Movie Reviews - 2019 posts
Monday May 30, 2022
Movie Review: Yellowface: Asian Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood (2019)
The American title is the long thing above. The French title is “L’ennemi japonais a Hollywood.” And therein lies the problem.
Halfway through, this French-made documentary turns away from the history of white actors playing Asians (which is why I was watching) and focuses on U.S. government propaganda against the Japanese during World War II—along with the internment of Japanese-Americans (a whole other topic). If you don’t know much about either, I guess this can serve as your primer. But if you wanted a deep dive into the history of yellowface, you’re going to be disappointed.
The dive is shallow: Muni and Rainer in “The Good Earth,” one of the Charlie Chans, one of the Fu Manchus (Hammer, not Hollywood), Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” John Wayne in “The Conqueror,” and of course Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Then 2010s whitewashing: Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell.” Thanks for coming.
The doc raises Anna May Wong to dismiss her. It mentions the popularity of Sessue Hayakawa in “The Cheat” from 1915 but not his long and winding career, which reached its apogee, you could say, with an Oscar nomination for playing Col. Saito in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957.
I would’ve delved into the why of things. Where did Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan come from? Why did Caucasian actors play Chan while his son was invariably played by Chinese-American actors like Keye Luke? How did Chinese-American actors feel about playing Japanese, and vice-versa? Who broke through? Who survived? How?
Get into the gender politics of it. Asian men are depicted as rapacious or comic foils; Asian women as subservient or dragon ladies. Mention how, as bad as Hollywood did with race, other aspects of the culture were often worse.
The filmmakers are French sisters, Clara and Julia Kuperberg, who make about two movie-related documentaries a year, and they skimp a bit on examples of yellowface. Here’s a few off the top of my head: Peter Lorre and Loretta Young in “Hatchet Man,” Charles Boyer in “Shanghai,” Gale Sondergaard in “The Letter,” Gene Tierney in “China Girl.” There are so many, it’s probably easier to enumerate which Hollywood stars didn’t go yellowface rather than which did. And they really missed out by not including Philip Ahn’s great speech in “Something to Sing About” about how his character tried to make a living as an actor in Hollywood and never got the chance. It’s from a Poverty Row studio, but it indicates that people knew. Even in 1937, people knew.
We also don’t get much from the 1960s to today. No “Kung Fu,” for example. Nothing on how Jackie Chan was an international superstar and when he came to Hollywood they made him a Japanese race-car driver and had him fight on sand.
This subject still deserves a better documentary.
Friday April 10, 2020
Movie Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)
It’s kind of funny for a few moments—like in Central Park when the grade school kids, tethered together, are able to walk faster than Brittany (Jillian Bell) can jog.
Most of the rest is blah or downright annoying. I guess that’s what happens when you undercut your premise.
Is the moral high ground ever funny?
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is about a woman in her late 20s who decides to get in shape because she’s fat and unhealthy and going nowhere with her life. Her doctor suggests she lose 55 pounds. “That’s the size of a Siberian Huskey,” she says. “You want me to pull a medium-sized working dog off of my body?” Eventually the other shoe drops. That’s her first realization—that she needs to do this or die young.
Her second realization—after she is able to do this—is that she needs to stop being a dick. Coupled with this is the realization that it’s OK to be not svelte. She loses 40 of the 55 pounds pretty quickly but then gets stuck. The rest is tough. Scratch that. There is no “rest.” She tops out at about 160. My weight.
But that’s OK. Getting in shape, says Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery), her African-American brother-in-law who lives in Philadelphia, “was about taking responsibility for yourself.”
Sure, I’ll buy that.
“My whole life people told me I was lazy because of the way I look,” Brittany says.
Um. Well, it was also because you were lazy. We saw it at the beginning of this movie. It's played for laughs but you were way lazy, lady.
The movie, in other words, fearful of being “fattist," loses the comedy for the moral high ground. That’s its primary problem.
It still might’ve gotten away with it if our lead hadn’t been such a dick. Brittany starts out rooming with a thin, pretty, Asian-American woman, Gretchen (Alice Lee), who’s a social media starlet, and who’s a dick herself. Why is she even rooming with Brittany? I guess because New York makes strange bedfellows? Worse, Brittany likes her, or wants to be around her, all the while disparaging their neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins), who simply wants building common areas kept free to trash. She also jogs, which means she’s a jerk or something. Until Brittany jogs, too. Here’s the thing: Catherine helps Brittany on her journey but Brittany keeps disparaging her. She barely, grudgingly accepts her presence. The two also hook up with a sweet gay guy, Seth (Micah Stock), who’s getting in shape to not embarrass his adopted son.
Eventually, Brittany sees Gretchen for what she is, gets a job as a daytime dog-sitter for a rich couple off on an extended vacation, and winds up living in the house with the night-time dog-sitter, and eventual love interest, Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s also shirking what responsibilities he can.
Brittany’s ultimate goal is to run the New York City marathon. Problem: If you’re an amateur you have to win a spot through a lottery (Seth does) or by raising funds (Catherine tries to help Brittany but ... yeah). Anyway, Brittany gets depressed, gains weight, keeps running, develops a stress fracture, can’t do the NYC marathon after all. Catherine and Seth do it, Brittany gets upset, heads to Philly, cuts all ties. Because she still hasn’t realized what a dick she is.
It’s the following NYC marathon she runs. And finishes.
The story is based on Brittany O’Neill, the roommate of first-time writer-director Paul Colaizzo. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, which lets us know how much such audience awards are worth. It also got a 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which lets us know how much Rotten Tomatoes ratings are worth.
Final note: I watched it with my wife, who lived in New York for 20 years. There’s a recurring bit in which Brittany is running for a subway yelling “Hold it! Hold it!” When she’s fat, they never do. Once she’s actually a runner, they do.
My wife, with disdain: “No one ever runs for a subway in New York yelling ‘Hold it! Hold it!’”
Yeah. That, too.
Monday March 23, 2020
My Top 10 Movies of 2019
I usually apologize for posting my top 10 list late—and this is by far the latest I’ve ever posted this thing—but screw it. If I’d rushed it, I couldn’t have added about half these movies (#s 1, 3 and 9 for starters). They would’ve slipped into the gap. Plus, as you know, it’s been kind of a fucked-up year. In January, I was down with a virus (not that one … I don’t think), then I was playing catch-up throughout February. And this month, yeah. This shit show.
In that regard, most of these movies are available for streaming on Amazon (“The Farewell” is free if you have Prime), while “The Irishman” and “Dolemite” are on Netflix. Stay safe.
10. A Family Tour
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, 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. 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 sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director. Turns out, 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.
9. 63 Up
It felt a bit like attending a class reunion; I kept getting reacquainted with forgotten friends. “Oh right, Tony, the wannabe jockey who becomes a cabby, who’s got a joie de vivre and is always on the run, always on the make. And Nick, the farmboy who doesn’t “want to answer those kinds of questions” (about girls), who becomes a scientist and moves to the states and marries one beautiful woman, then divorces, then he marries another beautiful woman. I guess it pays to not answer those kinds of questions. And of course Neil, unforgettable Neil, who at 7 was a cute Liverpudlian boy with Beatle bangs who skipped along sidewalks and wanted to be an astronaut, and who at 28 was homeless in the Scottish countryside, unable to answer questions without rocking back and forth, in the midst of a psychological breakdown.” I could never forget him. Not in a million years.
8. The Irishman
When introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when/how the character died—usually it’s brutally—and I assumed that’s where he was leading us during the extended denouement: to the death of Frank Sheeran. But that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows us Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—and FBI guys showing up to try to get more info on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in. And that’s where Scorsese leaves him. He doesn’t end him. He leaves him in purgatory.
7. Dolemite is My Name
This is the first Eddie Murphy movie I’ve loved since the 1980s. What’s fascinating is he’s playing someone the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy. Murphy was a hit on “SNL” at age 19, a hit in the movies at age 21, a standup phenomenon at 22, and the star of the biggest box office movie of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop,” at age 23. Not many actors were hotter, sooner. And in “Dolemite” he plays a dumpy, middle-aged man who missed his shot. But Murphy makes this credible. He has hurt in his eyes.
6. Avengers: Endgame
There’s a need for the MCU to move on, so I guess this is the right call. But some part of me feels we didn’t get enough Iron Man vs. Captain America. It’s not just the clash of personalities. They represent the two halves of America: its ideal (democracy/Cap) and its messy reality (capitalism/Iron Man). It felt like more could be said with this dichotomy—things that might help explain us to us. But pause a moment to consider the triumph of this series.
5. JoJo Rabbit
I don’t know if it’s the funniest movie of the year, but it’s certainly the most original. Playing the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over the exuberant opening credits? And associating this happy 1964 music with the mania Hitler caused among Germans who adored him? Wow. There’s a scene where a Gestapo agent tells JoJo to ignore the rumors that Hitler has only one ball because it’s not true—he has four of them. I’d say that’s actually writer-director Taika Waititi. He’s certainly got some big ones. He even plays Hitler in this, to comic perfection.
4. The Farewell
The Chinese title is more direct, “Don’t Tell Her,” which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member. The cultural absurdities here may be specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually, saying good-bye to loved ones. Or being the loved one.
3. Corpus Christi
Is Bartosz Bielenia a shapeshifter? In Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi,” he plays Daniel, a 20-year-old criminal who pretends to be a priest in rural Poland, and throughout the character seems both immoral and holy, male and female, child and man. He’s a not-good person who becomes one. He repairs a community. I think he enjoys what he does—he’s good at it—but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a good kid. He’s not. Maybe that’s why he makes such a good priest.
2. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
It’s not until we see the title at the end that we realize we didn’t see it at the beginning. We also realize why. At the end, it’s an admission. The author is basically saying he did his best but he can’t change history like he did with “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s breaking the fourth wall. He saying this is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a fairy tale, a once up on a time… I’d argue it’s the most poignant moment in any Quentin Tarantino movie but I’m not sure what else would rank. Poignant isn’t a word we normally associate with the man.
1. Pain and Glory
This is my favorite Almodóvar. He’s usually too quirky or pungently sexual or something for me, but this one hits home. Because it’s a portrait of the artist in winter and I’m a writer in autumn? Because the artist, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), has a sense of failing his dying mother, and I’ve been probing that wound since my own mother died last August? The movie is Almodóvar’s, specifically his, but it doesn’t feel narrow. It’s as wide as life. It forgives everything but bad art.
Wednesday March 11, 2020
Movie Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Sure, it's a great idea. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” is the great modern film noir—one of the greatest movies ever made, really—and it was about a 1930s-era LA private investigator who pulls a thread and discovers the corrupt ways in which his city was built: How water was stolen from the north to make LA and the arid south thrive. The man behind this theft is corrupt not only in business but in his personal life: He raped his own daughter and now wants the grown child from that crime—both daughter and granddaughter—to molest all over again. In the end, he reaches for her with tentacled arms. Meanwhile, his daughter, the movie’s femme fatale, who has always been more victim than victimizer, is killed and no one pays for it. There is no justice in the world. There’s just … Chinatown.
In Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, a 1950s-era NYC private investigator pulls a thread and discovers the corrupt ways in which his city was built: How Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), obviously based on Robert Moses, was the behind-the-scenes, out-of-control power that leveled neighborhoods and built bridges and pushed people and undermined democracy. He is not only corrupt in business but in his personal life: He raped a black maid in a hotel in the 1920s and is now being blackmailed about the grown child from that crime. As we watch, and make connections with Polanski's film, we wonder if the girl is safe, and whether there will be justice in the world, or just more … Chinatown.
Other connections. “Chinatown” was filmed during the Watergate hearings, and there are echoes of Nixon’s crimes in the storyline. “Motherless Brooklyn” was filmed during the Trump era, and there are echoes of his monstrosity here as well.
But forget it, Jake, this ain’t no “Chinatown.”
“The Wire” Redux
What is, right? But this adheres so close to that storyline you can’t help but compare them. Again, great idea: Robert Moses as Noah Cross, with a bit of Donald Trump tossed in. And played by the guy who plays Trump on “SNL.”
It even opens with the pulling of a thread—a literal one. Lionel Essrog (Norton) has Tourette’s, a photographic memory and is on the spectrum. He’s got issues, in other words, including pulling on the threads on his coat. But the photographic memory makes him useful to private dick Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who nicknames the orphaned young man “Motherless Brooklyn.” Both Lionel and Coney (Ethan Suplee) are backing up Minna on a case they know nothing about, and which leads, after a kidnapping and chase, to the death of Minna. Now Tony (Bobby Cannavale) runs the joint. But it’s the twitching, cursing Lionel that needs to pull at the thread of Frank’s death. He needs to know who killed him and why.
After some leads he winds up at a public hearing about urban renewal, in which the real power is the aforementioned Moses Randolph. Also present: community organizer Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), her beautiful assistant Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and a bearded, bummy-looking rabble rouser, Paul (Willem Dafoe). Lionel, pretending to be a reporter, buys Paul dinner and listens as he rants about Moses. Then he goes to the library and discovers—alley oop—Paul is Moses’ brother. Then he goes to a nightclub in Harlem, which is like “The Wire” redux. A Miles Davis-like quartet is led by Omar himself, Michael Kenneth Williams, while the joint is run/owned by good ol' Bunnie Colvin, Robert Wisdom, who is called Billy Rose here, and who is the father—or the uncle?—of Laura Rose.
The chase to find answers is a bit long so I’ll cut to it. Laura is the daughter of Moses Randolph—he raped and impregnated a black maid in a hotel in the 1920s—and Minna found out, got evidence, and with Billy Rose tried to blackmail him. That’s why he was killed; Billy Rose gets it, too.
But the pieces just don’t fit together well. In “Chinatown,” they just pop into place—ah, of course!—and create a picture of true horror and corruption. Here, you struggle to make them connect, and the picture they create is … I guess kinda bad? Maybe? I don’t buy a lot of the relationships, particularly the brothers. Is Paul that dumb? Is Moses that unnecessarily cruel? Is a woman as beautiful as Laura Rose really interested in our twitching, Tourette's hero?
I didn’t buy that Moses would agree to meet Lionel in that private pool, and where, dripping, he gives a not-bad speech about the nature of power:
Do you have the first inkling how power works? Power is feeling, knowing, that you can do whatever you want and not one fuckin’ person can stop you. And if someone else has a dumb idea that you don’t like, well, that’s the end of that idea, or the end of that person if you want.
If I want to build highways while the rest of the country is broke, I’ll punch through any damn neighborhood I want. If some Negro slum is where I’m going to put my federal project, or the off ramp of my bridge, well, the goodie-goods can shriek and moan all day long. … And if you think I’m gonna let some chip who never should’ve been born, or your small-time boss, or my brother with his ideals and his forgeries in my name slow down the work I’m getting done in this city, then you’ve got a lot to learn about how power works. Because those people are invisible. They don’t exist.
Right, there’s even a character similar to Polanski’s Man with Knife (“We don’t like nosy people”) but not nearly as memorable or brutal. Lionel gets beat up, but dashingly so. Not like Nicholson with that bandage on his nose for half the fucking movie.
Plus Norton is no Polanski. But who is?
Do happy endings resonate in a noir?
I mean, good god, there’s even a happyish ending. Lionel gets the deed to Frank’s place overlooking the ocean, where he winds up with Laura, the way-too-beautiful Laura. Do happy endings resonate? In a noir?
Here. Imagine Moses with Laura, and about to do to her what he did to her mother, and Lionel there, aware, and helpless to stop it. That’s a noir. And that's the true power Moses alluded to by the pool. That's Chinatown, Jake.
Again, it’s a nice try. It’s going for the king. But as Omar said, you come at the king, you best not miss.
Tuesday March 10, 2020
Movie Review: Pain and Glory (2019)
It sounds better in Spanish: Dolor y Gloria. Two opposites that almost rhyme.
This may be my favorite Almodóvar. He’s usually too quirky or pungently sexual or something for me, but this one hits home. Because it’s a portrait of the artist in winter and I’m a writer in autumn? Because the artist, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), has a sense of failing his dying mother, and I’ve been probing that wound since my own mother died last August? The movie is Almodóvar’s, specifically his, but it doesn’t feel narrow. It’s as wide as life. It forgives everything but bad art.
It’s Almodóvar’s “8 ½”—and not. Early on, Salvador talks about how his film career made up for what he missed in his secondary education. That bit is actually worth a sidebar in itself. His mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz), wants her son to be educated—to have the opportunities she and her husband (a mostly absent, near-Joseph figure) never had—so she works hard and admonishes young Salvador (Asier Flores) and sucks up to the local Catholic hierarchy to get him into seminary. There, they discover he’s got a beautiful voice, make him choir soloist, and totally neglect his other studies. He never gets the superior learning his mother desired. Almodóvar doesn’t underline this irony, he leaves it for us to connect the dots.
The point is there’s a lot he doesn’t know. Early on, Geographia is splashed across the screen and in voiceover he tells us his knowledge of that subject is limited to where he wound up in the world while promoting his movies. Cue cartoon airplane landing on a cartoon map of the world. Then we got the title card Anatomia, and I smiled, thinking of the obvious Felliniesque pleasures there. But this is how the movie is not “8 ½.” Since he was 30, Salvador has suffered chronic pain. We get a list of his ailments, some of which are also mine: acid reflux, asthma, tinnitus, headaches. His back pain has gotten so bad he’s actually stopped working—to the surprise of everyone. An actress-friend tells him she thought he’d be the last of them to quit work; he nods. A doctor asks him if he misses the work and his eyes turn hard. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it.”
Has Almodóvar read Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? Or is it common for artists to give their alter egos chronic pain? Maybe it’s partly wish fulfillment. “If only there was something that could stop me from doing this every fucking day.”
In Antonio’s eyes
I assumed, early on, we were watching a long, slow suicide, but it’s the opposite. It’s about forgiveness and redemption and the long way back.
The movie opens with Salvador in a pool, doing underwater therapy, and flashing back to his mother and three other women talking men and singing while washing clothes in the river. The song ends “That’s how my blindness started,” and we cut back to Salvador and wonder if we’re going to find out how his blindness started.
Kind of. Did he seek out Alberto (Asier Etxendia) to clear away the clutter in his life—their 30-year feud—or was heroin the true motivation? I lean to the latter. On the set of an early film, “Sabor” (“Flavor”), Salvador, on coke, hated the way Alberto, on heroin, interpreted his character. They fought over it, and Salvador dismissed him in the press and maybe truncated his career, and you can see the pain and anger in his eyes when Salvador has the audacity to show up, unannounced, at Alberto’s home after all these years. But their interaction is glorious. Salvador is apologetic (sorta), his eyes holding a playful “I’ve been bad” look, and Alberto softens when he sees how frail he is and after Salvador smokes heroin with him. Seemingly hours later, but maybe days, he shows up at Salvador’s door, enthusiastic. He thinks they’re best friends now. He’s a sweetheart with bad taste—his clothes are a horror show—but he knows art. While Salvador sleeps, Alberto snoops, and finds and reads a Word doc, addicion, which begins in lovely fashion:
“My idea of the movie theater was always linked to the breeze of summer nights. We only watched movies in the summer.”
It’s a story about Salvador’s first love, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), and Alberto wants to turn it into a one-man theater piece, but Salvador says no. Does he not trust him? Probably. Does he not want to accede control over his own story? Definitely. But eventually he acquiesces. Why? It’s another peace offering. The two are supposed to be publicly reunited at Cinematheque for a showing of a new print of “Sabor,” but they never make it. They do heroin instead, and Salvador feels he’s too stoned to be articulate and artistic before a crowd. The desperate event planner, however, phones him, and holds up the phone to the audience, and now he has to be on. In order to clear his mind, Salvador does coke again. Which is when the old Salvador emerges.
He’s trying to explain the feud from from his older, wiser perspective, but the more he talks about it, and the more coke kicks in, the less forgiving he becomes. With Alberto standing off to the side, mouth agape, completely betrayed, Salvador talks about Alberto’s “tediousness” and “lethal rhythm” for the character. Finally Alberto slaps the phone away and yells at him. Up to this point, the scene is hilarious, but now we fear a bit for Salvador. He’s slighter and frailer, after all, and Alberto is enraged. Then, in a flash, there’s a look of hard anger in Salvador’s eyes, and you see the director there. You see the imperiousness. Alberto backs off. So much of the movie, truly, is in Banderas’ eyes.
Of course, Salvador still needs heroin; thus Addicion as peace offering. And it leads to Salvador’s second reunion—one that, admittedly, requires some suspension of disbelief. We have to believe that the real Federico was finally back in Madrid, and in that neighborhood, and just happened to see the sign advertising Alberto’s one-man play and checked it out on a whim. And there, tears in his eyes, he sees his own story unfold before him.
The addicion of the title is two-fold—love and drugs—and Federico and Salvador ended badly:
“I believed the strength of my love would defeat his addiction. But that didn’t happen. Love is not enough. Love may move mountains, but it is not enough to save the person you love.”
So we get our second reunion, late at night, at Salvador’s place. It’s a charming scene. As the two talk, Salvador seems smitten again, and steals glances over at Federico. Federico wants to stay the night (you can tell), and Salvador wants him to (you can tell), but also doesn’t want him to, and in the end doesn’t wins out. But it rekindles something in him. The flame of love? Not giving into it but holding onto it? Afterwards he doesn’t return to heroin. He picks it up and puts it down. He begins to try to get it together again.
From Paterna, with love
I think I was right about the suicide, by the way. At one point, we see Salvador reading in bed:
“Life disgusts me as a useless medicine. It is then when I clearly feel how easy it would be to get away from this tediousness if I had the simple strength to want to really push it away.”
He highlights this part. I love the highlighting. Me again.
Throughout the movie, we get flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood in Paterna, and the beautiful cave-like apartment by the sea. There, a young Salvador teaches an illiterate laborer, Eduardo (Cesar Vicente), his ABCs, while Eduardo, probably without knowing, teaches Salvador who he is. At one point, Eduardo showers naked, beautifully naked, in a bucket in the kitchen, while Salvador throws himself onto his bed, hot and flushed. During Addicion, we saw flashes of classic Hollywood movies from the period—Marilyn, Liz Taylor, “Splendor in the Grass”—and that’s what this reminded me of: Natalie Wood trying to satisfy her desire for Warren Beatty by tossing herself onto the bed.
The movie’s third reunion is more tangential than the others and requires another grand coincidence. A flyer the adult Salvador receives for an art gallery includes a painting/sketch of a small boy—him—and he visits and inquires about its author. It came from a Barcelona flea market but it’s anonymous, though there is a message on the back. He buys it and reads it. The message is from Eduardo, to him, thanking him for teaching him to read and write. He sent the sketch when Salvador was in seminary but his mother never passed it along. Because she was busy? Because she feared what it meant? “Every time I write,” Eduardo wrote, “I think about your hand guiding mine.” The adult Salvador reads this and his eyes fill. Then we see him at his computer, writing “El Primer Deseo.” He’s working again.
“Dolor y Gloria” swept the recent Goya Awards. It was nominated for 16 and won seven, including film, director, screenplay, actor, and supporting actress, Julieta Serrano, who plays Salvador’s mother late in life. She tells him how she wants to be buried, admonishes him, hands him the egg with which she uses to darn socks. Their conversations are serious, and humorous, and heartwarming. “Have I failed you just being the way I am?” he asks.
Serrano is apparently a legend in Spain but my immediate thought was dismissive. “That’s supposed to be what Penelope Cruz ages into? I don’t think so.” But it all fits. All those flashbacks to Paterna? They’re not flashbacks. At the very end, after the adult Salvador undergoes surgery, we see, for a second time, young Salvador and his mother forced to sleep in the train station to Paterna. But this time the shot widens, and we see the boom mike operator, and the clapperboard holder, and finally Salvador, still alive and directing “El Primer Deseo.” At first I thought he was finally filming what he’d been remembering. But then I realized, no, he hadn’t been remembering it. All that time, during his inactivity and time of dolor, he’d been filming the movie in his head. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it,” he’d told the doctor. Exactly.
I’ve seen this movie twice now and could watch it again. Each time, I leave it with my heart less empty.
Thursday March 05, 2020
Movie Review: Corpus Christi (2019)
Is Bartosz Bielenia a shapeshifter? In Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi,” he plays Daniel, a 20-year-old criminal who pretends to be a priest in rural Poland, and throughout the character seems both immoral and holy, male and female, child and man. In the poster, he bears a slight resemblance to Pres. Obama … or Gilbert Godfried. It’s a shame his eyes are closed in the poster because in the movie his eyes are everything. They’re moist and sad; they draw us into this world.
“Corpus Christi” is a great film about a not-good person who becomes one. At least he does good things. He repairs a community. I think he enjoys what he does—he’s good at it—but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a good kid. He’s not—not really. Maybe that’s why he makes such a good priest.
What we’re good at
We first see him in a juvenile detention facility, where several boys gang up on one. Are they raping him or just beating him? Daniel isn’t the one, nor among the several; he’s the lookout, a nonentity. We also see him helping the priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), but I couldn’t help but wonder if his faith was genuine. As he sings and prays, I flashed on Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” seeming pious during prison Bible study but happily imagining torture. But Daniel isn't that.
For the longest time, we don’t even know why he’s in there. Turns out he killed a guy, and that guy’s bigger older brother, Bonus (Mateusz Czwartosz), is now in juvey and wants revenge. Is that why Daniel is allowed out on work-placement? Or was it already scheduled? In his farewell, Father Tomasz urges him to follow the right path, but a quick cut shows Daniel doing shots and snorting cocaine in a nightclub, then banging a girl in the bathroom. On the bus to rural Poland, he gives the busdriver grief when asked to put out his cigarette. He’s that guy.
Was the priest ruse a way of getting out of working in the town’s sawmill? Or is he answering back against Eliza (Eliza Rycembel), the pretty girl in the church who assumes, from his manner and tracksuit, that he’s just another laborer? At the same time, he is drawn to the church. He goes on his own. He winds up calling himself Father Tomascz and proves a welcome help to the parish priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn), who seems a bit tired of it all, to be honest. Daniel is asked to do more and more, and when the priest has health issues Daniel is asked to fill in. He needs help with some of it—relying on Google to learn the confessional litany, for example—but overall he proves a natural.
It’s partly his rebelliousness. Prior to the dedication of a new factory, the town’s mayor/business leader (Leszek Lichota) tries to put the young priest in his place. A few minutes later, Daniel asks everyone—everyone—to get down on their knees for the factory’s benediction; then he leads a prayer against the sin of greed.
It’s partly the fact that he, too, is a sinner. He’s committed crimes, and is one the run. His off-the-cuff sermons are marvels:
You know what we’re good at? Giving up on people. Pointing the finger at them. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Forgive means love. To love someone despite their guilt. No matter what the guilt is.
He’s drawing this sermond from his own experience but is directing it at the town. Before he arrived, there was a late-night car accident—teens in one car, a middle-aged man in the other, everyone died, and for some reason the town blames the man and shun his widow. They send her hate mail and scrawl nasty graffiti on her house. It’s like Twitter but real life.
Eliza’s brother was one of the teens and she shows Daniel video from the night of the accident; the kids drinking and getting high. So why was the husband to blame again? Daniel gives her a look but she’s not accepting that reality. So with everybody. The townspeople flee the truth even as Daniel’s truth—his past—catches up with him. None of us are very good at this. We’re all sinners here.
The final sermon
What to make of the ending? I do like Daniel’s final wordless sermon before he’s returned to juvey. And just as he was the lookout at that earlier beating, so others look out as Bonus, who has six inches and maybe 75 pounds on him, tries to kill him. He fights back—that European headbutting thing—and is pushed, stunned and bloody, into the glare of the day, where he stumbles down a path even as a fire erupts behind him. That’s the end. It's abrupt and chaotic and maybe that’s the point. I'm still puzzling over it.
“Corpus Christi” is a beautiful film: quick and fascinating, deep and spiritual, violent and sly and sexy. It takes place in rural Poland but everyone can identify. The above sermon will never not have meaning.
Tuesday March 03, 2020
Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
You want to like a movie about someone so likeable. You want to like a movie that’s so well-liked: 95% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes; 92% audience score. That’s almost everyone.
The filmmakers even framed the story right. Writers Michah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (“Transparent”), and director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), don’t make the movie about Mr. Rogers; they make it about someone interacting with Mr. Rogers. It’s about someone cynical and lost; someone who needs help.
They did all that right. But they blew it in the execution. Man, did they blow it.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a cynical magazine writer who has a reputation for taking cheap shots, and who, in 1998, is assigned to write 400 words on Fred Rogers for an Esquire theme issue on heroes. They fly him to Pittsburgh to do the interview.
Me: Wait. They fly him to Pittsburgh? For 400 words? How much money did Esquire have to toss around back then?
But sure, whatever. I’ll give this a pass since it’s my profession and Hollywood always screws up your profession. Lawyer, doctor, cop: They never get it right. But I doubt it was ever 400 words. Watching, I assumed it would be the cover story. Which, yes.
Besides being a cynical journalist, Lloyd is a shitty husband and father. He’s married to the beautiful Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, way above his pay grade), and they have a baby, but Lloyd seems disconnected from both. He doesn’t know how many diapers they use; he doesn’t know how to put a baby seat in a cab. She does it all. Because even though she’s an attorney and he’s a freelance writer—which is like the perfect job for a stay-at-home parent—she’s the one who looks after the baby. He’s too distant. He’s closed off emotionally. He’s still full of anger.
And why is he distant, closed off, full of anger? Because when he was young, his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), left his mother as she lay dying. He left them all. He abandoned them in their time of need.
Actually, that’s pretty shitty. That would be tough to forgive.
And that’s where the movie finds fault in Lloyd: In his inability to forgive his father.
You see, the man who abandoned them in their time of need, is now, in his time of need, looking to reconnect. He shows up at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding, and not exactly hat-in-hand. He’s got a big personality, and makes a drunken speech, and calls Andrea “doll,” and he and Lloyd get into a fight, a real fist fight, and it becomes a Jersey shore free-for-all kind of thing—the groom gets involved, too—and it’s under these circumstances, with a cut above his nose, and a black eye, that Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh to interview the wonderfully gentle minister and children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a 400-word blurb in Esquire magazine.
Turns out Lloyd is not just a cynical journalist but a bad one. At one point he asks Mr. Rogers if being Mr. Rogers is a burden, and there’s a pause, and rather than let his subject fill the pause—and kids, this is Journalism 101—he does it himself. And in the worst way. He says to Mr. Rogers, “OK, let’s assume it’s a burden.” Wow. I can’t even. Apparently Mr. Rogers was a tough interview because he was curious and empathetic and asked a lot of questions, and here Mr. Rogers keeps asking Lloyd about his father until Lloyd can’t take it anymore and stands up and leaves. He walks out of the interview he’s conducting. Now I know I talked about ignoring the ways Hollywood screws up your profession, but that’s about the dumbest thing I’ve seen even a movie journalist do. You leave your own interview? That’s not how it works.
Fleeing this conversation about his father, he returns home to find his wife sitting at the kitchen table talking and laughing with ... his father, of course. And his father’s new wife. And his father’s new wife is holding the baby. And when he asks them to leave, quietly seething, everyone tries to calm him down; then his dad berates him; then his day says, “My jaw,” and collapses and has to go to the hospital.
Look, sure, Lloyd is a distant father, an uncommunicative husband and a shitty journalist. He needs to fix all these things. The one thing he doesn’t need to fix? His reaction to seeing the father—who abandoned him and his sister and his mother—talking and laughing with his wife at the kitchen table. But the movie sides with the wife.
By this point I think I was angrier than Lloyd was. I thought: If my wife’s mother abandoned her as a child and then tried to reconnect late in life, which my wife didn’t want, vehemently so, even getting into a fight with her at a big shindig; and then the mother and her new husband showed up at our door when my wife is away .... do I invite them in? And if my wife returns and simmers at seeing us all laughing in the kitchen, am I disappointed in her behavior? How about this: If the mother then collapses, saying “My jaw,” and we all have to go to the hospital, but then my wife insists on not staying with her mother—whom she hates—but trying to do something productive, like work, do I say, with stern disappointment, “Everyone who’s important is in this hospital right now.” Because that’s what the movie does with Lloyd.
At this point, with nowhere to go, he has a Daliesque nervous breakdown. Everything gets swirly and he imagines a tiny version of himself on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with his wife as Lady Aberlin and his dad as the “speedy delivery” guy, and a giant Mr. Rogers there holding his tiger puppet: mew mew mew. It’s bizarre and creepy. Then he dreams of his mom on her deathbed. She’s not in pain; she’s serene. And she says this:
Mom: I know you think you’re doing this for me. Holding onto this anger. [Pause, smiling, triumphant] I don’t need it.
He: [Nods, kisses her hand, understands; finally understands]
By this point I could’ve punched a hole in the wall.
But of course now Lloyd can forgive his dad. And because he forgives his dad, he becomes a better husband and father. Then he becomes a better writer—writing a 10,000 word piece that’s partly about him, and mostly about Mr. Rogers, and his editor is like, “Yep, we’re putting that on the cover.” His dad dies, sure, but the family is whole again, and everything is grand in the Land of Make-Believe.
Can you ever forgive me?
The sad thing is how good this movie could’ve been. Read the 1998 feature it was based on, “Can You Say ... Hero?,” then read the 2019 follow-up piece, “My Friend Mister Rogers,” which is also by Tom Junod, which is the real name of Lloyd Vogel. This is how it begins:
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding.
God, that’s good. That lede is Joseph Mitchell-good: “resourceful and relentless kindness.”
There’s a profundity to Fred Rogers that the movie doesn’t begin to approach. Why did he become a TV host? Because he was appalled by 1950s television. “He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred,” Junod writes, “and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane.” The movie gives us the “You were once a child, too” story, but it doesn’t nail it the way Junod does. Rogers asked an in-house writer to put together a manual to help doctors talk to children. “She worked hard on it,” Junod writes, “using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: ‘You were a child once too.’”
This is how much Junod conveys Fred Rogers’ graciousness: I felt bad for hating the movie. I should’ve been a better person about it. I should’ve forgiven its lies. I should’ve said the writers and producers and director were children once, too.
Interesting that many of the movies released in the fall of 2019 touch on the theme of forgiveness. It’s Daniel’s sermon in “Corpus Christi”: “To forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Forgive means love. To love someone despite their guilt. No matter what the guilt is.” It’s a theme in Pedro Almodovar’s “Dolor y Gloria.” Salvador has to forgive Alberto, and Federico, and himself. I wrote that Almodovar's movie forgives everything but bad art, and I guess that’s me, too, and thus this review. I’d like to forgive “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But I can’t.
Now get the hell out of my kitchen.
Tuesday February 25, 2020
Movie Review: 63 Up (2019)
Jackie, Nick and Neil, 1964
When I saw it at a recent Saturday matinee at SIFF Uptown, “63 Up” seemed the age range of the audience as well. I felt like the kid in the crowd. Too bad. Real kids could learn so much from this.
- Dreams don’t always come true
- Really, almost never
- But backups/safeties can
- Class matters; both ways
- It goes so fast
It felt a bit like attending a class reunion; I kept getting reacquainted. “Oh right, Tony, the wannabe jockey who becomes a cabby, who’s got a joie de vivre and is always on the run, always on the make. And Nick, the farmboy who doesn’t “want to answer those kinds of questions” (about girls), who becomes a scientist and moves to the states and marries one beautiful woman, then divorces, then he marries another beautiful woman. I guess it pays to not answer those kinds of questions. And of course Neil, unforgettable Neil, who at 7 was a cute Liverpudlian boy with Beatle bangs who skipped along sidewalks and wanted to be an astronaut, and who at 28 was homeless in the Scottish countryside, unable to answer questions without rocking back and forth, in the midst of a psychological breakdown.”
I could never forget him. Not in a million years.
Give me a child until he is 7
For those who don’t know: the “Up” series began in 1964 when, per director Michael Apted’s voiceover, “Granada television brought together a group of 7-year-olds.” Since then, Apted has revisited them every seven years. They’re now 63. The entire series is basically time-lapse photography for human beings.
I think the first time the series was bundled into a movie was in the 1980s for “28 Up,” which played at the University of Minnesota Film Society where I volunteered on Thursdays. I saw it numerous times. It was riveting and devastating.
One way it was devastating—somewhat obscured now at 63—was the way adolescence fucks us up. The kids at 7 were mostly boisterous and outgoing and at 14 the opposite. They looked to the side, mumbled out of their mouths, covered their mouths. They were painfully embarrassed about everything. Even at 21 and 28, it felt like they were still recovering from the shock of whatever adolescence does to us.
Now, at 63, it feels like a slow, downhill coast. We’re getting parents dying and grandchildren being born and retirement on the horizon. Weight needs to be lost, nose hairs need to be trimmed, but much less angst. It’s less about what will happen than what has.
Nick has cancer. He was always absurdly fit for a scientist, and here, when we first see him from behind, it’s a bit of a shock. So thin. So bent over. In the chair, it’s better. He lights up talking about the great “moment of pure joy” in his life when his son was born. Neil is still alive, and, thanks to an inheritance, owns property in France. He’s involved in church, too. As a reader? His Liverpudlian friend, Peter, who dropped out after “28 Up,” and didn’t return until “56 Up” when he wanted publicity for his band, returns again, with trepidation. In many ways, he sounds the most like I think I might sound—worried over the thing he said two minutes ago. We also hear him singing. His voice is lovely.
I kept asking questions in the dark. Has anyone come out of the closet? It began in ’64/’70, when such things were rarely admitted, but no, not here. Are all the participants still alive? That was just a by-the-way thought. We’re about an hour in when we keep getting shots of Lynn, the librarian, whose funds are forever being cut, and who still keeps striving to educate children. There she is at 21, then 7, 35, 56 and we’re waiting and waiting. And then it hits us: No, she died six years ago. Her husband and two daughters are interviewed to keep up the story. The library where she worked dedicates a wing in her name.
She’s not the only missing one. Of the original 14, we also don’t have Suzy, who decided against doing it this time around, and Charles Furneaux, one of the three prep-school boys, who, from 7 to 21, tended to wind up where they hoped to wind up. I.e., they talked about wanting to get into X, Y and Z, and at 21 Apted intoned that they got into X, Y and Z. It was as if they had a gilded path. The dreams of others fell apart but theirs held. Two of them, Furneaux and John Brisby dropped out after “21 Up.” They felt it was all a bit unfair—as if effort wasn’t involved on their part—but Brisby was coaxed back, and good for him. Last go-round, he pointed out that his gilded path included his father dying when he was 9 and attending Oxford on a scholarship. So there. Furneaux, lean and long-haired at 21, never returned, even though he became a TV documentary producer. The third of the three, Andrew Brackfield, has always stuck it out.
Is there truth in the series’ critique of the class system? Yes, with Brisby’s provisos. The working-class kids tended to stay working-class work. Tony, who wanted to be a jockey, became a cabbie but has a nice life—even if, now, he’s fending off Uber and the like. The working-class girls became admins and librarians. The children’s home boys became a bricklayer and a forklift operator. Meanwhile, the prep-school boys became: 1) barrister, 2) solicitor, and 3) TV producer.
A quote attributed to Ignatius Loyola begins the series: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” So is there truth in that? A bit, with provisos about the shattering nature of adolescence. Put it this way: It feels true enough for Jackie (mouthy as a child, never not), and Tony (forever running, forever himself), and Paul (gentle as a child and as a grandfather in Australia). It feels less true for Bruce, who, as a teen, had cheekbones you could cut glass on, and Andrew, the middle prep-school boy, and Lynn.
And of course it’s not true at all for Neil.
I will show you the man
We don’t get enough politics, to be honest, given everything that’s gone on in the world in the last seven years. Brexit is mentioned a few times but Trump only once—to Nick, our American. Did no one else have an opinion on this asshole?
I’d also like more on the effect the series had on them. Most anticipate another segment with trepidation but we never get the why of it. Is it the questions? Justifying what you’ve done against what you wished to do? Being seen as a symbol? Were there positives? Did it grease any paths? Help them get laid? Tony talks about having Buzz Aldrin in his cab when a passerby asks for an autograph. When he passes the paper back to Buzz the passerby corrects him: “No, I want your autograph.” That’s a great vignette but I’m curious about it writ large. I’m interested in this: Did talking about their life paths on TV alter those life paths in any way?
If you’re the least bit empathetic, you certainly wonder how you would look or sound in the series, and how your words through the years would echo back to you. Erik at 14: “I would like to be a writer.” Voiceover for “21 Up”: Erik was now doing menial work at a bank, having dropped out of university. Erik at 42: “Yeah, at this point, I don’t see myself ever getting married.” Voiceover for “56 Up”: “The wedding took place at a small civil ceremony in the Georgetown neighborhood in Seattle.”
“63 Up” flags at times. Tony is the first segment and maybe the longest, and at some point I went, “Wait, there’s how many more of these?” But then suddenly it's over. As Tony says about life, it all goes so fast.
Tony, Neil, Jackie and Lynn, 1964
Friday February 21, 2020
Movie Review: Little Women (2019)
I’m a neophyte here—never read the novel nor seen a screen adaptation—so a quick question: Are we supposed to like the March sisters? I found them a bit annoying. Or what I found annoying was the feeling we were supposed to love them and that burst of creative, argumentative energy they brought to a room. They bring life to gloomy, male-only habitats like Mr. Lawrence’s (Chris Cooper), or to the poor, sickly immigrants down the road. At the same time, there’s something closed-off about them. And self-important? I got the feeling outsiders weren’t welcome.
They’re kind of the original latchkey kids, aren’t they, since Dad (Bob Odenkirk) is at war and Mom (Laura Dern) is always volunteering somewhere, so it’s up to Jo (Saoirse Ronan) to keep them together. She does this to a fault. She warns older sister Meg (Emma Watson) against marriage and wills younger sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) to live. She runs from marriage herself. She’s constantly circling the wagons. In this, she reminds me of Dennis Quaid’s Mike in “Breaking Away,” who warns the other guys against anything (girls, jobs) that would break up the group.
Yes, I know. I’m the only one who will be making this analogy.
All kinds of weather
Were they too different? In a way that didn’t feel real? I have three siblings, and two of us became journalists/editors like my father, but each March sister gets her own creative sandbox:
- Meg: theater (?)
- Jo: writing
- Amy: painting
- Beth: music
And still the bickering. It’s mostly Jo and Amy (Florence Pugh), the most dynamic of the sisters, who, no surprise, get the most screen time. Jo is controlling, Amy doesn’t want to be controlled, etc. She’s also bratty. When she can’t go to the play with Jo and Meg, and their dates Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and John Brooke (James Norton), she throws a fit, finds Jo’s novel and burns it. Me, leaning over to Vincent: “I would never forgive her.” *
Then I forgave her.
(*Vince and I saw the show last Sunday evening at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. There were about 30 people there. One other man.)
My wife read “Little Women” when she was young and says writer-director Greta Gerwig made the biggest improvements with Amy. She and Pugh turned her into the movie’s most interesting character. That bit where Pugh is sitting in a chair and playing with her nose? Or her joy at finding Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in Paris? A great choice by Gerwig to bend the chronology. Since we first see Amy and Laurie together—rather than Jo and Laurie—we root for them as a couple. We root for the joy he obviously brings her.
The girls begin the movie separate. Jo is in New York, struggling to be a writer under the indifferent editorship of Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, playwright), while desiring the approval of her fellow teacher and boarder, the ridiculously handsome Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). That’s another departure. In the book he’s German, 40s, nothing to look at. Now: French, 20s, wowsie. The magic of Hollywood.
Amy is in Paris, painting, thanks to the largesse and under the watchful, jaundiced eye of Aunt March (Meryl Streep, sublime), who is interested in a rich husband for her. She knows opportunities are few for women. Except that’s not Amy. She wants to be a great artist, and if she can’t be that (and she can’t, because she isn’t), she’d sooner give it up. But what does that leave? She’s got a rich suitor and he proposes. There’s also Laurie, living the dissolute life in Paris after being rejected by Jo, and he’s rich, and he proposes, too. He’s the one she wants but on her terms. She doesn’t want to play sloppy seconds to Jo. She doesn’t want Laurie to want her simply because he can’t have Jo. (Psst: He wants you simply because he can’t have Jo.)
Elsewhere, Meg is married to Brooke, a kind but poor schoolteacher, a big nothing really, while Beth is back home, playing piano and being nice and about to die of complications from scarlet fever. Beth’s illness is the thing that brings the group back together. Or nearly. Amy doesn’t make it in time.
I admit I was bored for a lot of it. I loved the period details; I loved it when we got a sense of how far away the 19th century really was. The inkwell of Mr. Dashwood, for example, or how Gerwig shows us all the details of Jo’s novel, “Little Women,” being produced, with hand-set type, paper cutting, and a cloth-bound cover.
There’s a lovely scene where Beth has been invited over to the house of Mr. Lawrence to play the piano there, and she begins, and the empty house fills with music, and we see him break down on the staircase because it reminds him of his dead daughter and the music sheused to play. Not only is it a beautiful scene—and good to see you again, Mr. Cooper—but it also made me realize that in the 1860s this was the only way you could get music into your home. I knew this already, of course, but it just hit home here. You had to produce it yourself. None of this passive bullshit. One wonders what all of that passivity has done to us as a species.
So, yes, I loved the stuff that stuck me in the 19th century. Less so the scenes that took me out it. At one point, Laurie and Amy are talking love, and how much control we have over it, and Amy suddenly starts talking not love but marriage:
As a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don‘t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn't an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.
Immediately I thought: That sounds like something Gerwig added to tell modern audiences how few rights women had back then.
Yep. Gerwig added it at Meryl Streep’s suggestion to give modern audiences “the opportunity to understand the true powerlessness of women in that period.” I get it, sure, but was there no other way? Took me right out of the story. I was no longer watching 19th-century Amy as written by Louisa May Alcott but 21st-century Florence Pugh as written by Greta Gerwig. It clunked. It flashed: MESSAGE.
Let me add this. One of the toughest things to show on screen is artistic creativity, since in reality it’s a slog. Writing’s the worst. At least painting is visual (see: “New York Stories”), while music can soar (see: “Amadeus”). But watching someone writing is watching someone doing nothing. Yet the scenes where Jo begins the book that becomes “Little Women,” are marvels—from setting up the candles and her notebook just so, to the flurry of work, and the exhaustion, and the flurry of work again, and laying all the papers out on the attic floor—to dry, re-read, edit. I won’t ever forget those papers lined up in neat rows. Gerwig made writing look like something gorgeous in the doing.
Tuesday February 04, 2020
Movie Review: Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
The first words we hear from Rudy Ray Moore, AKA Dolemite (Eddie Murphy), are these: “I ain’t lying, man. People love me.”
And we do. Eddie Murphy, I mean. Or this Eddie Murphy—the Eddie Murphy we fell in love with back in the early 1980s, before the the huge successes and second thoughts and maybe the weight of being a successful black artist in an often racist country and industry—the burden of that legacy—helped kill the comedy. What did it mean, anyway, making all those white people laugh? And what did that make you? A clown? A minstrel? So I imagined some part of Eddie’s internal dialogue back then. He went from Reggie Hammond, Billie Ray and Axel Foley to one forgettable movie after another. We kept waiting for a revival that never came. Every step forward (“Nutty Professor,” “Dreamgirls,”) was followed by a step back (“Holy Man,” “Norbit”). Movies that seemed like they might be funny (“Pluto Nash,” “Tower Heist”), weren’t. To a generation born in this century, he’s probably best known as Donkey from “Shrek.” Donkey.
Or maybe this would’ve happened even without the race-legacy thing? So many comedians want to be taken seriously: Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey. Then they often have trouble finding their way back to funny.
Here, Eddie finds his way back. “Dolemite is My Name” is the first Eddie Murphy movie I’ve loved since the 1980s. What’s fascinating is he’s playing someone the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy.
Think of it: Murphy was a hit on “SNL” at age 19, a hit in the movies at age 21, a standup phenomenon at 22, and the star of the biggest box office hit of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop,” at age 23. Not many actors were hotter, sooner.
And in “Dolemite” he plays a dumpy, middle-aged man who missed his shot. An early dialogue from Rudy:
How’d my life get so damn small? Came out here with some big plans, Jimmy. I was gonna do it all, just like Sammy Davis Jr. Movies, concerts, TV, everything. This job at Dolphin’s [Records] is supposed to be my temporary day job. Cut to a million years later, it’s all I got.
Murphy makes this believable. There’s hurt in his eyes.
A second later, he’s making us laugh. Going into an alley of winos, he asks if anyone’s seen Ricco, whom he describes as an old bum with no teeth. Upon which, an old bum reveals his toothless gums and laughs. Rudy: “Oh, shit. Guess that didn’t narrow it down at all, did it?”
The movie begins with Rudy Ray Moore, circa 1970, on the bottom. His road to middle-aged success, even legend, begins by finding and tape-recording Ricco and the others, who do a kind of grandiose, rhyming patter—like Muhammad Ali but way dirtier. He memorizes and perfects their bits, adopts the persona of “Dolemite” (“Dolemite is my name/And fucking up motherfuckers in my game”), and becomes a headliner at the club where he used to be the tepid, five-minute warm-up prior to the music. Then he makes a record in his living room, no one will distribute it (too dirty), so he puts it out himself and sells it under the counter wrapped in plain brown paper with a devil sticker on it: “Like some shit you ain’t supposed to have,” he explains. Soon, enough black people are listening to it that the Bihari brothers, famous for distributing R&B, take notice and put it out. Boom, hit. It leads to more, and more, and more.
And it’s not enough. One night, he and friends go see Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page,” a 1974 remake starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and none of them get it. Why are all these white people laughing? (We weren’t, really; it’s a disappointing movie.) There’s a nice moment when Rudy looks back toward the projection room, and sees the beam of light streaming forth. “If I could get up in that light with my own movie?” he tells his friends afterward. “I could be everywhere all at once.”
At this point, we’re about 30 minutes in. The rest of the movie is the making of a movie: “Dolemite.”
I’m curious if this is how it went down—with “The Front Page” being the trigger. That movie was released in mid-December 1974; “Dolemite” was released in late April 1975. Four months doesn’t seem like a lot of time to go from inspiration to distribution—particularly with all the problems Rudy apparently had.
He keeps running into brick walls and bouncing off. For all the Dolemite chest-thumping, that’s his true superpower: overwhelming persistence in the face of overwhelming disinterest. Producers of blaxploitation flicks turn him down as too dumpy. Even his friends are dubious. “You’re not Billy Dee Williams,” Toney (Tituss Burgess, Titus of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), tells him. “You’re a comedy star. Be happy with that.” But he’s not. “I want the world to know I exist,” he says.
He plays on egos to make it happen. Self-important playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) turns him down—until Rudy talks up “Jerry Jones movies.” Self-important actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) turns him down—until Rudy says, “What if we let you direct?” They break into a dilapidated hotel for a set, use white film students behind the camera, while Rudy borrows against future album sales to finance it. The Biharis aren’t cutthroat*; they try to break it to him gently. “We’ll own your albums,” they say.
Bihari: You understand, you’re not supposed to make a movie for the five square blocks of people you know.
Rudy: Well, that’s fine with me. Cause every city in America got them same five blocks.
(*In reality, the Biharis, at least with their R&B stars, were more cutthroat than this.)
I wouldn’t have minded fewer famine-before-feast moments. I.e., It’s 10 minutes before Rudy self-premieres “Dolemite” in Cleveland, and no one’s there, and he looks worried; then suddenly everyone’s there and it’s a hit. The team is taking a limo to the Dimension Films’ premiere but get depressed reading all the negative reviews, and they think they‘re failures; then they pull up to the theater and the place is packed. Etc.
Not Billy Dee
On the Hollywood Elsewhere site, Jeff Wells makes a good comparison between “My Name is Dolemite” and “Ed Wood.” This one, directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), is less artistic than Tim Burton’s, and without anyone like Martin Landau’s Bela Legosi as supporting (though Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Lady Reed comes close), but both movies are about a perpetually enthusiastic man with a crappy vision who gathers a motley crew and makes it happen. The difference? “Plan 9 from Outer Space” wasn’t popular; “Dolemite” was. Rudy Ray Moore kept making movies throughout the ’70s and is now seen as the Godfather of Rap. Longtime fan Snoop Dog even has a cameo here as a Dolphin’s Record DJ.
Would it have been worthwhile to explore the why of the success? Even during the rhyming comedy routines, I didn’t get it; I felt like Rudy and company watching “The Front Page.” I’d also be curious if “Dolemite” was more popular than other blaxploitation flicks. If so, is it because he wasn’t Billy Dee Williams or Richard Roundtree or Jim Brown? You could say he was both wish-fulfillment and identification: Someone who looked like us getting to act like them.
Either way, welcome back, Eddie, We missed you.
Monday February 03, 2020
Movie Review: 1917 (2019)
Sam Mendes’ “single shot” conceit lends a dreamlike quality to the movie, doesn’t it? That sense, in a dream, when you’re in one place and you turn and you’re in another? One setting falls away for the next without explanation.
Here, because the camera follows our protagonists, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay of “Captain Fantastic”) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Joffrey’s kid brother on “Game of Thrones”), in their journey to call off a British attack and save 1600 men, we’re following them every step of the way, so we don’t have the cuts and fade outs from one scene to the next. They walk 100 yards or so and they’re in the next setting. Sometimes they don’t even have to walk. When Blake is stabbed in the stomach by the German pilot, and Schofield is holding him as he dies, Schofield is alone, horribly alone. Then two soldiers suddenly appear and help him move the body. As they do this, we see more men, and then the camera pans back and we see an entire regiment. When did they arrive? How did we not hear them coming?
Schofield goes with them until their vehicles can’t get past a bombed-out bridge near Ecoust-Saint-Mein; but Schofield can. He says goodbye, climbs onto the remains of the bridge, and makes it halfway across when a German sniper on the other side starts shooting at him. So the men in the regiment return fire. Kidding. Schofield has gone maybe 50 feet, in maybe 30 seconds, but the regiment is already gone. That part of the dream is over. He’s alone again. Horribly alone.
A river runs through it
It’s a shame the way awards season is set up. We hear about critically acclaimed movies a zillion times before we have the chance to see them, so we go in with high hopes. I saw “1917” last week with my wife, knowing it won the PGA for best film, and the DGA for best film, making it the frontrunner to the win the Oscar for best film. Afterwards, we looked at each other and went, “It’s good.” Long pause. “But...”
It’s a directing feat more than anything. The nonstop quality means we’re on the edge of our seat for most of the film. There’s breathers in the dialogue but then the dialogue goes, too.
Why these two for the mission? Blake is chosen because his brother is in the battalion that might get slaughtered, and he picks his mate before he knows how perilous the assignment is. Why just two for the mission? The man who sends them, Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth), quotes Rudyard Kipling: “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
Me: But they’re not alone; they’re together.
Me, a beat later: But you need two people on screen. For dialogue.
Initially, in silence, they traverse the grim realities of No Man’s Land, where the unclaimed corpses of man and beast lie rotting; then they jump into the German trenches, which are abandoned, and—hey!—so much nicer than ours. The trench is also boobytrapped, which Schofield spots; but a rat, a literal rat, trips the wire, the place caves in, and Blake saves Schofield. It’s the opposite of what we think will happen. Schofield is taller, leaner and braver; he’s already got the medal that Blake envies but he thought so little of it he traded it for a bottle of wine. But here it’s Blake to the rescue.
Then it’s onto the farmhouse, which after some suspense they determine to be abandoned, and where, with detached interest, they watch an aerial dogfight between two Brits and a German. The German, outnumbered, goes down smoking, and ... is it coming this way? No. YES! Inexplicably, after he barrels into a barn, they rescue the pilot and debate whether or not to mercy kill him. Why not just kill him? He's the enemy. Instead, he kills Blake while Schofield is fetching water.
Me: I guess you don’t need two people on the screen for dialogue.
But, of course, even as Schofield retreats into silence, an entire regiment arrives, gabbing away. Before, the mission was to save not only the 1600 but Blake’s brother. Now it’s also to make sure Blake didn’t die in vain.
Is the second half of the movie a bit much? After Schofield kills the sniper but falls back down the stairs and knocks himself out? The shots of—is it a village?—are eerie, masterful, and reminiscent of the Do Lung Bridge sequence in “Apocalypse Now,” but the whole thing gets both surreal and unreal. Schofield is fired upon, ducks into a basement where he comes across a pretty Frenchwoman and a baby—but not her baby. He leaves them food. To escape a drunk German soldier, he ducks behind a pillar, only to come face-to-face with a young, sober German soldier, whom he chokes to death. The drunk tries to shoot him, several others give chase, so Schofield jumps into a raging river, down a waterfall, pulls himself up over a dozen, rotting, soggy corpses, walks in a daze through the woods, and plops himself down among a regiment listening to one of their own singing a high, plaintive, mournful song.
Guess what? It’s the battalion he’s looking for. That’s how he finds them.
We should all get swept along such rivers.
There’s a few such false notes in the film, and the entire “single shot” (which isn’t a single shot) conceit creates a veneer of same for me. It felt too gimmicky for the surroundings. The casting of the officers was a gimmick itself. Our boys are tasked by Mr. Darcy, pointed in the right direction by the Hot Priest, given a lift by Merlin, so Schofield can deliver the message to Sherlock Holmes in order to save Robb Stark. It’s Masterpiece Theater. Nice, anyway, that the Starks and Lannisters are not only getting along, they’re now related.
“1917” is based on Mendes’ recollections of the recollections of his grandfather, who fought in the Great War. I like how it begins and ends with Schofield dozing under a tree. I wanted to like it more.
Saturday February 01, 2020
Movie Review: A Hidden Life (2019)
Who knew a movie about a conscientious objector in Hitler’s Germany would have relevance for America in the 21st century? Well, at least our guy is incompetent. That may be our saving grace—his utter buffoonery. He couldn't make the trains run on time to save his life.
Did Terrence Malick know where we were headed? Could he see into the future? This movie was shot in July and August 2016, so before Trump won the election; then Malick spent three years editing. It’s about a peasant farmer, Franz Jaggerstatter (August Diehl), from St. Radegund, a small village in the Austrian mountains, who does not go when duty calls. He does not bend when his neighbors insult him, nor when the Nazis imprison him. He does not buckle when they kill him. He believes in something greater. He leaves behind a wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and three daughters, two of whom are still alive.
If that storyline seems ripe for our times, it’s also a perennial Malick concern. Jaggerstatter is basically Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) from “The Thin Red Line” but more so. It’s about where faith matters in a troubled world. It’s about how, as the world worsens, faith matters more.
It is. With caveats.
- It’s gorgeously photographed (DP is Jord Widmer rather than longtime Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki)
- It’s actually a story (as opposed to “Wonder” and “Cups”)
- It’s an hour too long
Hate to be the “too many notes” guy, but it’s what I was feeling as I watching. He could’ve cut 45-60 minutes and I would’ve been happier. Can’t believe it took three years to edit down—or up?—to three hours. That makes it Malick’s longest movie, and it’s a movie where not much happens. The point of the movie is something not happening.
I apologize, by the way, that this review isn’t any deeper. I saw “A Hidden Life” several weeks ago, wrote some of the above that night, then woke up the next morning with a bad virus and a clogged head and didn’t get back to it until now. Back then I wrote Diehl’s performance was “one of the best I’ve seen this year,” but if so it didn’t stick. Not enough has. Maybe because not enough happens? It’s mostly images.
The title comes from a quote by George Eliot that we see on a closing title card:
...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Isn’t that beautiful? You know what else it is? Words. Malick still isn’t giving enough credence to them. Visually, his films stun us with wonder. Storywise, they make us wonder what might have been.
That said, with the above caveats, I recommend it. Hell, I might even see it again.
Tuesday January 28, 2020
Movie Review: Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)
It’s not until we see the title at the end that we realize we didn’t see it at the beginning. We also realize why. At the end, it’s an admission. The author is basically saying he did his best but he can’t change history like he did with “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s breaking the fourth wall. I’d argue it’s the most poignant moment in any Quentin Tarantino movie but I’m not sure what else would rank. Poignant isn’t a word we normally associate with the man.
Thinking of QT’s movies, I recall George Will’s distilment of football as “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Like that, but reversed. Tarantino puts two people together, they yak and yak, then it’s blood on the wall. The people who admire Tarantino and those who don’t basically agree that this is what he does.
Less commented upon is Tarantino’s penchant for resurrection. He started with careers (John Travolta, Pam Grier, et al.), then it was onto genres (grindhouse, spaghetti westerns). Now he’s trying to resurrect an entire time and place. He wants his childhood back—Los Angeles 1969—but he wants it to end right. He’s trying to banish an absolute evil.
The whole movie feels like an enormous act of will.
Poor Easy Breezy
Tarantino stuffs it all in, doesn’t he? “Mannix” and “The Illustrated Man” and “C.C. & Company.” I was reminded a bit of Philip Roth resurrecting every shop in the Italian section of Newark in “I Married a Communist,” and J.D. Salinger telling us the entire contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet in “Zooey.“
Does all the detail make the movie a bit uneven? Oh yeah. We get, what, two days in February 1969, then the big August night six months later, and it’s kinda sorta tied together with some Kurt Russell narration, but it feels clumsy. Plus Tarantino keeps tossing in the unnecessary. He can’t kill his little darlings.
Like that early scene at Musso & Frank, where Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is talking to a new agent, Murray Schwarz (Al Pacino), and we’re getting a sense of where Rick’s career has gone since he starred in “Bounty Law” in the early ’60s. Schwarz talks up the movies he’s done, including “The 14 Fists of McCluskey,” a low-budget “Dirty Dozen”-type of WWII movie whose flame-thrower finale will factor into this movie’s finale. But then he mentions “Bounty Law” again? And we get a clip from the show? I mean, the clip is perfect: from the suspense line (“I’ll be sure to introduce you when he gets here”), to the camera closing in on Rick/Jake as the music wells before commercial cut. But we already know “Bounty Law.” It feels like we’re spinning our wheels here.
Or take the “Hullabaloo” bit: Rick in skinny tie and cig singing and kind of twisting with Hullabaloo cheerleaders dancing around him. Fun? Yes. Necessary? Nah. We’re already getting Rick’s downward career trajectory—guest-starring as the villain on other people’s shows, each time making himself less viable as the potential hero again. This is just another wrong choice.
And yet ... I get it why Tarantino can’t let it go. Rick is trying to prove his cultural bona fides on a mid-60s hipster variety show that normally features the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mamas and the Papas, and he singing “Behind the Green Door”? A #1 single by Jim Lowe from 1956? It’s exactly wrong for what he’s trying to do. Then you dig deeper and see even more connections. Lowe, it turns out, was from Missouri, which is where Rick hails from; he was also a one-hit wonder, which is what Rick worries he is. And in a few years, this song will be less associated with the safe 1950s (Rick’s heyday) than the decadent ’70s when it becomes the title of a hit porno starring Marilyn Chambers. Rick thinks he’s looking backwards to a safe place but the future holds other plans. As it always does.
Did we need to go to the Playboy Mansion to see Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dancing with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass, while Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) talks about the Tate/Polanski/Jay Sebring love triangle? Of course not. McQueen is only in the movie for this scene. And yet ... connections. McQueen also starred in a late ’50s show about a bounty hunter (“Wanted: Dead or Alive”), then made the successful leap into film stardom that Rick couldn’t. We saw part of that leap, “The Great Escape,” with Rick imagining himself in the role. More, McQueen was friends with Sharon; on the fateful night, he was supposed to visit her. He could’ve been there—to either die in gruesome fashion or maybe change the course of history, as Rick and Cliff wind up doing. It’s all about paths taken and not. Rick imagines himself as a McQueen movie hero but maybe becomes a real-life one instead.
I could go on. Instead of the obvious films of 1968/1969—“Bullitt,” “Funny Girl,” “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”—Tarantino stuffs in references to mostly forgettable ones:
- “Lady in Cement”
- “The Wrecking Crew”
- “Ice Station Zebra”
- “The Boston Strangler”
- “Mackenna’s Gold”
What do they have in common? Each features a 1950s star trying to stay relevant: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Gregory Peck. But the cultural tide is shifting; the clock is ticking. They’re reminders of what Rick is going through; of what we all eventually go through.
“Once Upon a Time...” has three big set pieces that take up the first two hours of the film:
- Sharon enjoying her own semi-celebrity and watching herself in “The Wrecking Crew”
- Rick on the set of the TV western “Lancer”
- Rick’s buddy and longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), encountering the Manson family at the Spahn movie ranch
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the drama off camera is sometimes better than the drama being filmed, and that’s what the above Rick/Sharon scenes reminded me of. “The Wrecking Crew”? Awful. Sharon’s reaction to being in it? Glorious. Ditto “Lancer.” For us, the drama isn’t in the show but whether Rick can get it together. Look at his journey that day: from hungover arrival to back-and-forth with Trudi (Julia Butters), a precocious 8-year-old on the set who seems more assured about her craft and career than he does about his. Their dialogue is as close to a Jules/Vincent vibe as we get in this movie, but the payoff is emotional rather than violent. Describing “Easy Breezy,” the protagonist in the western he’s reading, whose downward trajectory is like his, he begins to break down; then he forgets his lines on the set (DiCaprio’s idea) and rants in his trailer (DiCaprio’s improv, brilliant); but it all leads to his triumph as the “sexy Evil Hamlet” on his throne, getting accolades from his director, Sam Wanamaker, as well as from Trudi, who whispers in his ear, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” So sweet. Also a little sad. That he needs it, I mean. Her whole life? She’s 8. But better this than his morning fumblings.
(Extra credit: Turns out “Lancer” was a real TV show, starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), with the pilot episode directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). And that seemingly superfluous shot of Stacy leaving the set on his motorcycle? It’s an indication of what the future holds for him. Hammond, meanwhile, is best remembered as the oldest Von Trapp boy in “The Sound of Music” and Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the 1970s TV show. He’s another QT resurrection.)
If 1) and 2) match in Hitchcockian terms, 2) and 3) are variations on classic western confrontations. They’re High Noons. Rick is acting his on a TV set, of course. Cliff is also on a TV set—the Spahn movie ranch, where they shot “Bounty Law”—but the confrontation with the Manson family is real. Question: Would he have given a lift to Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) if it hadn’t been to Spahn? I get the feeling that Chatsworth was a no-go, but once he found out she and her friends were living at George Spahn’s place, he had to investigate.
That whole scene is like something out of a horror film. As Pussycat pulls Cliff along, silent, bedraggled women emerge from the storefronts. Pitt’s great here—that round, amused way he has of talking—but it’s such a creepy scene. I actually flashed on an earlier Pitt movie (“Se7en”) and feared some similar fate for George amid the mess, lassitude and warm Velveeta. Would he be tied up? Dead? When Cliff sees him on the bed and pulls him back, I was ready for the worst, but the payoff is humorous rather than violent. It’s just George (Bruce Dern), near blind, cantankerous as hell, misremembering Cliff, and wanting an afternoon nap so he can watch Sunday night TV with Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), the girl he thinks is his girlfriend but who is obviously manipulating him. She's so nuts she will attempt to assassinate the president of the United States in 1975.
The violence we expect isn't in the house but comes after Cliff leaves the house. I still don’t get what the Manson kids are doing here. Don’t they want Cliff gone? If so, why give him the flat tire? Just to fuck with him? I also don’t get the supposed suspense of retrieving Tex (Austin Butler) to confront Cliff, since Tex seems no match for him. Which, on the fateful night, turns out to be true.
On such a winter’s day
So, yes, the two parts of the movie—two days in February, one in August—are a bit clunky but they juxtapose well. In the beginning we see Polanski/Tate arriving at LAX, trailed by the press; in the second part, Rick returns from filming four spaghetti westerns in Italy with his new bride, Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). There’s just no press. That’s really the only real difference. Both couples are glamorous, both have someone else haul their matching luggage, and both go to basically the same place. They’re 100 yards apart. The Polanski place just has a gate. For all the good it did.
The soundtrack music is great, by the way, full of the well-played and obscure, but two moments stand out for me. The first is the first time Cliff sees Pussycat. She and other Manson kids have been dumpster diving, and as they pass Cliff’s car the two exchange looks, smiles, peace signs. And what’s playing on Cliff’s radio? “Mrs. Robinson.” Nice. Even nicer: that bass guitar twang when she turns to give Cliff another look.
The second moment is on August 8. As Cliff takes his dog for a walk, smoking his acid-dipped cigarette, members of the Manson family—three girls and Tex—pull into the long steep drive that leads to the rented home of Roman Polanski; and on the soundtrack, using irony like a scalpel, Tarantino plays The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty” with this exuberant line:
Young girls are coming to the caaaaan-yon!
Holy shit. John Phillips’ song is about how great Southern California 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 LA is the future. You lift your blinds, say “Good morning” and mean it. Right. Until the Manson kids are on the other side. Tarantino is playing the most pollyannaish song about So Cal at the moment that everything it stood for ended. (Cf., “California Dreamin.’” He didn't go with the famous, triumphant Mamas and Papas version but the plaintive, tired Jose Feliciano rendition. Perfect.)
Did I say two great soundtrack moments? Make it three. The third is at the very end.
I assumed Tarantino would fuck with the history. He killed Hitler in Paris in 1944, after all, so what are a few Manson kids? Even so, throughout, I had a sense of dread, which peaked as Tex and the three girls arrived on Cielo Drive. Then they‘re sent back down the hill by crazy, drunk Rick Dalton, wearing his short robe and holding his blender of margaritas. That’s the first step in changing history; Rick starts it. Then one of the girls flees with the car. Then Tex and the remaining two go to the wrong house.
I’m curious: Did Tarantino give Cliff the acid-dipped cigarette because Pitt was so good as the stoner Floyd in the QT-written “True Romance”? Either way, it works. Plus being stoned puts Cliff at a disadvantage. We assume he’ll take the kids easily otherwise. Or is being stoned an advantage? Tex doesn’t know what to make of him until it’s too late. The horrific violence that’s implied throughout is finally visited upon the ones who tried to bring it.
In the quiet afterwards, after the cops leave and Cliff is taken away in the ambulance, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) appears on the other side of the gate; and he and Rick talk about what happened and how fucked up it is. Turns out Jay is a fan. So is Sharon. Two things are happening here. Rick is finally getting what he’s long wanted—entrée into the culturally relevant world of his neighbors. At the same time, we get to celebrate the fact that Jay, Sharon and their friends didn’t die horrific deaths. And as the gates open, we hear this eerie, ethereal sound that I initially associated with some early ’70 movie about, say, a haunted woman. Close. It’s from the 1972 Paul Newman movie “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” and it’s titled “Miss Lily Langtree”—his great unrequited love. That accounts for its eerie, “what might have been” quality. And that’s the sound I assume Tarantino was going for. Because this is when he owns up. With ”Langtree“ on the soundtrack, he finally puts the title on the screen, leading with “Once Upon a Time...” He doesn't let us leave the theater thrilling at the revenge fantasy. He’s telling us it was just a fairy tale. It’s what might have been.
Opening the gate
Is two hours and 41 minutes too long? Usually. But here it breezes by. It’s easy breezy. Doesn't mean there aren't problems. I don’t quite get the Kurt Russell narration. Is he supposed to be his character in the movie—Randy Miller—or a third-person omniscient narrator? And the scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is troublesome. Lee has been treated worse in Chinese movies—see: “Ip Man: The Final Fight”—but there he wasn't repping his whole race; he was just repping himself.
That said, there aren’t many movies this rewarding when you go down the rabbit hole. Cultural references keep pinging off of one another like in a pinball machine.
Here’s another one and I’ll stop. I didn’t think about it until afterwards—until I thought about QT and resurrections. But the scene at the gate where Jay is talking up “The 14 Fist of McCluskey”? That’s basically Tarantino on “Blow Out” or ”Rio Bravo" or “Patrick” or any of the movies he loves and doesn’t give a shit if you do or not. He’s always been this way. He loves cool, but what he thinks is cool, not the culturally sanctioned cool. In the early ’90s, no one was less cool than John Travolta. To the industry, he was washed up. But then Tarantino opened the gate. He opened the gate for Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown,” and David Carradine in “Kill Bill.” “Django” is chock full of forgotten actors from this period: Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Ted Neely—Jesus himself, buddy. He keeps doing it. And now he's done it with a fictional character. Maybe now, after this night, Rick will make a movie with Sharon Tate. Maybe it’ll be directed by Roman Polanski. In this fairy tale, his future is bright. He’s Rick Fucking Dalton forever.
Friday January 17, 2020
Movie Review: Ip Man 4 (2019)
Bummer. I was psyched for this. I mean, Ip Man in America.
And yes, in my head, I was thinking “Kung Fu,” the TV series about the Shaolin priest wandering the American West in the 19th century kicking racist ass, before I realized, wait, it’s gotta be, what, the 1960s at this point? Exactly. 1964 to be precise. But I was still psyched.
And there would be more of Chan Kwok-Kwan’s perfect Bruce Lee in it? Yes! And he actually gets into an alleyway fight with a superbeefy, chest-thumping karate champion (Mark Strange) and says a variation of the “Boards don’t hit back—but I do” line from “Enter the Dragon”? Yes again! A good antidote to the lame Bruce Lee portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s otherwise stellar “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
But overall “Ip Man 4” is too similar to, and not as good as, the other three. The most interesting aspect—to me—is how much of today’s xenophobic politics infuse the story. Even the lesson is one aimed at today’s more affluent, educated Chinese: Sometimes, the happiness you’re seeking can be found in your own backyard.
As we open in Hong Kong, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is dealing with a son who’s ignoring his studies, getting into fights, and not listening to his father. Ah, but the doctor treating his son’s injuries recently returned from getting his degree in the U.S.; and while before he’d been a bit of a rebel, now he’s polite, handsome and successful. Ip Man sees the answer.
(Of course, at that time, in the country now making the movie, such a move would‘ve gotten you reeducated or worse. But onward.)
All of this dovetails with an invitation from Bruce Lee to attend Lee’s famous appearance at the 1964 International Karate Championships; Lee even buys Ip Man a planet ticket. So he goes, less to see Lee than to search for a school for his son.
Most “Ip Man” movies are basically this: For the first half, fight local Chinese (who disparage wushu); for the second half, take on racist foreigners (who disparage kung fu/Chinese generally). Here, it’s once more with feeling.
The Chinese Benevolent Society of Sacramento is supposed to help Ip Man, but, led by president Wong Zong Hua (Wu Yue), they offer a cold, decidedly un-Confucian greeting to the grandmaster. They don’t like that Ip’s student, Bruce Lee, is teaching foreigners Chinese kung fu. Chinese kung fu is for Chinese, they say.
Sans the necessary introduction, Ip Man makes little headway trying to get his son into a prestigious school. (The idea of attending a public school, for free, doesn’t seem to enter into it.) Meanwhile, I was wondering who Ip Man would fight for and protect here; Bruce Lee seemed covered. Ah, but at one school, Ip runs into Wong’s daughter, Yonah (Vanda Margraf), who, in becoming a cheerleader, makes an enemy of Becky (Grace Englert), your typical mean girl with racist overtones. Becky terrorizes Yonah with like 6-8 jocks, so it’s Ip to the rescue. A not-bad scene.
Ip next fights Wang, who thinks Ip helped Becky only to get that letter, and they go toe-to-toe before an earthquake strikes and they have to help the residents of Chinatown. Then ... ? Oh right. A subplot—which really turns out to be the plot—involving a student of Lee’s, a Chinese-American staff sergeant in the Marines, Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu of the Taiwanese boyband F4), who is trying to get his outfit to take kung fu seriously. Problem? Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins), a pumped-up, roid-rage machine, thinks Chinese kung fu is weak, hates foreigners generally, but also, oddly, prefers Japanese karate. We see his favorite toady, Colin Frater (former U.S. Marine and martial artist Chris Collins), bullying people in the ring and breaking arms. Because Hartman Wu has the audacity to bring a Wing Chun dummy into the Marine gym, he has to fight Frater, loses, and while running extra laps sees a smiling Geddes set the Wing Chun dummy aflame. As often happens in the Marines.
The movie’s view of America—and the Marines in particular—is kind of amusing. That Hartman would bring the wing chun dummy on his own onto base? And then convince a general into considering Chinese martial arts? Going over how many heads? To prevent this, Geddes sends Frater to dispense with the Chinese martial artists at Chinatown’s Mid-Autumn Festival, where Hartman will be filming the demonstration. But Frater goes a brutal step too far and Ip Man steps into the ring. Previously, Hartman had lowered his camera in shame; but once Ip Man takes a pose, he starts filming again. Another good scene.
There’s a second subplot—ripped straight from the Trumpian headlines—in which Becky’s father turns out to be INS, and he gets revenge by arresting Wang with intent to deport. Then our subplots clang together in an odd way. Sgt. Geddes shows up at the detention facility and demands custody of Wang just so he can fight him. And Becky’s dad says sure. Because that’s how things work in the U.S.
This pretty much sets up our end. Geddes clobbers Wang so it’s up to Ip Man again. Ip Man wins.
The fight scenes are good—choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping—if a bit over the top; but I still love the stillness and balance Donnie Yen brings to every fight. I guess I'm just tired of the roided-out, racist, rage machines: Twister in “2”; Big Daddy in “Wolf Warrior II”; three more here. They’re all the same—without anything close to nuance. All of them disparage Chinese gongfu, too. With reason? Everyone sucks at defending it except for one guy.
I’m curious: Did the success of “Wolf Warrior II” lead to this storyline? Hero travels abroad, takes on the racist Caucasian, preserves Chinese honor. And what’s with the Chinese fixation with the U.S. Marines? Leng Feng keeps talking about them in “Wolf Warrior II" while in Yen’s previous movie, “Big Brother,” he was a former U.S. Marine. Now this. Look at that Chinese poster. Tell me they’re not selling something. (Mouse over for the U.S. version.)
After Ip defeats Sgt. Geddes, Wang finally offers him the letter of recommendation but he decides “the grass isn’t always greener.” (Surely a message from the current Chinese government to educated Chinese living abroad.) Ip returns home, reconciles with his son, teaches him wushu, dies. The end. For this story. But may I suggest—yet again—Donnie Yen as Kwai-chang Caine in “Kung Fu: The Movie”? A joint Chinese-U.S. production? Wandering the American West in the 19th century and kicking racist ass? Seriously, people, how hard is it to make that happen?
Thursday January 09, 2020
Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” spends two hours on the dissolution of a marriage and its subsequent divorce proceedings, and the early critical take was how even-handed it was. Both parties, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), have their faults and their favors. Some viewers side with Charlie, some Nicole, but you empathize with both.
This is particularly impressive, people said, since it's based on Baumbach’s recent divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Even the attorneys have real-world parallels. Baumbach, people are saying, managed to tell his ex-wife’s side. What Kundera says about “the wisdom of the novel”? Baumach had it here.
That was the early critical take.
It’s not mine. I can’t remember the last time I was as furious at a movie character as I was with Nicole. I hated her. I was literally flipping her off in the movie theater. With both fingers.
Why I hated her
Early on, it’s obvious they’re going to get divorced. There’s sadness, etc., but they’re mature, and they agree that the whole thing should be without attorneys to make it as amicable and as cheap as possible.
A few things prevent this from happening.
They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, in a great performance), so there’s the custody issue. But they’re fine sharing custody.
The issue is where. As a family, they’ve always lived in New York. Except she recently got a gig on a TV show and moved back to LA, where she grew up, and where her family lives. So how can they share custody on two different coasts? Would Henry go to two different schools? Can you even do that?
Anyway, that’s the basic dilemma.
How do Charlie and Nicole deal with it? Charlie mostly ignores it, to be honest. He’s kind of got his head in the clouds—or in his art. And he assumes that the LA thing is temporary and Nicole will soon move back to New York City. Which she loves, right? Bad on him for not seeing things clearly.
Nicole deals with it by hiring an attorney. And not just any attorney, but a high-end, cutthroat, creepily ingratiating attorney, Nora Fanshaw, played to the hilt by Laura Dern in all of her Laura Dern-ness. So Nicole does what they told each other they wouldn’t do. And she seems oblivious to this fact. And for the rest of the movie, she’s basically secure. She has a well-paying job, a big home in LA, Henry is with her.
Not Charlie. The rest of the movie is his humiliating scramble to keep up. First he hires his own 40th floor, glass-office-tower attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), but no, that guy’s way too cutthroat, he’d say mean things about Nicole. So he hires amiable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose office is cramped, cluttered and cat-filled, and who sees Charlie as a person not a case. Charlie loves that. He’s momentarily relieved but we aren’t. I was thinking there was maybe a 10% chance Bert might make a decent match against Nora but she eats him for lunch. Huddling in a back office, Charlie suddenly realizes his predicament while Bert veers off into a joke. It’s long, pointless, with repeated iterations, and Charlie keeps glancing at the clock. “I’m sorry, Bert,” he finally asks, “am I paying for this joke?”
Cut to: The return of Marotta/Liotta. “I needed my own asshole,” he tells Nicole.
Guess what? Nicole doesn’t even get that. She thinks it’s out of bounds. I’m like: What did she think Nora Fanshaw was?
It gets worse. While she’s living in her nice home, Charlie is forced to rent a motel, then an apartment that feels like a motel. While Nicole takes Henry trick or treating through rich neighborhoods; Charlie is forced to get late, sloppy seconds in his shitty, highway-heavy neighborhood. We see the pain he goes through when the evaluator, in all her grand dimness, arrives. We hear the pain he’s going through when he sings a Stephen Sondheim song “Being Alive” before his friends at a NYC club. We imagine the pain he goes through when his Broadway play closes because he’s making too many trips to the coast. Nicole? She sings a wacky song with her sister and mother, all smiles, we never see her interact with the evaluator, and her stupid TV show is doing just fine, thank you.
And then Baumbach implies, through Nora Fanshaw, that women somehow have it tougher in custody battles? Are you shitting me? It was only in the last few decades that men even had a chance in hell. Before that, everyone thought, “Of course children should be with the mother!” But here, Nora pointedly gets to blather on about how people don’t accept mothers who swear and drink too much wine but imperfect dads are just fine. There’s a larger truth in that, sure—the bar for men is way lower—but not in custody battles. I think that's the wrong arena. Even the attorney Fanshaw is based on says she doesn't agree with it.
Just how awful is Fanshaw? In the end, she makes Charlie—or maybe Marotta—accept a 55-45 split without consulting her client, who wanted 50-50. She does it for herself. For her own ego.
I’m sorry, but I don’t know how anyone can watch this and feel equal empathy for both sides.
What’s my mantra?
So is it good? Sure. Great performances. Driver particularly. And the kid. I thought of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” of course. But there, Dustin Hoffman's Ted has to become a good father. Here, Charlie starts out a good father. What he has to become is both a better ex-husband (one who hears what others are saying) and a tougher ex-husband (one who knows enough not to hire Alan Alda). I also thought of “Annie Hall”—that whole Jewish New Yorker/Gentile LA dynamic. Except here Charlie is won over. He winds up moving to LA. That would never happen to Alvy.
The most devastating scene, as well as the funniest, is the one with the court-appointed evaluator, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), who is visiting Charlie to evaluate what kind of father he is. And my favorite part? She rings the wrong doorbell. So the woman who is going to evaluate the most important decision in his life can’t even figure out where he lives. And he has to be nice to her.
Is Baumbach best when he tells stories that are autobiographical? Or about divorce? Up to now, my favorite of his has been “The Squid and the Whale,” his 2005 take on his own parents’ divorce. I liked “Greenberg,” too. Hated “Frances Ha,” which still has tons of fans, while “While We’re Young” felt inconsequential and misplaced. Missed “Mistress America” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
What I disliked abut “Frances Ha” and “While We’re Young” is that the characters seemed like they could be real but felt untrue. They felt forced. Plus their dilemmas weren’t interesting. The characters of “Marriage Story” seem real and feel true—probably because they were. Plus their dilemmas matter. Or his does.
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