Movie Reviews - 2021 posts
Friday November 19, 2021
Movie Review: Belfast (2021)
“My ma says if we went across the water, they wouldn’t understand the way we talk,” says Buddy, age 9, to his grandfather, Pa (Ciaran Hinds), halfway through “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s short, feel-good memoir about The Troubles.
Buddy’s ma ain’t wrong. I don’t think I got about a quarter of the film. So it’s a bit unfair for me to even write this review.
At the same time, it was my first Seattle theater experience since the pandemic began so it feels like something that should be celebrated. Even if I don’t celebrate everything in it.
And it stoned me
I’d heard good things about “Belfast” (Best Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, etc.), as well as not-so-good things (critics complained it wasn’t all that), and, shocker, I’m closer to the critics on this one. The movie is filmed in luminescent black and white, we get some nice Irish gallows humor, and everyone knows I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story (“20th Century Women”), particularly if it’s against a backdrop of tragedy (“Hope and Glory”). Plus Branagh and I are almost contemporaries—he’s got three years on me—so this is the period of my own coming-of-age, too. Buddy reads “The Mighty Thor” and plays with Matchbox cars while I was more “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Hot Wheels, but it’s basically the same. Buddy watches “Star Trek” and goes to see “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and I did and did.
“Belfast” begins the day The Troubles began in August 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing medieval war with trash-can lid and wooden sword when his drop-dead sexy mom (Caitríona Balfe) calls him home. He goes cheerily, interacting with almost everyone in his tight little Belfast neighborhood; and then as the camera spins around him several times, his worldview is upended. Riots break out at the end of the street, spill into his, and he has to be rescued by his mother. His pretend shield, the trash-can lid, is used deflect actual rocks being thrown at them. Nice touch.
Buddy’s family is Protestant, the neighborhood is cordoned off with sandbags, and folks have to show papers to the poor neighborhood watchman, whom most ignore. There’s a local troublemaker, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who wants Buddy’s impossibly good-looking father (Jamie Dornan of “50 Shades”) to pick a side; and even though Clanton seems like not much, everyone lets him stalk around and make noise. The impossibly good-looking father, meanwhile, is rarely around. Working elsewhere, he returns on weekends. I thought he was having an affair but it’s not that. He also owe back taxes. I was never quite sure what that was about.
Despite the advent of civil war, most of Buddy’s life is: mooning after a blonde girl in his class (Catholic); listening to the wisdom of Grandpa and Granny (Judi Dench); and eavesdropping on his parents as they plan, or argue about, their future. He’s got an older female cousin, Moira (Lara McDonnell), who involves him in her own troubles—shoplifting from the local Indian-owned drug store, for example—and he has the quietest, most nondescript older brother in cinematic history. Sorry, Will (Lewis McAskie).
Eventually the impossibly good-looking dad secures a good job in England so they can get out. Except Ma, a Belfast girl, doesn’t want to go. Eventually she realizes it’s a good idea—kids the age of Will and Buddy are dying, her husband tells her—except then Buddy doesn’t want to go. He wails about it at Christmastime. For some reason, he’s listened to. (The movie has a lot of For some reasons
Over the next few months of inaction, Grandpa dies, the blonde girl kinda likes Buddy back, and in the movie’s climactic moment, cousin Moira involves Buddy in an actual riot of a grocery store, led by Billy Clanton. Terrified, Buddy steals one item: a box of chocolate cereal. For some reason, Ma decides he needs to return it that instant when the grocery store is still the center of a riot. Then, for some reason, Billy Clanton decides to hold her, Buddy and Moira hostage, and for some reason he has to face off against Buddy’s dad in their neighborhood street. And for some truly, truly awful reason, Branagh overlays the scene of Pa’s triumph (he throws a rock that knocks the gun out of Billy Clanton’s hand) with Tex Ritter singing “Do Not Forsake Me,” from the film “High Noon,” which Buddy had watched earlier on TV.
After this, the family finally gets out of Dodge, and the movie ends with dedications to those who left, those who stayed, those who didn’t live to see the brand new day.
Brand new day
“Belfast” works if you consider the fact that it’s told from a child’s point of view. I.e., my parents are movie stars, my father is a western hero, the neighborhood bully is one-note. Here’s the problem with that. Most movies, certainly most Hollywood movies, are all but told from a child’s point of view. They are absolutist in nature: good guys vs. bad guys, and the good guys win. We go to movies like “Belfast” for something deeper. Branagh didn’t give it. Hell, Thanos is a deeper villain than Billy Clanton. And I really could’ve done without the “Everlasting Love” scene.
Still, the movie looked gorgeous, it was great hearing a lot of Van Morrison, and I loved being back in an actual movie theater—SIFF Egyptian, Seattle—after our own version of the troubles. Which, sadly, aren’t nowhere near over.
Tuesday September 14, 2021
Movie Review: Worth (2021)
“Worth” is a near-worthy movie that gets the law right but not its main character, attorney Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton). It makes him the last man in the room to realize what needs to be done—everyone else is miles ahead of him, including us. Basically they withhold his humanity so he can recover it at the 11th hour, when his humanity was what drove him to seek the thankless task at the start.
At least that’s what I thought after seeing the film. Turns out there’s some truth in it.
This is from William Grimes review of Feinberg’s 2005 book, “What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11”:
Mr. Feinberg confesses that he was unprepared for the emotional experience of counseling angry or grieving relatives. Often he was thrust into bitter family squabbles. In the early days of administering the fund, he addressed audiences in a lawyerly, just-the-facts style that struck many listeners, he writes, as “brusque and callous.” With time, he relied more on his powers of sympathy. Mostly, he listened, and he has included moving accounts of the stories he heard.
I was also disappointed that the purpose of the film was the bête noire of “The Wire”: the numbers game. We’re told Feinberg and his team need to reach 80% acceptance for the fund to be effective, and he’s far behind that figure 18 months into the project, closing in on the Dec. 2003 deadline. But wait! At the last minute they get a surge of acceptances! Yay!
Didn’t buy it. But again, turns out there’s truth in it:
Thanks to a last-minute flood of applications, the 9/11 fund, which seemed to be teetering on the edge of failure, attracted 97 percent of those eligible for compensation.
So in the wake of these facts, have I revised my opinion of the film? Nah.
Helping Bush get re-elected
I know a little something about Feinberg, a class action and plaintiff’s attorney in Washington, D.C., because in my day job we’ve written about him a few times. The biggest piece, a cover feature in 2008, was called—after Feinberg’s book title—“What Is Life Worth?” which was also the original title of this movie. It’s a better title.
Feinberg was a longtime attorney and mediator who became nationally known when he was appointed the head of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which was created by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at the behest of the airline industry. The idea: Instead of wasting years in litigation, while possibly sinking the economy in the process, the federal government can settle with the victims. Airlines aren’t sued, victims and their families get their money now (as opposed to in 10-15 years maybe), and the economy stays strong.
Again, most of this is true, but I don’t quite get the “sinking the economy” argument. From 7,000 lawsuits? Even if it were true, my perspective now is that it would’ve sunk the economy on W.’s watch, which meant he would’ve been less likely to be re-elected in 2004. The movie has Feinberg, a Democrat and one-time aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, busting his ass to save the presidency of a dipshit, extra-legal Republican.
But the main issue I have with the film is how long it took Feinberg to come around to the idea that sympathy and listening would alleviate a lot of the problems. In the movie, he seems to get it, once, twice, three times, but keeps acting in the same bookish manner. Meanwhile, his mostly female colleagues, Camille Biros and Priya Kundi (Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan), know the right path, as does grassroots organizer Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who objects to the formula Feinberg has created to assess the value of each person. Overall, for most of the movie, our hero is insensitive. How is that good? And that formula of his never really gets its day in court—i.e., with us. Did it make sense? Did it make sense given that the fund had to be administered with different rates for different victims?
There are literally thousands of victims’ stories to tell here and the movie does a good job of making us care about a few of them with just 10-15 seconds of air time. The main victim subplots involve the Donato family, wife Karen and brother Frank (Laura Benanti and Chris Tardio), and the husband/brother/firefighter they lost, and how, oops, he actually had a second family, with two kids, who deserve some of the money, too. Then there’s the gay partner of one of the victims, who is not only not acknowledged by the victim’s parents but dismissed as a parasite. Since this is 2002-03, he has no rights in the matter. The movie stays true to that outcome, though it probably makes Biros, an attorney, care a little too much.
This story, from our 2008 feature, might’ve been worth dramatizing:
One young widow was due $1 million. “I want more,” she told him. “And I want it within 30 days.” She explained that she had cancer and her husband had been preparing to take care of their two small children when she died. Feinberg gave her more money, and within 30 days. Seven weeks later, she died.
Maybe the movie should’ve made empathy less the solution than a path to another problem. How can you listen to so much tragedy and not get swept under it?
Keaton is great. Not Jewish but great. Tucci is both Jewish (for a Jewish role) and great. Amy Ryan always seems real, never a false note. The movie was directed by Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), and written by Max Borenstein (the Godzilla/Kong movies), and is worthier than any Godzilla/Kong movie. We watched it the night before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The most startling moment may be at the end, when the movie informs us of the compensation funds Feinstein and Biros have administered since 9/11:
You look at that list of national tragedies, one after the other, and think, “What the fuck is wrong with us?” Maybe that should be the title of the next movie.
Monday April 05, 2021
Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
I know it’s stupid to talk about what’s unrealistic in a movie in which a giant ape battles a giant fire-breathing lizard, and then the two team up to battle a giant fire-breathing lizard robot, but here I go.
Early on, Godzilla attacks the Apex Corporation and CNN turns on him, intoning, “The massive titan, once thought to be a hero to humanity, made landfall in Pensacola, Florida...” First, that “made landfall” thing is just dumb. More, it’s the quick narrative turnabout. It’s reminiscent of an idiot moment in the first Godzilla film, when shortly after Godzilla’s war with the MUTOs we see this news chyron: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” Right. A giant, fire-breathing lizard shows up out of nowhere and they’re already promoting a good-guy narrative. And now the opposite. If I felt all of this was a critique of the news media and its WWE-esque face/heel tendencies, I might dig it; but I think it’s just lazy filmmaking.
Anyway, that’s not the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.
One person not buying into CNN’s demonization of Godzilla is paranoid podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), who has a low-level job within Apex in order to expose it. His most avid listener is Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the kid hero from the second film, who argues thus with her uptight dad (Kyle Chandler):
Dad: Right now Godzilla’s out there and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why. …
Kid: Godzilla attacks when provoked—that’s the pattern. Pensacola is the only coastal Apex hub with an advanced robotics lab—that’s the variable. And you add it up and your answer is that Apex is at the heart of the problem.
Dad spent that second movie 1) seething and 2) getting everything wrong, and it’s pretty much the same here. On the plus side, he’s barely in this one. But no, this isn’t the unrealistic thing I’m talking about, either.
Eventually, Madison and her comic-relief, Kiwi friend Josh (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) hook up with Bernie and together they all decide to break into Apex. How do they do it?
They just walk in.
That’s the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.
Apex is in ruins, but nothing’s been cordoned off—not by the cops, the FBI, the NSA, the EPA or Apex’s own security patrol. The kids just wander through the rubble. Then they take an elevator to Sublevel 33 where Bernie knows some top-secret shit is going on. And it is! They’re in a room with incubated skull crawlers … except it’s not a room, it’s a ship, and they’re locked in (by accident) and then transported (by tunnel?) to Hong Kong. There, they wander out into a vast warehouse-like area where the evil CEO, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), bourbon in hand, watches the beta-testing of his MechaGodzilla from the control room. The kids are actually in the test area when a skull crawler is released and comes within feet of killing them before Mecha pulls it away and tears it in half. And though one assumes tons of eyes and/or censors are on this beta test, not one person says, “Hey, are those kids supposed to be down there?” The idiocy is overwhelming. It’s like the kids are invisible. They’re even able to wander away from the test area, where, in another room, they discover the evil CEO’s evil right-hand man, Ren (Shun Oguri), sitting inside one of the skulls of Monster Zero and controlling MechaGodzilla via whatever AI tech they’re using. They immediately and correctly surmise that Monster Zero’s DNA was used to create MechaGodzilla as a means of battling real Godzilla. And it’s only after all this, after Madison pops her head into, I believe, the CEO’s control room, and Bernie follows, that a female exec finally sees them and goes, “Huh, meddling kids. Guess we better call the guards.”
I'll take a giant lizard. But this bullshit? Just stop.
You know what the worst part is? We don’t need these kids in the movie at all. They’re absolutely irrelevant to moving the plot forward.
Wait, who do we need in this movie?
Our male lead is Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a professor whose discredited book, “Hollow Earth,” argues that the center of the earth isn’t “a moon-size ball of iron floating within an ocean of molten metal,” per National Geographic, but a Jurassic Park-like wonderland crackling with energy. It’s where the titans come from. It’s where Kong’s Skull Island comes from. That’s his theory. And the only one who believes him is the evil CEO, who wants that crackling energy source to power MechaGodzilla. So he contracts Prof. Lind to find an entryway to that world.
At first glance, then, Lind seems necessary. Except the Antarctic entryway has already been excavated. And once both men latch onto the idea of a titan guide—i.e., Kong— to get them the rest of the way, well, what use is Lind? None. At the 11th hour, sure, he’s the one who suggests using those dual-gravitational whizzy things (HEAVs) to jumpstart Kong’s heart but that could’ve been anybody. Our male lead isn’t necessary at all.
Our female lead is even worse. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) runs the Kong Containment facility on Skull Island, and she’s called the “Kong Whisperer” in science magazine cover features, so she seems necessary. Nope. She doesn’t even know that the deaf girl in her charge, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last of the Iwi tribe that once populated Skull Island, has taught Kong sign language. That’s right, Kong can speak! This revelation, as Kong is taken in chains on an aircraft carrier to the Antarctic entryway, is a good scene—one of the few in the movie—but it does point out how useless Ilene is. It’s all Jia.
So Jia we need. And the villains who set everything in motion. And our titans. And that’s about it. But the movie keeps piling on useless characters. We get one scene of expository dialogue between Ilene and a guy, Ben (Chris Chalk of HBO’s “Perry Mason”), and that’s it for Ben. Lance Riddick from “The Wire” has a scene. Forget what. Hakeem Kae-Kazim, ditto. All these nothing roles feature Black actors. Make of it what you will.
Anyway, that’s the gist. Apex Corp. is creating a mechanized Godzilla to attack the real Godzilla so humans can become the apex species again. That’s why Godzilla attacks Pensacola. And Godzilla and Kong have an old, ancient rivalry, which is why Kong is being contained—so GZ doesn’t sense he’s there. But when he’s moved, GZ attacks. God, that’s another dumb idea, isn’t it? They need Kong as guide, but let’s make sure this battle happens where Kong will be at a distinct disadvantage: in the middle of the ocean.
Accompanying Lind, Ilene and Jia on their journey to the center of the earth is the evil CEO’s bitchy, superhot daughter, Maya (Eiza Gonzalez, call me), who comes off like a Mexican Ivanka Trump. Her job is to make sure they get that crackling energy source for Mecha. Love Dad sending daughter on this super-dangerous mission. Did she insist? Is it the bourbon? Is he sick of her, too? After the giant bats attack in the cave, she’s about to escape in the HEAV when Kong grabs it, sniffs it, crushes it. Bye, Mexican Ivanka.
Daddy gets it, too. The Hollow Earth energy source not only powers MechaGodzilla but gives it sentience. So evil right-hand man’s brain gets fried within the skull, while evil CEO is fried by Mecha’s fire breath. Hope Apex Corp. has a good succession plan.
The final big battle takes place in Hong Kong—for the Chinese box office. Godzilla defeats Kong, is losing to Mecha, Kong is revived and the two team up to defeat the AI gone awry. Then they roar at each other and each retreats to its domain: Godzilla beneath the sea, Kong on his throne in Hollow Earth.
Hollow is right.
I’ll give it this: “Godzilla vs. Kong” is better than the two previous Godzilla movies as well as that other hugely anticipated fantasy matchup: “Batman v. Superman.” OK, low bar: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was my worst movie of 2019 and “BvS” was my worst movie of 2016. This one, at least, has moments. And while they continue to make Godzilla a tubby waddler, whose face is hard to see amid the scales, the CGI Kong is pretty amazing.
The studio publicity machine is playing up the Team Godzilla/Team Kong angle, and most people are playing along. Here’s my take. Fair fight, Godzilla kicks ass: tougher skin, fire breath. Plus Godzilla can sense almost anything happening anywhere in the world (Pensacola, Hong Kong), while Kong, that dumb ape, can stand right at the portal to the prehistoric Hollow Earth where he once ruled and have no inkling. He’s got to be told. But I root for Kong. He’s both underdog and us. He’s got a face. In a cinematic sense, the only thing better about Godzilla is his theme music.
One more complaint before I’m out of here. It’s when the three kids—or the two kids and Bernie—first meet. They’re sitting in a cafeteria and have this conversation:
Bernie: Before we go any farther, I got one question: Tap or no tap?
Madison: No tap.
Josh: Excuse me, what is tap?
Bernie: Water. They put fluoride in it. Learned it from the Nazis.
Madison: Theory is it makes you docile, easy to manipulate.
Josh: Oh. I drink tap water.
Bernie: Yeah, I kinda figured that.
In a world in which dipshit conspiracy theories are coming close to overthrowing American democracy, why engage in this kind of idiocy, Hollywood? C’mon. Just stick to your regular idiocy. That’s what you’re good at.
Tuesday March 09, 2021
Movie Review: Coming 2 America (2021)
If you’d asked anyone back in 1988 who would be the emerging star in the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” they might’ve gone with Arsenio Hall, whose talk show was to debut the following year, or maybe Shari Headley, who was 24, lovely, and played romantic lead Lisa McDowell, or just one of those insanely beautiful rose-petal bearers such as Garcelle Beauvais; but the correct answer turned out to be the dude with the crazy eyes who tried to rob McDowell’s restaurant with a shotgun. In a way, Samuel L. Jackson became even bigger than Murphy, who, at this point, was in the midst of a seven-year run on Quigley’s list of the year’s top-10 box-office champs, including four times at No. 2 and once at No. 1. But after “Harlem Nights” bombed the following year he fell off, made it back sporadically, but was never the same. While Sam Jackson became Sam Jackson.
Interest in a “Coming to America” sequel grew, I assume, after the huge success of “Black Panther,” as well as Eddie’s great comeback turn in “Dolemite Is My Name” in 2019. Eddie even tapped “Dolemite” director Craig Brewer to have another go. And at first glance it all seems like a great idea. Then you remember: Yeah, the original wasn’t that funny. Half the film, Murphy’s character, Prince Akeem, is a comic persona—perpetually smiling and naïve—the other half he’s heroic leading man. It’s an odd combo.
And 30+ years is a long time. The first movie had a lot of gratuitous female nudity—like most ’80s comedies—which doesn’t play well in the #MeToo age. Worse, the whole “royal penis is clean” and “bark like a dog” bits leaned into Murphy’s late ’80s misogyny.
So there were problems going in. But then they made it worse. “Coming 2 America” is one of those movies where in the first act the main character is doing X, everyone thinks “Why is he doing X? Shouldn’t he be doing Y?” and the lesson at the end is: Do Y. Great. Thanks.
Prince Akeem's problem is he has no male heir, just three strong daughters; and by Zamundan law they can’t ascend to the throne. Has to be dudes. And it’s feared that once Akeem’s father, Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), dies, the country will become unstable and the strong-arm ruler of Nextdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), will take over.
Baba, the witch doctor: He will use the passing of our king as a sign to attack the weak one.
Akeem: The weak one? Am I the weak one?
Jaffe: I spoiled you, my son. You are not strong or ruthless as I am. You will be assassinated.
So Akeem encourages his father to change the backward laws to allow a female heir to take over. The end.
Kidding. Instead, they find out—whoa!—there is a male heir. In 1988, Akeem fathered a son without knowing it when a crazy girl, Mary Junson (Leslie Jones), jumped his bones when he was high. So Jaffe sends Akeem and his right-hand man Semmi (Arsenio) back to America to find this kid and make him next in line to the throne.
The kid, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) is 30, going nowhere, and leaps at the chance. There are tests he has to pass in Zamunda, including taking the whisker of “a man-eating lion” (Me: Are there other kinds of lions?), and more machinations from Izzi, who now wants his daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor), to marry Lavelle. But then Lavelle overhears a conversation that makes him think he’s a pawn in Akeem’s game, and he and his entire entourage flee back to Queens—including Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), the royal groomer, whom he wants to marry. Akeem follows them there, finds them at the altar, gives his blessing, then returns to Zamunda where his three strong daughters have already subdued a coup attempt by Gen. Izzi. Which is when he does the thing he should’ve done in the first act. He changes the backward laws to allow a female heir to ascend to the throne.
Never saw it coming.
So that’s one of the movie’s two big problems. The other problem is bigger: It’s just not funny. Wesley Snipes is good, Leslie Jones is great (she gets the “royal privates are clean” bit), and Eddie eventually made me laugh but it took a while. Arsenio, no. Jermaine, no. Tracy Morgan, nah. The barbershop boys are back, and Eddie’s old Jewish man is still killer (“What is this—velvet?”), but they were way old in ’88 and haven’t aged a day so it seems odd. A Morgan Freeman bit, playing off his role as America’s official narrator, falls flat. A joke about child African soldiers should’ve been crumpled up and tossed in the wastebasket.
Three writers worked on this screenplay—the original two and the overworked Kenya Barris (“Black-ish,” “#BlackAF,” “Girls Trip,”etc.)—but they either didn’t work hard enough or there wasn’t enough to play off of. Instead of jokes, we get cameos. Salt n Pepa show up, En Vogue show up, Dikembe Mutombo shows up. SNL’s Colin Jost plays the grandson of Randolph and Mortimer Duke from “Trading Places” to not much effect. Trevor Noah plays a moustached TV journalist on ZNN, allowing James Earl Jones to intone “This … is ZNN,” which wasn’t laugh-out loud but at least it made a smile. Seeing Jones and John Amos alive made me smile.
I just wish there was more life in Eddie. Next movie, he should get a personal trainer to help with that gut and just fucking let it go with the comedy. C'mon. We're rooting for you, man.