.
Here’s how it’s set up:
- Frank and Marla finally give in to their lustful passions (think: “Splendor in the Grass”) but it ends abruptly, even before clothes are removed.
- Immediate after, Levar takes her to Hughes’ bungalow because Hughes requested a tryst with “the MM girl”—but Beatty meant Marilyn Monroe.
- Marla, feeling guilty over the makeout session with Frank, discovers the champagne there, and gets bombed while waiting.
- He discovers the thing about the wife.
- He proposes to her.
- They have sex.
Apparently Beatty first thought of this project back in the 1970s, and if he’d pulled it off earlier, with him in the lead, it might’ve worked. I mean, Hughes in ’58 was relatively young: 53 years old. He was Brad Pitt’s age now. But Beatty at the time of filming? 77. Worse, he was 52 years older than the female lead. Again: Ick. Sorry, Warren, but some rules do apply.
Hughes, scatter-brained and unethical, winds up marrying Jean Peters and escaping to Las Vegas, then Nicaragua, then London. Marla winds up pregnant. She and Frank wind up on the outs because 1) he sees the engagement ring and assumes there’s another guy, 2) she doesn’t tell him about Hughes, 3) he doesn’t figure it out until the 11th hour. Quarter to midnight, more like.
What a mess. I get the feeling Beatty wants us to cheer as, buoyed by Marla’s sudden reappearance in Acapulco with her son, whom he recognizes as his son, meaning his DNA will continue on and he can live forever (don’t ask), buoyed by this, the clouds in his mind momentarily dissipate, he comes alive again, and he unmasks his biographer—the spurned boyfriend of one of his starlets six years earlier—as a charlatan. But ... he’s still Hughes. All that shit still happened. There’s no Hollywood ending here, but Beatty, or Fox, makes one out of it—right up to the boy chasing after the girl to let her know, finally know, how much she means to him.
You know what would’ve made a better movie? The story of another 1958 ingénue from Virginia, Warren Beatty, landing in Hollywood just as the old studio system was dying; and how he and his generation, via “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” created, for a time, what took its place: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
When the legend sucks, print the facts.
Thursday March 23, 2017
Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
There is an early exchange between our main character, a kid called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who has begun to act as his big brother. We wonder for a time whether Juan has an ulterior motive. Is he trying to turn Little into a corner kid? Something worse? But doubts about Juan are extinguished by the doubt we see in Juan’s own face. Even he can’t fathom why he’s doing it. He seems confused by his own actions. Sure, the kid reminds him of himself as a boy, but don’t others? Why this one? I guess that’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we fall in love: Why this one?
The exchange is mostly monologue—Juan’s. That’s true of most of Little’s exchanges. He doesn’t say much. But when he does it has impact. It hits you in the gut.
Juan is telling Little about his experience coming to Miami from Cuba, running around, not knowing any better. He recalls a time when an old lady stopped him and said she would call him “Blue,” because, she says, in the moonlight black boys look blue.
Little: Is your name Blue?
Juan [laughs]: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
Much of the rest of the movie is how Little lets everyone else make that decision for him.
Who he’s going to be
The movie is split into three parts, each named for either the nickname or real name of our main character:
In the first, he’s about 10. The second ... 16 or so? By the time he’s Black, he’s in his late 20s and no longer little.
Does it lose something in the third act? For me, for a time, it does. For a time, Chiron lost my sympathy. He had it in the first two.
He’s small and picked-upon, living in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict who is too busy looking for her next fix to look after, or even care about, her own son. It’s up to others to do it for her: Juan, who teaches him to swim, and his girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feeds him and cares for him, and Little’s friend Kevin, who gives him advice: “See, you just gotta show them niggas you ain’t soft.” That’s the key to Kevin, who’s bigger, louder, occupies his space in the world. Little retreats from the world. He takes baths. I identified.
One of Little’s hit-you-in-the-guts lines is near the end of the first act. Juan has just had a showdown with Teresa, who, against neighborhood etiquette and common sense, is smoking crack in a car near the drug dealers, and Juan is ready to rip her a new one. But she senses his vulnerability; her son is his vulnerability, and she uses it. She uses the fact that he cares and she doesn’t, and back at his place, Juan and Teresa and Little sitting around the dining table like a family, Little drops a non sequitur like a bomb: “Am I a faggot?” I thought Juan’s response was a little cautious, a little PC, but then he’s hit in the gut with the next question: “Do you sell drugs?” Little is making sense of the world. The man saving him is the man destroying his mother. Juan owns to it but the admission, and Little’s quick exit, crumples him.
By the next act Juan is gone—a funeral is mentioned in passing—and his place in the story is taken by what Juan kept at bay: the bullies of the world, specifically Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his toadies, who pick on Chiron (Ashton Saunders) in class and in the schoolyard and follow him home, mocking his mother, his pants, his supposed sexual preference. Kevin isn’t part of that; he’s just nearby, bragging about this or that girl he did this or that with; then suddenly he’s at the beach with Chiron, who fled there at night, and the two share a joint and a sexual moment. You sense the world opening up to Chiron: Maybe it can be this; maybe it can be beautiful. The next day it slams shut. Terrel demands Kevin pick a fight with Chiron, and he does. Kevin gives in to the demands of the world, Chiron doesn’t and gets hurt for it—both physically and emotionally—and he snaps. I had friends in high school who snapped in similar ways, but less violent ways. Chiron busts a chair over Terrel’s back, and the authorities, who never acted throughout Terrel’s long reign of terror, now act: They put Chiron in juvey.
By the third act, the skinny kid is gone. Now he’s got a body like a superhero, and a grill like a drug dealer. He is a drug dealer. In Atlanta. It’s how he survived. We get the story piecemeal after Kevin (Andre Holland, Wendell Smith in “42”) phones out of the blue, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now Black—Kevin’s nickname for him in Act II—goes to see him in the Cuban restaurant Kevin runs in Miami. It’s a small place but I like the atmosphere of it and Kevin’s pride in it. That said, this part drags a bit. Maybe because I don’t identify with Black here? We don’t know exactly what he’s up to—Love? Revenge? Both?—and it’s pulling teeth getting anything out of him. I wonder where the kid I identified with went.
Where did he go? He went to a harder place and became a person who could survive there. That, too, when I figured it out, I identified with. The hardest thing is to remain sensitive in a hard world. The world closes you off, bit by bit, or all at once. It happened to me on some level and it happened to Chiron.
Eventually, back at Kevin’s place, he reveals where Little and Chiron are—still inside—when he says the most devastating line of the year:
You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.
The mind reels at the sadness of it all.
And the Oscar goes to...
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is as beautifully structured as a short story or novella. It deserves its accolades and awards. It’s even more powerful during the second viewing.
I particularly like how intimately it’s photographed. We’re never far away from our lead—Little, Chiron, Black. We often seem to be following right behind him as if we’re bullies following him home from school or guardian angels looking after him. Helpless guardian angels.
Saturday March 18, 2017
Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2016)
Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the quintessential grumpy old man with a heart of gold—Swedish version. He’s a widower who spends his days nitpicking over minor violations in block association rules, visiting his wife’s grave, and trying to kill himself. The neighbors keep interrupting these attempts to ask for favors. They keep blithely assuming he’s a sweetheart even though he’s shown them nothing but contempt.
It works. During the course of the movie, amid his grumblings, Ove: helps his new neighbors back their trailer into their driveway, loans them a ladder, drives them to the hospital, babysits their kids, fixes their dishwasher, teaches the Iranian wife to drive, repairs a bike, takes in a stray cat, takes in a gay kid who’s been kicked out by his homophobic dad, and saves the life of a stranger about to be run over by a train.
Then in the final showdown, he rallies the neighbors to prevent social services from taking Rune (Börge Lundberg), his onetime friend and rival for block association president, now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, and placing him in an institution against his and his wife’s wishes.
With grumpy old men like this, who needs friends?
You see early on where the movie’s going, and it gets there without many surprises. It’s about simple joys, loves, lives. Tragedy keeps intersecting with joy, but none of it feels particularly real.
- Tragedy: His father is proudly showing his teenage son’s grades around the railyard when he gets run over by a train.
- Heroism/tragedy: Shortly thereafter, he runs into a burning building to save his neighbors’ lives but gets no praise or backslaps, simply a sneer from social services, the villainous “Whiteshirts” of his imagination, who allow his own home to burn to the ground because they’re going to demolish it anyway.
- Joy: Now homeless, sleeping on a train, he runs into a beautiful, intelligent woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, looking like a “Twin Peaks”-era Sherilyn Fenn), and she does most of the heavy lifting to get them to the altar. What does she see in him? Who knows? He’s a tall hayseed, not particularly attractive, who can barely string two words together. But the movies are the movies.
- Tragedy: In a tour group in Spain when she’s six months pregnant, the bus goes over an embankment and Sonja loses the baby and the ability to walk.
- Overcoming tragedy: Denied teaching positions because she’s in a wheelchair, Ove builds a ramp in the rain that finally gets her the job.
None of it is grounded. The tragedy isn’t painful, the joy isn’t uplifting. It’s not life; it’s life packed in styrofoam peanuts.
There’s a kind of connective tissue between the tragedies and his old-man persnicketiness, since if people had simply been more careful most of the tragedies could’ve been avoided; but it’s not deep. There’s a kind of humor in the world’s various intrusion into his many failed attempts to kill himself, but it wears fast.
I did have one moment of true joy watching the film. Ove is reminiscing about first meeting, and discovering a kindred spirit in, Rune. Both are sticklers for block association rules, neighborhood enforcers who chase after scofflaws, and on their way to a great friendship. “Until,” Ove narrates, “we finally discovered the small difference.” Then we get a scene where young Ove, his face a mixture of confusion and betrayal, realizes Rune prefers Volvos to Saabs. That was brilliant. I laughed so hard at that.
But there wasn’t enough of it. I’ve heard the novel is better, as novels tend to be.
Monday March 13, 2017
Movie Review: Allied (2016)
The first thing I didn’t buy in “Allied” was Brad Pitt as a Canadian from Ottawa who parachutes into North Africa in 1942 and pretends to be the Parisian husband of Marion Cotillard in front of other French speakers and Parisians. The movie gets away with it by having Cotillard tease him about his Quebec accent, then tutor him to speak Parisian. Here’s the bigger problem: There aren’t many actors who seem more American, and less Canadian, than the Oklahoma-born-and-raised Pitt. Imagine Michael Fassbender in the part and things click.
The second thing I didn’t buy was that after their successful We’ll-always-have-Casablanca mission, Pitt and Cotillard (Max and Marianne) get married and move to pre-D-Day London, where he continues spy activities while she becomes a mom and housewife. Really? She ran the Casablanca operation. She kept schooling him. Suddenly she’s taking her piece off the table? With Paris still occupied? The movie gets away with it with this second-half reveal: She isn’t the real Marianne Beausejour. The real Marianne Beausejour was killed and she’s a German spy. But then we have to buy Marion Cotillard as German, not to mention a Nazi.
This movie, in other words, puts together the most American of actors and the most French of actresses and makes them Canadian and German, respectively.
But the main thing I didn’t buy was Max’s reaction to the reveal that his wife, and the mother of his child, is really a Nazi spy. Good god.
‘I need to protect my family’
He tries to flee with her and the baby to Canada. He’s ready to betray his country, western democracy and freedom for a pretty face.
OK, if any woman is worth it, it’s Cotillard. But, dramatically, how much can the hero put personal love above country and duty and not lose our sympathy? The movie wants to evoke the romanticism of “Casablanca” but it’s really the anti-“Casablanca.” It’s telling us that the problems in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans next to three little people.
Pitt’s been here before, by the way, in a different world war: World War Z. Remember? The zombie virus strikes and Pitt’s character uses his wits and contacts to get aboard a virus-free aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, run by the U.S. government, which is searching for an antidote. They want Pitt involved. They want to send him to South Korea to help save the world. His reaction?
“I’m not your guy. I need to protect my family.”
Uhhh, dude? This is howyou protect your family. Really, this is the only way to protect your family. Added bonus: You help save the human race.
Here, Marianne reveals that, yes, she was a German spy but then she fell in love with him. Yes, she sent top-secret communiqués from London to Germany (Nazi, Germany), but only because the Germans found her, and threatened their daughter! What else could she do?
Somehow, he sees the logic in this. It could be bullshit for all he knows. She could be a full-throated, anti-Semitic, sieg-heiling, Leni Riefenstahl-watching Nazi, but he buys it, and tries to help her/them escape. When they’re caught, she has to kill herself to free him. So our heroine is a traitor who does a good deed in the end, while our hero is a man of inaction who doesn’t.
No wonder everyone was disappointed in this thing. What Rick said about himself with modesty is true of Pitt’s Max: He’s no good at being noble.
The movie starts well, despite the miscast Pitt. I particularly liked the rooftop scenes, where men go after making love to their wives, and how Max uses the excuse of the nosy neighbor to try to steal a kiss and how Marianne sees through the ruse. Check out Cotillard’s face during this scene, the myriad realizations/emotions crossing her face in seconds. Such a great actress.
The London scenes were OK. At least we had Jared Harris, always a pleasure, as Max’s commanding officer. He is good at being noble. At the airport, he tells MPs that Max shot and killed Marianne, that his friend did his duty, even as Max slumps there, an abject figure. It’s more echoes of “Casablanca,” a kind of “round up the usual suspects” on the airport tarmac. It should’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it’s the end of a less-than-beautiful movie.
Friday March 10, 2017
Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
It’s Mel Gibson, so it’s God and gore again. Question: Is it God because of the gore? In Mel’s worldview, does the gore—the suffering, the awareness that we are meat and food for rats —lead us to God? Make us search beyond ourselves? Lift us up?
I liked “Hacksaw Ridge,” by the way. The first half is sweet, the second half harrowing and bloody. It’s mildly, unapologetically corny and not overlong.
But it begins by stealing from one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thin Red Likeness
This is the open. We get slow-motion shots of war in the Pacific: men charging and yelling and screaming in pain and dying; and all the while a voiceover with a thick Southern accent talks about God:
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
Sorry, that’s Pvt. Train from Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” one of the greatest movies ever made. This is what we hear in “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s the voice of our main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the second conscientious objector, after Sgt. York, to win the Medal of Honor, and the first to do so without carrying a weapon:
Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar like wings on eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.
It’s interesting comparing the two voiceovers. Malick’s is all question marks. It’s uncertain, questioning, probing. It’s trying to translate the awful dichotomy of the world into the oneness we long for.
Doss’ voiceover begins with a question, too, but it already has the answer (God), which it then tells us. It’s not even Doss telling us; it’s Isaiah 40, 28-31. What it says prefigures the movie’s big moment—Doss, all alone at night, rescuing 75 wounded men, one by one, who were left behind on Hacksaw Ridge—but the promise within the verse sounds odd to my secular ears. It’s a little too quid pro quo: You give God belief, He gives you energy. It’s full of the suspect promises of a late-night infomercial. Apparently God is to us as spinach is to Popeye.
From that Malick-esque open, we cut to 16 years earlier and two brothers hiking and playing and fighting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the midst of a wrestling match on the lawn, young Desmond picks up a rock and clocks his brother, nearly killing him. In the horrified aftermath, he stands before a religious painting and its depiction of Cain and Abel, so near to what he himself did, and finds God.
Now a leap forward. Desmond is in his early 20s helping out at church when there’s a car accident out front. (The streets of rural Virginia, 1941, prove suprisingly dangerous in this film.) His makeshift tourniquet saves a leg, and at the hospital he comes across a beautiful nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he stares at starry-eyed. Their courtship is sweet. Then war calls. Despite being a Seventh-day Adventist who won’t touch a gun, Desmond signs up. He needs to do his duty.
A few thoughts on his platoon:
- I never bought Vince Vaughn as the tough-talking drill sergeant. He’s not actor enough. Also not in shape enough. At one point, he threatens his men during a march by saying they’ll have to keep going until he drops. Me: “I’ll take those odds.”
- At least, in this quintessential story, Vaughn is American. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, is Aussie: mom (Rachel Griffiths), pop (Hugo Weaving), girl (Palmer); Smitty, Teach, Grease, Vito; Capt., Lt. Col., Col. Was it cheaper this way? Is Mel just prejudiced against Americans?
- The platoon itself is all walks of life: the tough Brooklynite, the cowboy, the Jew, the hillbilly, the card shark. Was it really like this back then? Or was it only like this in the movies back then?
- Speaking of: There’s an odd character, Zane (Luke Pegler, Aussie), who is nicknamed “Hollywood” because he loves his own looks so much. He’s got a cheesy Clark Gable moustache and a body that’s way too buff for the times. We first meet him naked, doing chinups. Once at Okinawa he's a bit cowardly. Is this Mel’s attack on Tinsel Town? Full of preeners whose muscle doesn’t match their spirit or soul?
I was a bit confused by the date they landed on Okinawa. You get the sense Doss signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor (he did: April 1, 1942), yet after basic training it’s suddenly May 1945. Where have they been for three years? Turns out Leyte and Guam, where Doss won the Bronze Star, but, for dramatic effect, Mel skips this and pretends the platoon is green.
That said, he handles the main set piece—Hacksaw Ridge, a.ka. the Maeda Escarpment—well. Does he go over-the-top with his battle scenes? Probably. It’s Mel. But we get a real feel for what it’s like to face a group of men trying to kill you. Also for how quickly our bodies become hamburger.
Aussie cast, Chinese aud
You know what’s shocking about “Hacksaw Ridge” besides the carnage? The fact that it took so long for Hollywood to tell the story. But apparently Doss didn’t want his story told. In the 1950s, producer Hal B. Wallis gave it a shot, with WWII hero Audie Murphy in the lead, but Doss wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until 2001, two years before his death, that he was finally convinced that his story should be seen on the silver screen.
Another shocker: Where was the audience? The people who say Hollywood is ignoring them and their values? This thing has God, country, good reviews, Academy Award nominations, and it was helmed by their man, crazy Mel, whose “Passion of the Christ” grossed $370 million in 2004. Yet “Hacksaw” grossed almost as much in China ($62 million) as it did here ($66). USA? USA? USA?
Tuesday February 21, 2017
Movie Review: Sausage Party (2016)
The obvious one-word review of “Sausage Party”? Tasteless.
When he’s not doing stoner comedies, Seth Rogen has spent his career either buying into the tropes of Hollywood genre films (“Neighbors”), half buying into them (“The Green Hornet”), or mocking them mercilessly (“Observe and Report”). “Sausage Party” is in this last group.
It takes the Disney/Pixar love of anthropomorphism (animals, toys, and furniture), and asks, “What would happen if we did that with food?”
Great concept. When I first saw the trailer in early 2016, I roared with laughter. The food thinks it’s going to a special place, then horror ensues: the potato is painfully peeled, the iceberg lettuce torn apart, the baby carrots masticated. “They’re eating children! Fucking children!” a hot dog cries.
What makes it particularly funny is that, until that moment, all the scenes in the trailer buy into the Disney/Pixar tropes. The grocery store/kitchen is the happiest place on earth. It’s Disneyland, where everyone is clean, behaves, no one curses, and no one has genitalia or sexual urges.
That’s just the trailer, though. In the actual movie, our foodie protagonists act as horny and raunchy as dudes at a frat party. The hot dogs are all male, the buns female, the former want to get into the latter: “You know it, baby! Work those buns! ... Waiting to get filled with my meat!” Everyone’s tossing around F-bombs. It’s supposed to be shocking and funny but it’s shockingly unfunny. It’s pushing buttons that don’t produce laughter. By the time the kitchen knife comes out, the carnage is almost welcome.
Question: With the racially specific food (the Woody Allenish bagel, voiced by Ed Norton; the hard taco shell, voiced by Selma Hayek; the German mustard with the Hitler face), is this a satire of the now-embarrassing racial stereotypes of early cartoons? Or is it just an opportunity for Seth and his friends to be as politically incorrect as possible? I’m betting both. It feels like they’re enjoying it too much.
The movie was directed by animation vets Conrad Vernon (“Shrek”) and Greg Tiernan (“Thomas & Friends”), and written by the Rogen crew: Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, Kyle Hunter and Rogen, who all worked on “This Is The End.” Goldberg goes back with Rogen to “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” days. I’m beginning to think this is good as these guys get.
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