Movie Reviews - 2018 posts
Thursday September 12, 2019
Movie Review: Echo in the Canyon (2018)
The most indelible recent cinematic moment involving Lauren Canyon music wasn’t from this doc about its heyday (1965-1967), but from a scene near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” when members of the Manson family pull into the long steep drive that leads to the rented home of Roman Polanski; and on the soundtrack, using irony like a scalpel, or maybe a bludgeon, QT plays The Mamas and the Papas’ 1967 hit single, “Twelve Thirty” with this exuberant line:
Young girls are coming to the can-yon!
It’s almost too on-the-nose. John Phillips’ song is about how great So Cal is, particularly compared to New York City, which is “dark and dirty,” and where things are so broken the clock outside always reads 12:30. Time has like stopped there, man, but Cali’s the future. You lift your blinds, say “Good morning” and really mean it.
Right. Until one early morning, on the other side of the window, therrrrrrre’s Charlie!
Good vibrations and our imaginations
I was looking forward to learning about the history of the Laurel Canyon music scene from this doc and almost groaned aloud (and probably did) when I realized it was more Jakob Dylan, looking like the haunted movie-star version of his dad, visiting and interviewing folks about those days and what they meant—interspersed with a 2015 homage concert put on by Dylan and contemporaries Fiona Apple, Beck, Nora Jones, Cat Power and Regina Spektor. This, meanwhile, is interspersed with archive footage of the bands in question (Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield), as well as scenes from the 1969 Jacques Demy film “Model Shop,” starring Gary Lockwood, which is set in the Canyon, and which supposedly gives us a feel for the times.
I would’ve preferred more archive footage and a talking head or two to sort the details. Give us the chronology. Tell us who besides David Crosby is full of shit.
They says the Beatles started it all, which makes sense since they started so much. They appeared on “Ed Sullivan” in February ’64, and Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn thought, “Hey, let’s do that.” He succeeded so well by doing Beatle-esque versions of folk songs that for a time, and without nearly the track record, the Byrds were called “the American Beatles.” Tough mantle.
Once it all began, everyone influenced everyone. This might be my favorite part of the doc: This song influenced that one which influenced the other. George Harrison even got a “If I Needed Someone” guitar riff from the Byrds’ cover of the Pete Seeger song “The Bells of Rhymney.” He even sent Derek Taylor to see McGuinn to see if it was OK. It was. Some cite this kind of collaboration and openness as the reason for the bursting creativity of those years.
But the doc is more laudatory than I would’ve liked; the filmmakers (Dylan, writer-director Andrew Slater) are too close to the story. We get some warts—Michelle Phillips slept around, David Crosby was a douche—but not a good discussion of why, beyond the track record (two No. 1s vs. 21), the Byrds weren’t the American Beatles. Here’s one answer: They were too earnest. The Beatles were sly and wicked, while Dylan, whom the Byrds relied on for material, had almost a third eye he was so timeless. There aren’t many geniuses in rock ‘n’ roll but those were two. The doc needed to get into the why of it while still celebrating it.
Can’t go on indefinitely
I liked hearing Jakob and the others singing but I was less impressed with him as an interviewer. His main technique is to say nothing. Most of the time, it’s not a bad technique—cf., Robert Caro—but it’s not exactly cinematic. Plus a good interviewer needs follow-ups and, I don’t know, curiosity. People talk up the flak McGuinn encountered when he mixed rock and folk, and no one references Newport? Not even a “I guess your dad knew something about that”? And doesn’t the doc imply Dylan got the idea from McGuinn rather than hearing the wails of Eric Burden and the Animals on “House of the Rising Sun” coming over his car radio? Or is the latter story apocryphal? If so, this was a chance to clear that up. They didn't. They muddied the waters.
How did everybody meet? I kept expecting to hear “Creeque Alley,” which is really the origin story of so many of these bands and personalities, but it never comes. I wanted more on the breakups, too. They harmonized beautifully on a west-coast idealism but couldn’t keep the harmony going. I wanted that dynamic: the disharmony among those beautiful harmonies, with Charlie waiting in the wings. What wasa he, after all, but another So Cal resident influenced by the Beatles.
Friday July 05, 2019
Movie Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)
Rob Garver’s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a mostly laudatory documentary, with many of Kael’s fans and friends and relatives among the talking heads. So why did I like and respect her a little less afterwards?
I didn’t know about the Paulettes, for example. I mean I knew there were young critics she championed, and who emulated her idea about what makes a critic great; but I didn’t know she actually tried to rally them toward her opinion of a film. That’s some bullshit. That’s PR and propaganda. But of course she thought a true critic was a propagandist, and anyone who didn’t act accordingly wasn’t a true critic. Good god. Imagine. There’s way too much fucking propaganda in the world already. Just say what’s true and get off the stage.
Taking stuffing out of Straw
Then there’s the auteur controversy. In 1963, Kael helped make a national name for herself by tackling Andrew Sarris’ article on, and love of, the French auteur theory, disparaging the notion, the academic stuffiness of it all, and Sarris himself. I should read the piece someday—the back and forth of it. According to Richard Brody—with whom, I have to add, I rarely agree—she got a lot wrong. For one, she thought most directors labeled auteurs came out of tough-guy genres like film noir. She wrote:
Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence—that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?
Not only is this factually wrong (Minnelli, Sirk and Ophüls were also labeled auteurs early on), but it just feels wrong. She’s basically saying men are trying to prove their manhood by championing the word auteur.
More, as the documentary delineates, she disparaged auteurism even as she spent a career touting auteurs: Peckinpah, Scorsese, Altman, Godard, De Palma. Most of these guys were macho, too. Her above description on teenaged masculinity could fit every Sam Peckinpah movie.
What the doc misses is that she didn’t exactly champion everything by a favorite director. She was no auteur whore. I’ve always loved this opening from her 1972 review of Altman’s “Images”:
Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepeititve. He goes out in a new direction each time, and he scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.
The doc treats her as an absolutist, full of hyperbole, and misses the balance in her reviews. That’s the toughest thing for a critic to do, really. It’s easy to love or disparage a thing (particularly disparage a thing), but to delve into it and sort the bad from the good takes work. Look at her take on Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” I loathe it, she likes it, but she’s not blind to its faults. She actually nails Peckinpah better than the people who loathe him:
It’s a work of integrity, but it’s not a work of major intelligence. ... [Machismo] has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s other films; now that it’s out in the open, his strengths and follies are clearly visible. His intuitions as a director are infinitely superior to his thinking.
Was she mean? God, yeah. She attacked director David Lean in person and made him think about giving up movies—because she disliked, of all films, “Lawrence of Arabia.” (She thought there was too much of T.E.’s masochism and not enough on the British scholar.) She never had a kind word to say about George Roy Hill or Robert Redford. She never held back. You know the punch Ali never threw against Foreman? Kael threw it all the time. She wanted bodies on the canvas and blood on the walls.
Was she an opportunist? Apparently she sometimes waited on a review, sussing out the critical norm before blasting in from an unexpected angle. At the same time, we’re told, she reviewed and lauded “Last Tango in Paris” before it had any critic’s screenings; she paid for her ticket and saw it with the New York film fest crowd. Her review helped make the movie.
At this point, given “Last Tango”’s revisionist problems, I expected to get into sexual politics, the #MeToo of it all, but the doc doesn’t go there. It mentions she liked movies with sexual violence—where men are strong and women are subjugated—but it doesn’t go further. One of the talking heads even suggests she would’ve thrived in the modern age, with her bon mots transformed into tweets. Seriously? Her reviews were essays. She liked to go on and on. She wanted room and modern print doesn’t give you room—let alone Twitter.
I think she would’ve hated social media. It was her voice that mattered. All those others clawing at her? She would’ve been horrified. Plus, I gather, the #MeToo folks would’ve seen her as the enemy, and vice-versa. The doc treats her as a feminist icon—the lone woman in the room where it happens—but she never seemed much for movements. Let alone hashtags.
For all the problems I had with “What She Said,” I’d see it again—if only to immerse myself in a period when writing and film mattered; when there were adults in the room, arguing about adult things.
Tuesday July 02, 2019
Movie Review: A Family Tour (2018)
It should be a wonderful moment.
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years apart. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t. It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The mother is walking with a cane, but the tour director still rushes her through the hotel lobby. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago and we’ve been dealing with issues of mobility ever since. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director.
Turns out she isn’t that bad. In fact, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
“A Family Tour” (Chinese title: 自由行 or zi you xing, or, basically, “Travel Without a Tour Group”) generally isn’t my kind of movie. We get a lot of long, still takes of stilted conversation and parsimonious information. It can get dull. Several times I had to slap my cheeks to stay awake. But the stuff beneath the surface is powerful. I left the theater moved and saddened.
The intersection of history and governments helps—that whole dynamic between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and what belongs to whom and by how much.
It’s also autobiographical with an interesting gender reversal. Just as Yang Shu has been exiled from Mainland China for her work, so the film’s director, Shanghai-born Ying Liang was exiled after the 2012 premiere of his film, “When Night Falls,” which was based on a real-life incident: a man was arrested and beaten for riding a bicycle without a license and responded by killing six police officers. Authorities took offense. He now lives in Hong Kong.
It’s also about a film festival (in Taichung) that I saw at a film festival (in Seattle). That’s ostensibly why Yang is there: to be honored at the fest. But she brings along husband and son for the secretive meetings with the mother. They can’t travel with the tour group but they can meet up at where the group is going. The tour guide warns against seeming too friendly, or familial, with each other; but others on the tour assume they’re family anyway. It’s in the way they talk to each other and in the way they don’t.
Mom shows Yang Shu a tape of the authorities questioning her and her husband after Shu fled. They’ve been Skyping with each other, sure, but this is new info. But why did she bring it? Just because? Because she blames her daughter? Her husband is now dead, and his graved is being moved. Development. Oh, and their house is being torn down, too. Development, we’re told. Is it? Or is it punishment for the traitorous daughter? Does mother know and isn’t saying? Does she not know and assumes? We certainly don’t and neither does Shu.
Who knows what and assumes what is part of the mystery. The daughter is often prickly, often ready to start a fight, maybe because she feels she’s done nothing wrong; the mother is often distant, and polite, and mostly interested in her grandson. Maybe because she feels her daughter did do something wrong? Or is it because she’s at the end—she’s dying—and doesn’t have much fight left?
The authoritarian government looms over every meeting but it’s the people at the meeting, filled with human foibles and buried resentments, who can’t make it work. It would’ve been easy for Ying Liang to make this a heroic film. He chose a better path.
Saturday June 01, 2019
Movie Review: The Fall of the American Empire (2018)
Couldn’t this have been called anything? It only really makes sense if “American Empire” is a metaphor for greed, or shady international finance, or something, and even then it doesn’t quite work, because that stuff doesn’t fall. It thrives, but for the other side. I'm reminded a bit of Vonnegut's “Cat's Cradle.” See the cat? See the cradle? Here it‘s: See the fall? See the empire? See the American?
Oh, wait. So this is a set piece to Denys Arcand’s “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986)? Which also didn’t have much to do with the American empire’s decline.
Oh, wait. Apparently this could have been called something else, since the IMDb bio page for one of its stars, Maripier Morin, the hottie prostitute, says the following:
She stars in Le Triomphe de l’Argent, her first big role on the silver screen. The highly anticipated movie is directed by Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand.
That’s actually a better title.
Oh, wait. It’s certainly a more accurate title. But better? Would I have seen it at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival if it were called “The Triumph of Money”? Maybe not.
Oldest profession, oldest cliché
So: A hapless Montrealer, Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), too book-smart for his own good, who works a short-pants delivery job despite the wealth of western civilization in his head, is parked in a parking lot when a heist goes awry—gangsters stealing from gangsters—and, amid the blood and carnage, two gym bags full of money are just sitting there, exposed, on the pavement, for the taking. Our man stares at them, mouth agape, for a beat, two, four, and then shoves them in his delivery van behind some boxes. Police arrive, question him, let him go. At home, he’s smart enough to take the gym bags through the front doors, since the company is notified whenever he opens his back doors. Then he’s dumb enough to use a small fraction of the money to hire a high-class prostitute, Aspasie (Morin).
Initially, he’s intrigued because her hooker name is the same as an ancient Greek philosopher. Then he’s intrigued because she looks like she looks and does what she does. Then he falls in love with her. With a prostitute. World’s oldest profession? How about world’s oldest cliché.
At least she’s not scamming him—she’s interested in what he’s doing. He’s got a good heart, and wants to help people, and this opens up her heart. It’s another gender reversal—the man making the woman a better person, cf., 《北京遇上西雅图》—but is it believable? I didn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, forces are gathering against him/them. The cops (Maxim Roy and Louis Morissette) show up at Pierre-Paul’s house as Aspasie is leaving, and they know her, and they know how much she costs, so they’re wondering how a deliveryman can afford a prostitute who charges more than his monthly wage? Now he’s their No. 1 suspect. They also warn him that this is gang money, and they’re going to want it back, but Pierre-Paul stays the course. He aligns with Sylvain “The Brain” Bigras (longtime Arcand collaborator Rémy Girard), a convict who knows money, but not enough of it, so they contact an old customer of Aspasie’s at a high-end investment firm, Maître Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), who knows how to launder money internationally. Initially he’s reluctant; then he takes it on.
Meanwhile, the gang is going after suspects in the brutal fashion of gangs. The surviving robber is beaten, handcuffed behind his back, and then hoisted into the air until his shoulders tear and give way. Brutal. I had to turn away. Then the man who planned the robbery, and who owned the store that was robbed, and acts oddly untouchable, is touched: Going to his car, he’s shot in the head. Also brutal. We fear for Pierre-Paul and the rest.
Nice to be nice to the nice
How does one legally get rid of millions? It can’t physically cross the border; so they find people with money internationally, who generally can’t touch it, and trade that for the cash. Then Wilbrod routes the international money to this country and that. It goes to South Africa, then Britain before winding up in, of course, Switzerland. The exchanges for the paper money occur even as the cops close in.
The best scenes are in the beginning (Pierre-Paul’s speech about being too smart to be successful—look for it soon on YouTube), but I like how it ends. In that, it just ends. We think both cops and gangsters are after our hero, and the cops nearly nab him, so we wait for the other shoe to drop. It never does. There’s no confrontation with the bad guys. How often does that happen in the movies? When we give up that possibility? Imagine Tarantino turning that down, for example. Our heroes turn the financial tables to benefit the downtrodden and get away with it. That’s fun.
But there’s a liberal squishiness to the movie I found a bit much: about the homeless; about Pierre-Paul giving coin to panhandlers; about good things happening to good people. It’s a nice thought. As nice as a beautiful prostitute falling in love with your sorry ass.
Tuesday May 21, 2019
Movie Review: Sink or Swim (2018)
In France they call it “Le Grand Bain,” or “The Big Bath,” and it’s basically “The Full Monty” meets that great 1985 SNL skit about men's synchronized swimming starring Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. A a group of out-of-shape, middle-aged underdogs get involved in synch swimming because nothing else is going right with their lives. It’s got some French nuance, yes, but also nasty/snooty relatives out of central casting who get told off twice by our heroes—the second time to cheers from the Seattle Internatonal Film Fest crowd. Then it gets even more Hollywood. In an international competition in Norway, our heroes not only go the distance (see: “Rocky”), not only win (“Rocky II”), but win over the foreign crowd (“Rocky IV”).
Kind of disappointing.
Afterwards, my wife called it a pretty good feel-good movie, and she’s right, but even she was shocked when I told her it got nominated for 10 Cesars last year (including best director and best film), and won one (best supporting actor).
You get a story...and you get a story
It begins well, with a voiceover from our lead, Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric), a depressive, unemployed father of two, talking about the circles at the beginning of life (earth, sun, womb, etc.), and the squares at the end of it (casket, tombstone, etc.), before getting into the whole “can’t fit a square peg into a round hole” bit. Then our story begins. With him.
Today’s the day Bertrand is supposed to begin work again, or apply for a job, or something, after a year or two fighting depression. His kids don’t respect him, his wife, Claire (Marina Fois), is losing patience, and he’s got that hopeless faraway look in his eyes that Amalric can do standing on his head. Then he sees a flyer about a men’s synchronized swim team and tears off one of the phone-number stubs.
Why is this the answer to his ennui? He tries to explain it to the chain-smoking, alcoholic, but still quite lovely female instructor, Delphine (Virginie Efira), who was once a competitive synch swimmer herself, but he doesn’t have the words. Maybe the screenwriters don’t, either. They just need the thing to happen for the movie to move forward.
Delphine’s team is already full of men for whom life didn’t turn out as planned:
- Laurent (Guillaume Canet, the French Patrick Dempsey), who has a hair-trigger temper, a son who stutters (because of dad’s hair-trigger temper), and a mother suffering dementia
- Marcus (Benoit Poelvoorde) is an unethical scamp whose pool/hot tub business is about to go bankrupt
- Thierry (Philippe Katerine, our Cesar winner) is a quiet, good-natured sort whom everyone, particularly Marcus, takes advantage of
- Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who has self-published 17 rock CDs without success, works in a lunchroom in the high school his superpretty daughter, Lola (Noée Abita), attends, and lives in an RV...but not down by the river
- Basil (comedian Alban Ivanov) has been denied a mortgage because he’s too old at 38. That’s pretty much all we know about him. He's kind of one-note
- Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan) is also one-note: He doesn't speak French, but Basil responds to his comments as if everyone understands
I thought the movie's focus would be Bertrand but it is a true ensemble. We see Laurent’s wife and child leave him. We see him visiting his addled, abusive mother in a home, then bring her home to live with him—where she, in her dementia, continues to verbally abuse him. At least there’s that; at least she doesn’t get better because he puts in the effort. We don't get that lie.
We see Marcus struggle to keep his business afloat, going so far as to burn a company van to collect the insurance, but not realizing he’d stopped paying the insurance months earlier. Not a bad bit.
Simon plays a rock concert for geriatrics while Thierry is abused by jocks at the pool where he works. Oh, and Delphine isn’t just a chain-smoker who wound up in AA through the love a good man. No, she's actually stalking that man, a married man, who pleads angrily to leave him alone. An interesting turn. For a time, she’s replaced by Amanda (Leila Bekhti), a martinet in a wheelchair, who whips them in shape. Well, “shape.” They’re still fairly doughy at the end.
Is this too many storylines? Each gets a bit but none goes deep. Some are played for laughs, some for pathos. Bertrand goes to work for his asshole brother-in-law in a sad furniture shop, takes his abuse with an increasingly astonished look in his eyes, until we get a worm-turns moment when he tells him exactly what he thinks of him, his furniture and the shop. Then they take it outside. Cut to: A shot of the two of them, through the window, silently and ineptly grappling with one another. That was good; that made me laugh. It’s when Bertrand’s wife, who hasn’t exactly been supportive of her husband, tells off her snooty sister in a grocery store—to actual cheers from the SIFF crowd—that I began to shake my head. Make it funny or go home.
All of it leads to a male synch competition in Norway, which somehow they‘re able to enter as the French national team. The other teams are young, fit and well-financed, while our guys are not, not and not. They’re in a sweaty panic; but then they perform perfectly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, to be honest. That they wouldn’t embarrass themselves mostly. But the movie has them win the whole thing. They come back to their small northern town with gold medals.
The sure thing
Apparently this French version, and a British version starring Rob Brydon that came out the same year, were both inspired by a 2010 documentary, “Men Who Swim,” which IMDb describes thus:
A humorous and poignant film about a group of middle-aged men who find unlikely success as members of Sweden's all-male synchronized swim team
A Hollywood version seems inevitable, but who to cast? In the French version, because the men are over-the-hill, their best days back in the 1980s, they cast actors who were stars in the ’80s. That would make sense for the Hollywood version, too, and there’s a host of options: John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, on and on. If you allowed Delphine to be older, Holly Hunter would be perfect.
I just hope Hollywood's version is less Hollywood than the French one.
Wednesday April 03, 2019
Movie Review: More Than Blue (2018)
In any love story, the real question for the writer is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” Because the lovers together are pretty boring. Answers have varied through the centuries: family, class, race, homophobia, early death.
The couple in “More Than Blue,” K (Jasper Liu) and Cream (Chen Yi-han), have elements of the last one—early death, his—but that’s not where the drama is. The drama is in withholding this information from her.
No, that’s not even it. The drama is in how he decides to make everything right for her once he’s gone. And the answer to that is a little fucked up.
The 10 year itch
They meet cute. In high school (played by Chih Tian-hsih and Pipi Yao), he’s sad and withdrawn, she’s bold and insouciant. One day, because he’s sad and withdrawn, he runs superhard around the school track, then lays down on a bench catching his breath. Rebellious and smoking a cigarette against school rules, she comes up to him and blows smoke in his face. He coughs, she laughs. She’s forward, he’s confused. Then a school official approaches, she hands him her cigarette and scrams. He gets in trouble. “Cute.”
She’s the active force in their relationship. She initiates the intro, the follow up, dates. She initiates the first kiss. When she finds out he lives alone (because his father recently died of cancer and his mother split), she suggests they live together (because she, too, is alone). And in this manner—through high school, college and music industry jobs—they live together and love together.
Wait, back up. They don’t really love together. At one point, 10 years in, she’s talking to a friend, Bonnie (Emma Wu), and admits that she and K have never had sex. Bonnie, a superannoying pop star who speaks in the third person, is horrified, and gives the usual shitty advice girls give each other: She tells Cream to find another man to make K jealous. She does. She finds a dentist, Yang You-xian (Zhang Shu-hao). Problem? He’s engaged.
Meanwhile, K’s cancer has worsened and the doc gives him a year to live. How does he spend that time? Living life to the fullest with the woman he loves? Nah. First, he hires some private detectives to look into Dr. Yang to see if he’s a right guy. They come back with a squeaky clean report except for the engagement. So K has them look into the fiancée, Cindy (Chen Tingni), too. Turns out she's cheating on him, they get photos, and K sends them to Dr. Yang. That’s right. He’s trying to break up a couple so the woman he loves can marry a man she was only using to make him jealous.
That’s some fucked-up shit.
But wait! There’s more. Eventually Dr. Yang proposes, Cream accepts, and K helps her pick a wedding dress. Then she makes him try on a groom’s outfit. Then she has their picture taken together—each obviously in love with the other, each saddened by the events they’ve set in motion. Then we see them walking down the aisle together. As bride and groom? Of course not. K is giving away the bride to Dr. Yang. The camera lingers on a sad close-up of him placing her hand into Yang’s; then he leaves the building, the story, this life.
That’s some fucked-up shit.
But wait! There’s more. You see, K wasn’t the only one with secrets. We find out—via flashback—that Cream knew that K was dying. We also find out via another flashback that Dr. Yang knew that Cream really loved K, not him. So what’s the reason these two went along with the charade? What is Cream thinking? “The man I love—who obviously loves me—is dying, and wants me to marry a man I don’t love ... so I’ll do it? Because even though I initiated every step in our relationship I can’t initiate this last one—where we talk about loving each other?” And what’s Dr. Yang excuse? “Yes, my fiancée loves another man; but I must marry her anyway because...?”
But wait! There’s more.
Sadder than sadness
For a time, we think K just dies somewhere alone. Not true. Via another flashback, we see Cream going to the hospital and finally confronting him about everything. (He cries—because I guess his secret is out, or because she loves him so much, or who the fuck knows.) Then she brings him home. Their home. Yes, she leaves Dr. Yang. And she and K take a photo together on the couch. And as they wait for the timer, K’s head slowly, irrevocably slumps onto hers.
At this point I’m thinking it’s like a fucked-up version of “Gift of the Magi”:
- I’m dying so I got you a husband
- I left my husband because you’re dying
Except then I think she dies. Right? I think his gravestone includes her name as well. (It flashed by quickly, sorry.) And Dr. Yang looks at it and cries. He sobs ... for himself? The sadness of the world? The fact that he lost his hot cheating fiancée to this idiot scheme?
“More Than Blue” is based on a 2009 Korean film of the same name—both in English and in the original. The Korean version translates as “A Story Sadder than Sadness” as does the Chinese: 《比悲伤更悲伤的故事 》. This version opened last November in Taiwan and broke the opening weekend box-office record, then became the highest-grossing domestic film of the year. It’s now playing in Mainland China, where it’s grossed $120 million and counting.
None of this exactly shocks me. Thirty years ago in Taiwan, when I lived there, sappy/weepy was big: Air Supply (particularly “All Out of Love”), George Michael (particularly “Careless Whisper”), and the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as time-crossed lovers who are united in death. Or something. That whole “lives of quiet desperation” thing Thoreau warned us about? The Chinese find it glorious.
Thursday March 21, 2019
Movie Review: Creed II (2018)
It’s really more like “Rocky III,” isn’t it?
Yes, “Rocky IV”’s Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) returns with a chip on his shoulder and a superpowerful son, Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu, hunky), who grew up in the hardscrabble streets of Ukraine, knowing only fighting. But with the help of an African-American promoter who greases gears only to slip back into the shadows—so not exactly Don King—they challenge the new heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the man Ivan killed in the ring, to a title match. That’s the external drama. It’s “sins of the fathers.” And it’s all about “Rocky IV.”
The internal drama, which is most of the movie, is cut exactly from “Rocky III.” They don’t use the phrase—which has become a cliché and was silly to begin with—but Adonis loses the eye of the tiger. Meaning his motivations for the fight are muddy; his head isn’t right.
Which is weird in itself. Motivation? How about revenge, motherfucker?
I was surprised to see the film wasn’t directed by Ryan Coogler but Steven Caple, Jr., who has one feature film to his credit: “The Land,” a 2016 indie. Maybe that’s why the movie doesn’t work. Also Sylvester Stallone has a writing credit?
Actually, who are the writers? The story is by Sasha Penn, who’s mostly a producer with no feature-film writing credits, and Cheo Hodari Coker, who is also first-listed on IMDb as a producer but at least wrote some “Luke Cage” episodes. Screenplay is by Stallone and someone named Juel Taylor—his first. Most of his credits are in Sound: editor, mixer, boom operator.
So it’s mostly non-writers writing this thing. And it shows.
Another reason why it doesn’t work? It brings an indie aesthetic to a genre film. You can do this successfully—as Coogler did with “Creed,” where I wrote, “Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.” Well, Caple and company close it again. The movie feels muted to me, and stale.
It begins with our hero winning the title. He’s successful, feted, in love. The small stuff that worked in “Creed”—the back and forth between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson)—is dullsville here. He proposes, awkwardly, and they visit his mom-but-not-mom, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Raschad), who figures out Bianca is pregnant before Bianca does. There’s a lot of this parents-know-best stuff in the movie. Then they worry the baby will be deaf like the mother but should they worry because isn’t she great? Plus Bianca has her music career that nobody watching gives a shit about. That’s a truly painful subplot—never more so than before the final fight in Russia when Bianca precedes the Creed contingent by live-singing a lukewarm melody. I couldn’t even watch; I was embarrassed for everybody involved. I was embarrassed for my country. We rule the world in pop culture and this is what you bring?
Hey does the movie ever give a good explanation why Adonis’ reaction to the Drago challenge is so nothing? Why isn’t he angry? Because he didn’t know his father? Because he resented his father? Because in a short span he’s become too comfortable? The fight arrives 45 minutes in, so we know Adonis will lose. He does and doesn’t. He’s crushed in three rounds, with broken ribs and internal bleeding, but the final blow comes after he’s been knocked down, a violation, so he retains the title. Sure. But all of it is very Clubber Lang in “Rocky III.”
In that movie, Rocky had to get back his tiger-eye by leaving his expensive mansion and training with black fighters in the mean streets of LA. This time, it’s the LA gyms that are too comfortable. So Rocky, who refused to train Adonis for the first fight, drives him into the desert, where they train with ... Mexicans, I guess? Illegals? Who knows? Where is this odd training ground in the middle of nothing? Is it based on anything beyond some weirdo macho fantasy? It’s also close to cultural appropriation: We need your anger over everything you’ve never had so we can battle someone who never had anything.
The fight scenes are done well, with Adonis slipping in and out of Drago’s punches. I also like Ivan’s story. They give him a kind of dignity and humanity he never had in the cartoonish “IV.” My favorite scene is probably when he shows up at Adrian’s—which is juxtaposed with Adonis learning of the Drago challenge via TV—and he’s subtly threatening. “Because of you, I lose everything. Country. Respect. [Pause] Wife.” It’s a ghost returning with bad thoughts. It’s scary. Good god, who knew Dolph Lundgren could act?
I particularly like him noting all the memorabilia on the wall:
Ivan: Nice pictures.
Rocky: Yeah, they’re okay.
Ivan: No pictures of me.
Rocky: No. There’s no pictures of that.
For Rocky, they’re reminders of tragedy. To Ivan, it’s just another example of him being erased from history.
Main character wanted, preferably single
Most of the rest is sadly dull. Bianca is ... who cares. But this is the bigger problem: Who is Adonis? What is he like? Who are his friends? He has no posse here, no bodyguards, no one beyond Rocky, Bianca and Mrs. Huxtable. Yes, he wants to box—determinedly—then he wants to marry. And beyond that?
Think of the personalities in the “Rocky” series. Start with Rocky, a garrulous nice guy from the neighborhood—too nice to even be a small-time thumb breaker for a local mob boss—so nice and talkative he even tries to give life lessons to teenage girls and gets “Screw you, creepo!” for his troubles. Or how about Apollo in the bigger-than-life mold of Muhammad Ali—talking in rhyme (“Be a thinker, not a stinker”), and taking care of business both in and out of the ring. How about Paulie—sleazy Paulie? Or Mick? Or Duke?
Who is Adonis? What is Creed’s creed—beyond trying to prove himself in the shadow of his famous father? It’s nothing. There’s nothing there.
Friday February 22, 2019
Movie Review: Robin Hood (2018)
They keep mucking it up. Year after year, attempt after attempt.
First they gave the lead to an American who fumbled around with a British accent before giving it up entirely; then it went to an actor in his late 40s when it was an origin story about Robin’s early years. That one, with Russell Crowe, ended as the rob-the-rich legend began—anticipating sequels, no doubt. But it was poorly reviewed (43% on RT), and while its box office wasn’t bad ($105 domestic, $325 worldwide), no sequels came.
This one, too, anticipates sequels—ending, again, with Robin escaping into Sherwood to start the legend. But the reviews were damning (15%) and the box office more so ($30 domestic, $84 worldwide). Sequels seem unlikely. When will Hollywood learn? It keeps giving us throat-clearing as feature films and is surprised when we don’t show up.
Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who was fat and comic relief, is now thin and comic-relief—and not funny. There is no Alan-a-Dale or Much, the Miller’s Son. There is no King Richard or Prince John. It’s just Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson) who works for the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), who works for the Vatican (F. Murray Abraham), which is trying to overthrow the British throne.
Here are the two biggest changes. John Little is now a Muslim warrior, Yahya (Jamie Foxx), who owes a debt to Robin and thus follows him back to England. He’s basically John Little + Morgan Freeman’s Azeem. He’s actually the driving force here. While Robin would wallow in sorrow for losing Marian—she married Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan) when he was presumed dead in the Crusades—it’s John/Yahya who shakes sense into him. Not only does he help Robin hone his archery skills, he masterminds the entire robbing-from the-rich, giving-to-the-poor conceit. He’s basically Simon Cowell to Robin’s One Direction.
Meanwhile, Will Scarlet, Robin’s right-hand man in the Errol Flynn version, not only cuckolds him here, but he’s an accommodating politician who, once he realizes Marian still loves Robin, turns to the dark side. By the end, he becomes the new Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s supposed to shock, but the way the film industry plays with our legends now it’s as meaningful as a face turning heel in the WWE. Plus it’s setting up sequels that will never arrive. It’s sad.
But it’s not the worst of it. This, to me, is the worst of it. They’re the first words we hear in the film, via voiceover from Friar Tuck:
So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen
- The history wouldn’t bore me; in fact, it would be so, so welcome
- Yes, I would like to know what year it was
The reason he can’t tell us the year is there isn’t one. This thing is an amalgamation of centuries. It should be Middle Ages, right, Robin Hood and all, but most of the movie is set in a Nottingham township built around what appears to be 19th-century industrial mining. People wear leather coats and jackets, the parties are like raves, and there’s an early version of a roulette wheel and craps table. For a time, I thought, Oh, so is it updating Robin into the 19th century—like Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”? Or into the 20th per Ian McKellen’s “Richard III”? Except: Crusades: 1095-1492. So what’s up?
Elton and Ray
What’s up is that first-time screenwriters Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, and director Otto Bathurst (“Peaky Blinders,” three episodes), don’t seem to give a shit about history. They toss centuries into a blender and serve us the result with a hipster smile.
God, the hipsterism. “The Hood.” The clothes and the parties and the modern language and sensibilities. The camera shots—a la “Dark Knight”—that confuse rather than clarify. Is it a fight or is it jazz hands? You decide.
At the least, we got the actors who played Ray Charles and Elton John starring in the same movie. Shame they weren’t playing Ray Charles and Elton John.
As for the history of cinematic Robin Hoods, this isn't a bad place to start. Hope it doesn't bore you.
Monday February 11, 2019
Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)
At some point, I asked my wife what she thought was going to happen. Jared (Lucas Hedges) will obviously escape the “Love in Action” gay conversion therapy group, I said, and be out and proud. But what about his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe)? How will they react? Who will support him?
She: I think his mom will be OK with it; I think his dad will have a harder time.
At some point, I also said: I think this Cameron kid is going to die. He’ll probably kill himself.
And is that really Flea? Yes. Yes, it is.
Sometimes when you know what’s going to happen in a movie you still enjoy it. Not here. “Boy Erased” is an odd, careful little movie. Way too careful.
I admire Joel Edgerton for adapting, directing, and casting himself in this movie—about a subject wholly worth dramatizing—from a true-life memoir. It just doesn’t resonate.
BTW: If “Boy Erased” is an accurate representation of gay conversion therapy, then, ethical issues aside, simply in practical terms, gay conversion therapy is pretty fucking stupid.
How do Christian parents who don’t want their sons to be gay stop them from being gay? They remove them from their normal routines and put them in close quarters with a bunch of similarly aged boys who are also repressing every sexual urge they have. Then they make sure they don’t jack off so there’s no sexual release. There’s just sexual tension—day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.
I don’t get the batting cage, either. I get it for the boys. It’s the dipshit version of gay conversion therapy—if there’s another kind—since it’s supposed to be about making them manly. So why bring the girls? Why mock the one girl who can’t swing the bat? By your lights, isn’t that a good thing?
The movie opens on the day Jared starts his therapy. It’s supposed to be for 12 days but he later finds out he might wind up there as long as a year. Because it might take that long or because they want the money? Does he get to decide or do his parents? Or neither?
In there with him is the girl who can’t swing a bat and gets hit by a baseball. Her father soon picks her up, threatening legal action. There’s also the handsome kid with a cut over his nose, and, later, a black eye. No one asks where his injuries came from—not even Jared. My favorite is Gary (Aussie pop star Troye Sivan), who gives Jared the following advice:
Play the part. Show ’em it’s working. You’re getting better. [Pause] Fake it until you make it, right? You don’t want to end up in one of those houses for any length of time. I’ve heard the stories and they’re not good.
Who’s saying this? A kid with dyed blonde hair, curls on top, for whom gaydar meters ring off the charts. Shouldn’t Jared have been honest? “Wait, you think you’re fooling them? At least I can swing a bat, dude.”
Also: “You don’t want to wind up in one of those houses” seems to indicate the real drama is there; but we never get there. Instead, a lot of the movie is flashback to Jared’s two gay encounters: the first, which is near rape; the second, which is sweet. Then the accusation that reaches his parents, and the admission: “I think about men. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry.” His father, a Baptist minister who runs a successful car dealership, is so shocked by this his left eyelid twitches. Twice. You can see it in the trailer. It’s my favorite part of the movie. I don’t how Russell Crowe can do that—act that. An eye twitch? It’s on another level.
Besides the batting cages, what does the therapy actually consist of? Well, the head man, Victor Sykes (Edgerton), tells the kids all the answers are in the Bible. They also do the usual gather-the-chairs-into-a-circle confessional. Then there’s role playing: You’re supposed to pretend an empty chair is your dad and say why you hate him. Jared doesn’t hate his dad, so, with the help of mom, he breaks free, but he never tells his dad why he breaks free. “Dad, they wanted me to hate you.” He never says that. He never helps his case.
Then it’s four years later, he’s living up north, and, during a visit, he finally has it out with dad: “I’m gay and I’m your son, and neither of those things are going to change,” etc. We get real-life photos of the family, learn Jared has a husband, then learn Victor Sykes also has a husband. So the warden escaped the prison, too. Next gay conversion therapy movie should probably be a comedy.
Last summer, this had awards buzz; then everyone saw it and the buzz died. It did manage to get 81% on Rotten Tomatoes—I assume, on the strength of the subject matter. It’s a movie you’re supposed to like. I wanted to like it, too.
Wednesday February 06, 2019
Movie Review: Cold War (2018)
There’s a moment in this movie, about 15 minutes in maybe, that connected me in all of my American comfort with people under the yoke of Soviet domination in the early years of the Cold War.
The movie begins in rural Poland. Two musicians, Wiktor and Irena (Tomasz Kot and Agata Kulesza), and their handler, a Polish apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), seek out and record folk songs from the people in the hinterlands—stuff most likely passed down from generation to generation. Then they find young singers, also from the countryside, and bring them to a school to train them in song and dance. They are putting on a show. It’s one of those endemic folk festivals we’ve all seen at some point, with colorful costumes and choreographed movements; but since it’s backed by the power of the government, which wants to celebrate “the people’s music,” and, more important, since it’s being birthed by music professionals, it doesn’t come off as kitschy. The opposite. It soars. It’s beautiful. On opening night, shocked by how good it is, Kaczmarek is busy backslapping while Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph.
Then they have a meeting with Kaczmarek’s superiors in which a few suggestions are made. The show was great, they’re told. But aren’t they ways to improve it? Might they not include, say, a song about land reform? Or in praise of Stalin?
There’s a pause. And Irena fills it by pointing out the obvious: Farmers don’t sing songs about land reform or Stalin; the songs wouldn’t be authentic; it goes against the program. Wiktor says nothing. He probably understands the program has already changed.
Irena winds up leaving the meeting—and the movie. Just like that she’s out of the picture. Shame. Agata Kulesza, who starred in Pawel Pawlikowski’s previous film, “Ida,” brings such intelligent intensity to her roles.
But that’s the scene. I’ve never lived under totalitarianism; I’ve never been involved in a meeting of such import. Yet when the bad idea is floated by powerful people, and there’s that pause, because everyone knows it’s a bad idea but no one can say that, I thought, “Oh yeah. I’ve been in that room before.”
What Cold War?
I left out something in the above. After the first performance, in which Wiktor and Irena bask in the glory of a hard-fought aesthetic triumph, she’s feeling amorous and is looking to celebrate. She’s looking at him. He’s handsome, after all, rail thin, with a stoic, mysterious demeanor that suggests past suffering, and a few strands of black hair that perpetually fall over his forehead. Good news: he’s feeling amorous, too. Bad news: he’s looking at Zula (Joanna Kulig), one of the students. A moment later, he and Zula fucking. It’s a bit of a shock—the zero-to-60 of it. No time to waste under Soviet domination. Nor in this film. Pawlikowski keeps the story moving.
Was fucking Zula Wiktor’s plan all along? She was the only student obviously not from the hinterlands. She snuck her way in and glommed onto another girl’s folk song; then, when asked to sing one of her own, she sang a song she’d learned from a movie. She doesn’t fit with the program but he gets her in.
Their troupe is such a success, they’re soon playing bigger and bigger venues, and cities, and wind up in Berlin—recently divided between east and west, but before the wall went up in ’62. There, Wiktor plans to escape; and he wants Zula to escape with him. What is her reluctance? That they’ll be caught? That they’ll make it and she won’t know who she is in the West? We expect complications and suspense and drama in the way of movies but there really isn’t any. He waits for her, she never shows, so he just walks across the divide and into a new life for himself as a musician in Paris.
That’s another shocking thing about the movie—the relative ease with which Cold War borders are crossed. At one point Wiktor returns to—is it Prague?—to see the troupe again, and mostly her, but the secret police pick him up. And interrogate him? Put him in a prison for 30 years? Make him love Big Brother? No. They put him on a train back to the West. You chose your side, Wiktor, they seem to be saying. Stay there.
I forget how she’s able to join him. But suddenly she’s there, too, and you wonder where the drama is. Wasn’t this about the Cold War? He works on film soundtracks during the day and plays in a jazz band at night; and one night she joins him onstage and sings this beautiful, plaintive Polish song (oh yo yo), and they’re working on a French language version, and, I mean, how could life be better? They’re Polish émigrés in a loft apartment in 1950s Paris who live creative lives—in gorgeous black and white, no less—and yet she’s miserable. She drinks, she carps, she’s mad with jealousy. There’s a great moment when in we hear Bill Haley & the Comets on the jukebox, and it’s like a comet—American rock ‘n’ roll!—and she gets up, drunk, and dances, and you sense the age difference or aesthetic difference between them.
Anyway, they ruin themselves. She provokes, he responds; she’s jealous, then he is. Then she’s gone again—back to Poland. The Cold War is them. The battle between east and west hardly factors in. Until it does.
This Cold War
That’s another great twist. At the moment we’re done expecting the great powers to crush this relationship—to be the barrier keeping the lovers apart—we see her walking in winter in Poland next to ... is it a prison camp? She goes into a cabin and finds him there, head shaved, gaunt, all ’50s romanticism gone—more reminiscent of the Holocaust than Paris. He’d tried to sneak back into the country to be with her, and they got him. But it opens her up again. The Iron Curtain isn’t what keeps the lovers apart but what drives them back together. There’s too much freedom on the other side.
Is this a fault with the film? It’s as if it’s saying the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism are nothing next to a crazy broad.
“Cold War” is beautifully photographed and melancholic and still moves quickly. It’s only 90 minutes long and keeps surprising us. It’s nearly perfect but for that fault.
Monday February 04, 2019
Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Based on the trailers we had to watch before “On the Basis of Sex,” I assumed I was in for a long haul. Trailers are usually matched to film—arthouse trailers for arthouse films, etc.—and the seven or eight trailers we suffered through prior to this were some of the godawfulest things I’ve ever seen.
We got that dog reincarnation flick with Dennis Quaid—sorry, the sequel to that. We got a horror flick with Isabelle Hupert as basically Jason. We got another “teens with terminal illness in love” thing. And we got not one but two pedantic Christian movies—“Overcomer” and “Breakthrough”—which is a bit odd considering our biopic subject isn’t, you know, Christian. Imagine if they’d played a trailer for a different Christian movie coming out in 2019: “Roe v. Wade,” a pro-life take on the SCOTUS decision starring every right-wing nut in Hollywood. Don’t imagine the RBG crowd would’ve been too docile for that one.
“On the Basis of Sex” turned out to be better than these trailers—or its trailer—suggested. But RBG still deserves a better biopic.
On the basis of gender
For starters, how about someone Jewish? Or at least someone who can nail a Brooklyn accent? Was Felicity Jones England’s retribution for Kevin Costner? Her accent was mostly nonexistent, and then every half hour it would come in over-the-top: loi-yah.
But that’s not the egregious part. The egregious part is that for the sake of imagined drama, they make their protagonist, one of the great legal minds of my lifetime, a shitty lawyer. They make her someone who is in constant need of pep talks: from her husband, from colleagues, even from her 15-year-old daughter. It would be like a biopic of Willie Mays in which he’s striking out and falling on his ass all the time but manages to get it together to make that catch in the ‘54 Series. You maybe want to remind people that Willie Mays was a little better than that. He was Willie Fucking Mays.
There’s so many false notes here; and they seem false as you‘re watching. Did RBG really run into a brick wall with the ACLU’s legal director Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) in trying to promote gender equality? Of course not. Is Melvin Wulf Jewish? Of course he is. Is Theroux? Of course not.
I suppose I should also complain that Armie Hammer, as Martin Ginsburg, isn’t Jewish, either, but I like Hammer in this film. Although, good god, try to be a little less gorgeous, buddy. This is the movie where he completely won over my wife. Afterwards, she talked up the look of vulnerability and helplessness in his eyes when he’s stricken with testicular cancer at Harvard Law. When he’s trying to talk RBG down after another 1950s sexist moment, as he's lying across the bed resting his head on his hand, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I have to get you pajamas like that.” “I still won’t look like that in them,” I whispered back.
Anyone else uncomfortable during the boudoir scene? When he takes off her top, and they kiss, and she jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him? I’m like: Dudes, it’s RBG. Yes, your grandparents had sex; you don’t necessarily want to see it dramatized.
One thing that was true? Ginsburg’s secretary suggesting they remove the word “sex” from much of the original brief for Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and replace it with the less provocative word “gender.” Which is a great factoid but kind of undercuts the title, doesn’t it? Since Hollywood went with “sex”? For a change?
I did like that we got a half-hour scene before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. I was so excited when that was going down. Plus I don’t know who cast the three judges but kudos. They looked like judges.
But so much else is so wrong. RBG didn’t have to convince Moritz in a face-to-face trip to Denver to let her take his case pro bono; he agreed by phone. There wasn’t a moot court—and a moot court isn’t a punishment anyway, as the film suggests, but a privilege any attorney trying a big case would leap at. Moreover, if there had been a moot court, she wouldn’t have acted like a deer in headlights, necessitating getting hubby on board for half the oral argument. No, he was already on board for half the oral argument; that was the plan from the start. And I doubt when they were sitting there at the 10th Circuit, trading off like tag-team partners, they wasted long, precious seconds exchanging meaningful glances as argument time ticked down.
Oh, and when she finally finds her voice at the 11th hour and tears well up in her eyes? Remember earlier in the film when all those chauvinists said women were too emotional to be attorneys? So you have RBG tearing up in court? RBG? Who wrote this thing anyway?
Would you believe—her nephew?
Yes. “On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder (“The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact”), has one writing credit: Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He admits having RBG freeze in moot court and before the 10th Circuit was Hollywood dramatization. “Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life,” he says. What goes unanswered is why they, or he, thought her flubbing it for most of the movie was a dramatic necessity. Why not make it like Loki vs. the Hulk? Loki taunts for two seconds and then ... whammo!
According to Stiepleman, when he proposed the screenplay idea to Ginsburg, she had two requests: get the law right and get Marty right. Shame she didn’t add: Get me right, too.
Saturday January 26, 2019
Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
This movie so wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Several people, pretending to be who they aren’t, arrive in an out-of-the-way locale for different reasons, get into conversations involving long monologues, and all of this is punctuated by sudden violence and bloodshed. Oh, and writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) also messes with the chronology. We see Person A shot, and 10 minutes later we get it from Person D’s perspective.
Even the title: “El Royale.” With cheese?
Just doesn’t work.
I have my issues with QT but he doesn’t bore me. This bored me a little. When the movie’s main villain, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), hits the stage, holds the others hostage and plays games with their lives, all while keeping up a patter of pseudo-philosophy, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) tells him he’s boring. She’s right: He is. Imagine saying that, or thinking that, about the monologues of Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.” You can’t.
Billy Lee, by the way, is a version of Charles Manson, Darlene Sweet is a version of Darlene Love, and the El Royale is a version of the Cal Neva Resort and Casino, which was co-owned by Frank Sinatra, and which (per the name) straddled the border of California and Nevada. It’s also a version of purgatory. For most it becomes a hell. Two escape.
Want one more? The El Royale is also a version of Gerald Foos’ Manor House Hotel, which Gay Talese wrote about for The New Yorker a few years back, but which (I believe) has since been debunked. Foos claimed to have created observation areas behind ventilation slats, through which he watched and wrote about his guests for decades.
Here, it’s a hallway, accessible through the manager’s office, where you can see each room via one-way mirror. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), pretending to be a loquacious vacuum-cleaner salesman, but in reality FBI agent Dwight Broadbeck, stumbles upon it. It’s 1969, and he’s been sent by Hoover to retrieve FBI bugs from the honeymoon suite, but discovers eight times as many as the agency left. Investigating, he finds the seemingly clean-cut concierge, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), high on drugs and asleep in his office. Then he discovers the passageway.
What are each of the guests doing?
- Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has dug up the floorboard of his room in a futile search for money he and his brother stole 10 years ago, for which his brother was killed. He’s not really a priest. (“No shit,” as Darlene says.) He’s been in prison for the last 10 years.
- Darlene is practicing for a singing gig in Reno.
- Emily (Dakota Johnson) has bound and gagged a young girl to a chair.
Broadbeck is ordered by Hoover to ignore the kidnapping but sabotage everyone’s cars. Don’t quite get this last order. Is it part of the purgatory metaphor? No one leaves? Or is another FBI team on the way? Either way, they never arrive, and Broadbeck tries to do the right thing by knocking out Emily and rescuing the girl. Two problems: Emily isn’t knocked out and kills him with a shotgun; and the girl, Emily’s sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), is the real problem. She’s part of a cult. Basically, she’s Squeaky Fromme, her sister was trying to get her clean, but, freed, she phones Billy Lee, who, when he arrives with armed backups, begins his dull, dancy torture games in the lobby. Like Madsen in “Reservoir Dogs”? Either way, like Darlene, I was bored.
I shouldn’t have been. Toss in the tape of a prominent but dead leader having sex in the honeymoon suite (most likely RFK or MLK), not to mention the hotel’s unseen owners (most likely the mob), as well as the late reveal that Miles isn’t just an aw-shucks kid but a former Vietnam War sharpshooter with 123 kills to his credit, and it’s a good mix of fucked-up Americana. It should be way more interesting than it is.
I did like one line. After Father Flynn discovers the passageway, and the videotape, Miles is trying to confess to him. At this point, we think the kid is just a kid who’s carried water for the mob, or whomever, and that’s what he wants to confess. Either way, the Father isn’t a Father, but Miles doesn’t know that. He’s killed 123 but has kept his innocence or naiveté—sort of like a Vietnam-era Alvin York. And we get this exchange.
Miles: I’ve done horrible things.
Father Flynn (after long look): So has everybody. You’ll be fine.
Maybe with 30 minutes cut from its 141-minute runtime, and more lines like the above, we might’ve had something.
Friday January 25, 2019
Movie Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)
I saw “Death of Stalin” in movie theaters last spring, didn’t laugh much but liked it well enough. I knew smart people were behind it, such as writer-director Armando Iannucci, who has given us “VEEP,” “In the Loop,” and “The Thick of It”—scorching political satires that produce shock and discomfort as much as laughter. Plus, look at the cast. My god.
So when I saw it on some Top 10/honorable mention lists at the end of the year, I thought I’d give it another go. Maybe I missed something.
There’s some truth to the equation: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Would “We lost 19 of our best guys” have been funny on 9/12? At the same time, the Bush era war comedy “In the Loop” was funny during the Bush era. We didn’t need time to turn that tragedy into comedy. Similarly, maybe in some cases time never helps. Some tragedies are just never funny.
A lot of the humor in “In the Loop,” for example, comes out of the word “unforeseeable.” As England is following the U.S. into a Mideast war, a bland government minister on a bland British radio show says the phrase “I think war is unforeseeable” and all hell breaks loose. In general, he’s right: War is unforeseeable, since so many factors go into its creation. On the other hand, this particular war is totally foreseeable, since an unnamed U.S. administration is hell-bent on having it. But you can’t say that. So you’re left with nothing. You’re left with lies and prevarication, which is where the humor is.
We get something similar athe beginning of “Death of Stalin.” A Moscow radio station is broadcasting a Mozart concerto when the national director receives a phone call. From Stalin. Who wants a recording. Except they’re not recording the concerto. So they have to play it again and record it before Stalin’s men arrive. Except the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses. She lost brother and father to Stalin, despises him, won’t do anything that might give him pleasure. The others scramble. What about a new pianist? The conductor shakes his head: “Even Stalin,” he says, “would be able to tell the difference.” The others jump on this line—even Stalin?—and he scrambles to correct himself to the recording devices that might be listening until he faints outright. Now they need a new conductor, too.
In both situations, language is used to disguise truth. The ineffectual Brit official tries to backtrack on “unforeseeable” so he won’t fall from power, while the Russian conductor tries to erase “even” so he won’t be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The former's funnier.
Being imprisoned, tortured or killed is on everyone’s mind in the U.S.S.R. in 1953. We first see Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) perusing the latest list with Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret service:
Beria: Oh, I put Shteyman on the list, the writer. I know you like his work, but...
Stalin: No, leave him on.
Beria: And, uh ... Shteyman 2, his wife?
Stalin: On. [Eyes twinkling] They're a couple, ain’t they?
When Beria gives the list to his men, he add this: “Shoot her before him. Make sure he sees it.”
Not exactly a laugh line.
Some of the situations are funny. Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, for example, because everyone is terrified of him. The guards are too afraid to investigate the thump in his room so he lies on the carpet all night; the new chairman, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is too wishy-washy to call a doctor because he has no backbone; and the doctors themselves are old, young or third-rate, because Stalin has eliminated the best: they’re dead or in gulags. And even then the doctors can hardly deliver the bad news. They do what Malenkov did: rely on the group to disperse potential blame: “Following a, uh, group assessment of Comrade Stalin, we’ve arrived at the unanimous conclusion, based on a collective finding...” Etc.
I will say, with a bit of pride, that the actors who elicited the most laughs from me were American: Tambor as Malenkov, and particularly Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. When Malenkov dithers on calling the doctor until the Politburo convenes, saying they should wait until they’re quorate, Khrushchev responds, in that exasperated tone Buscemi has used throughout his career, “Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious!”
Another LOL line: Beria, already making his move, comforts Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with a hug and these words: “Courage, little bird. We’re here for you.” Not to be outdone, Khrushchev steps forward. Awkwardly. “Most of all, we cry for you, little ... bird.” That pause. That slight disgust on Buscemi’s face that he has to say it. Killed me.
The scramble for power after Stalin’s death quickly becomes a scramble between Beria and Khrushchev. Everyone else is just too incompetent. But Beria is a horror show—a serial murderer, torturer and rapist—which means we root for Khrushchev. Yes. In “The Death of Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev is the hero.
There is no one else, by the way; the people are awful, too. Sons give up fathers, friends deny friends, everyone is looking to blame someone else. Plus the propaganda worked: People still mourn for Stalin. He terrorized them and they arrive by the tens of thousands to mourn him. They say whatever needs to be said to survive. Or not survive:
Prisoner: Long Live Stalin!
Guard: Stalin’s Dead. Malenkov’s in charge.
Prisoner: Long live Malenk...
[shot in the head]
It’s worth seeing but don’t expect to laugh too much. Imagine a comedy out of “Animal Farm.” Like that.
Monday January 21, 2019
Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.
Monday January 14, 2019
Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)
“Mid90s,” written and directed by Jonah Hill, is a coming-of-age movie that took me back to my own coming of age.
It shouldn’t have. I turned 12 in the mid-70s not the mid-90s, in Minneapolis not LA, and definitely not around skateboarding culture. At Stevie’s age, I would’ve been writing and drawing comic books, not mastering moves on a board. I never wanted to be a rebel, or hang with them, particularly not anyone like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), all wild hair and attitude and not much else—one of two leaders of a rag-tag group that hang out in a skate shop and periodically rouse the rabble.
But here’s what took me back: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls, and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t. What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can make you the butt of jokes for years.
Your shit for their shit
Here’s an example from my childhood—probably around 6th grade. My friend Dan and I were walking along 54th Street toward Little General and Rexall’s Drugs, most likely to buy comic books. I think it was winter. It always seemed like winter back then. Dan, who was the same grade as me but older by a month, and who used the cutting remark “You’re too young to understand” too often, said he had a joke. He ran thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth, which was puckered like a gaping fish, and said, “Blower’s cramp. Get it?” I, of course, didn’t. I knew there was something about “blowing” that had something to do with ... girls? But I didn’t know what it was. Most times I would’ve just lied; I would’ve pretended to be more sophisticated than I was. But something in the quick way Dan said “Get it?” made me think otherwise. So I said no. “You don’t?” he asked in disbelief. No, I said, what is it? Eventually he had to own up it meant nothing. “It was just a test,” he said. I had passed. For now.
That’s Stevie (Sunny Suljic) here. The movie begins with a nasty beatdown from his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two live in a cramped house with their single, mostly absent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, just four years from playing the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affection in “Inherent Vice”), and they all seem isolated. Ian exudes inarticulate anger. Stevie is sweet but trapped; he’s looking for an out.
Why skateboarders? Is it because they seem to do what they want when they want? Would he have drifted toward them without the beatings from Ian? Either way, he does. He lingers in the skate shop, hangs on the outskirts of their conversation. The first to acknowledge him is the youngest, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who probably wants a protégé of his own. He wants someone beneath him. When Ray (Na-kel Smith), for example, admonishes Ruben for drinking all the water from the jug and tells him to go fill it up, Ruben gives the task to Stevie—who is delighted. It’s his in. It’s the preteen boy’s crush on older boys.
Ruben is the one forever telling Stevie he failed the test. Like saying “thank you”? What the fuck, dude? That’s for fags. And the skateboard he bought from his older brother? With the ’80s cartoon figure on it? What is he—a kid? That’s for fags, too.
There are other unspoken rules Stevie is trying to navigate—specific to the gang. Who gets nicknames and who doesn’t? Fuckshit is Fuckshit because he begins so many sentences with “Fuck, shit...” Fourth Grade (Ryder McGlaughlin), who spends more time filming than skating, is a bit on the dumb side. Stevie acquires the nickname “Sunburn” because he asks Ray if black dudes get sunburned. Ruben is mortified the question is asked, then more mortified that Ray doesn’t really seem to mind it; that it leads to this nickname, which seems like a badge of honor. That’s Ruben’s role: entrée for Stevie, eyeing him with jealousy forever after.
I like how this gang of kids, which seems monolithic from the outside, breaks down into individuals the more Stevie hangs with them. Fuckshit, with his light-brown skin and blonde curly hair, is the mouthy one, the stoner, the guy ready to fight. He’s probably the most affluent, too. He rebels because he can afford to. Ray can’t. Ray is looking to see what money can be made in skateboarding. He’s looking for a way out. He’s also the wisest. In a late-movie heart-to-heart, he tells Stevie:
A lot of the time, we feel that our lives are the worst. But I think that if you looked in anybody else's closet, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit.
Cf., Ruben. They drop him off at a motel-like place but Stevie sees him bolt down the steps after he goes up them. Meaning he doesn’t really live there? Or he does but can’t return? Or won’t? We never find out.
I particularly like this aspect of “Mid90s”: The arc of the movie is Stevie slowly fitting in with a gang that’s slowly breaking apart.
Only if you’re really interested
Does it end too quickly? Did for me. I guess that’s a compliment (we want more) but it still isn’t (it wasn’t as fulfilling as it might’ve been). The car crash is done well. Fuckshit is driving, fucked up, and arguing with Ray; and Fourth Grade, who isn’t supposed to know any better, is the one to speak up: “Could you, like, pull over?” But it’s already too late. As soon as the words are out, the car is upended, on its side, and Stevie is in the hospital. His mom arrives to see the gang asleep in the waiting area. Does she soften toward them? Should she? Then the boys go into the room. They talk. Fourth Grade brings his movie, his video of them. They watch it.
It ends in a vacuum but in a way it began there, too. Did Stevie have any friends before? Usually when you make the leap to a new group, particularly a planned leap, as Stevie does here, there’s at least a friend you leave behind. We get no inkling of this. It’s just his abusive older brother, his absentee mom, and him. No friends, no school, no nothing. Kayla in “Eighth Grade” was like this, too. Don’t any junior high kids have friends as they make the leap toward older, cooler friends?
That said, I really love this movie. I think of the scene where the gang skateboards between traffic down the middle of an LA hill in the magic-hour light, with the Mamas and Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” on the soundtrack. The scene is reprised near the end with just Stevie and Ray, after their heart-to-heart, and to Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We‘ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if, you're really interested
The magic hour is gone, and what light is there is bruised. It’s aching.
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