erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2021 posts

Friday December 31, 2021

Movie Review: No Time to Die (2021)


Could’ve used more Ana de Armas.

“No Time to Die,” the 25th James Bond movie, and the fifth and last to star Daniel Craig, has a lot of problems, but at least it's unintentionally ironic. It was scheduled to open in April 2020 but was delayed by … what was it again? … oh right, a global pandemic that shuttered theaters, restaurants, everything, and, as of this writing, per Johns Hopkins, has killed 5.4 million people worldwide. As a result, distributors decided to delay release by a year and a half. They figured April 2020 was no time to die. Or at least no time to gross a billion dollars.

More, the movie’s maguffin, the thing that causes Bond to travel around the world and battle the bad guys, is in fact a virus—the manufactured, nanobot kind—which can be programmed to kill a person or family, or entire races, and once it’s in your system you can never get rid of it. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to explain what this means. “You infect enough people…” Q (Ben Whishaw) begins, “… and people become the weapon!” Bond finishes. Yeah, don’t need to underline that one anymore, guys. It’s 2021. We get it. 

But to me the movie’s greatest irony is this. For decades, James Bond has been one of the ultimate male wish-fulfillment fantasies—a superspy with supersexy women literally at his feet, but you always had the sense it was kind of necessary for the job. He had to be coldhearted to be clear-eyed to win the day. But increasingly Bond was seen as clashing with his times. His own boss, played by Judi Dench, called him a “misogynistic dinosaur,” and that was a quarter century ago. So with the Daniel Craig iteration, which began in 2006, they’ve made him less of a lothario. The three Bond girls per flick? Gone. This Bond actually falls in love: with Vesper (Eva Green) in the first film, and now with the Proustian-themed Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the first official Bond girl to appear in more than one film. Bond loses her in the beginning, gets her back in the middle, and near the end discovers they have a kid together—a 5-year-old girl named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). That’s right, James Bond is a dad. He’s a caring family man, an upstanding, sensitive role model for the 21st century.

And it kills him.

I guess that’s the big reveal: James Bond dies in this one. We get a lot of deaths: Bond, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), most of SPECTRE. They’re cleaning house before the reboot.

The movie also introduces a new 007 and this time she’s Black. At one point, M (Ralph Fiennes) says “Where’s 007?” and we cut to Bond on a sailboat off Jamaica. But that’s misdirection. M is really talking about Nomi (Lashana Lynch, Maria Rambeau in the Marvel Universe). 

Question: Why did they make her so obsessed with the number? She’s constantly throwing it in Bond’s face:

  • Upon meeting him: “I’m not just any old double-oh. I’m 007. [Pause] You probably thought they’d retire it.”
  • After others greet her as 007 at MI-6: “That must annoy you.”
  • After Bond is reinstated as a double-oh: “Double-oh what? … Double-oh what!

I assume they did this to piss off the racist, sexist trollers of the world who can’t imagine a Black, female 007, but it doesn’t make much sense in their reality. Does Bond really care about his employee ID? Plus it makes her annoying as fuck. And of course, at the 11th hour, she gives it back anyway.

Three male writers worked on this—Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and director Cary Joji Fukunaga— and though they added Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag” fame, they’re not great with the female characters. OK, I liked wide-eyed newbie agent Paloma (de Armas), wearing a dress to knock your socks off, and Naomie Harris’ return as Moneypenny, flirtatiously flipping Bond’s visitor ID badge at MI-6. Both were fun. But they’re minor characters. The movie’s biggest problem is its biggest female character. Madeleine Swann is weak. As in weak-willed. She’s just a weepy, uninteresting thing.

As a child, she witnesses the murder of her mother at the hands of the Noh-masked and ridiculously named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), this movie’s baddie, who then saves her life when she falls through the ice. So is she SPECTRE? That’s what we think, and that’s what Bond thinks when he’s attacked while vacationing with Madeleine on the coast of Italy. Cyclops (Dali Bennalah), the movie’s henchman, is in the midst of being strangled by Bond when he manages to gasp out “Madeleine is a daughter of SPECTRE”; then Blofeld phones her to thank her for helping them. Bond overhears and glares. Does she protest her innocence? Kinda. Weepily. Guiltily. So Bond puts her on a train and out of his life.

Later, the incarcerated Blofeld tells Bond that she was innocent all along—that he did it to break Bond’s heart. “My poor little cuckoo,” he says. “You were always so very, very sensitive.” That’s a good bit, and too true in this iteration, but when does he say it? Right before Bond kills him. And how does Bond kill him? Unknowingly, via Madeleine. It’s so stupid. She’s Blofeld’s shrink, his only contact, so Safin re-enters her life to give her a perfume laden with the nanobot virus targeting Blofeld, and threatens her child unless she uses it. So she does. But then she can’t go through with it. And Bond grabs her wrist and gets the virus on him.

I don’t get her relationship with Safin at all. He saves her life … and then disappears for 25 years? And then shows up and demands the Blofeld thing? And then he sends his team to Sweden or wherever to bring her and her child to his private island? And in one of those dull “We’re not so different, you and I” moments with Bond, Safin says he loves her, too?


Check out this exchange between Madeleine and Bond. We’re an hour and forty minutes into the thing and our hero finally hears about the villain.

She: Now he’s back.
He: What does he want?
She: Revenge. [Shrugs] Me.

What does the guy want? That’s the fundamental question of drama, but after Safin kills most of SPECTRE—to avenge his family’s death at their hands—we have no fucking idea what he wants. So the filmmakers make it all about a vague revenge. And [shrug] her.

I don’t get Madeleine’s relationship with Bond, either. It’s not just that Craig and Seydoux have zero chemistry, she’s given nothing to do. She succumbs to the subterfuge that she betrayed Bond in Italy, she succumbs to Safin’s demand that she kill Blofeld; and when Bond shows up in Sweden or wherever, and sees the quiet, despressive child with the startlingly blue eyes, she lies to him. She tells him it’s not his. Twice. This is the love of James Bond’s life? The woman he’s willing to kill himself over?

Remember how cold-hearted and clear-eyed Bond used to be? This is what he tells Madeleine in Sweden:

I don’t know if you wanted me to come here, or why you tried to kill Blofeld, or who gave you the poison to do it, or how long you’ve been working for them…

Our action hero, ladies and gentleman.

Poor little cuckoo
At least we get some nice homages. The hall of Ms, for example, with its paintings of Judi Dench and Bernard Lee. Bond tossing his ID badge into Moneypenny’s wastebasket the way Connery used to toss his fedora onto Moneypenny’s hat rack. Winding up alone in the life raft after Felix’s death, the way the early Bonds wound up with the Bond girl. Shooting the unseen baddie in the tunnel and making it look like the gun barrel sequence. “James Bond will return” after the end credits.

I liked seeing a bit of Q’s life. I liked when Bond tries to reenter MI-6 for the first time since retirement, and we get a different kind of “Bond, James Bond” line. The security guard asks his name, he says “Bond,” the security guard looks blank, so he adds, annoyed, “James Bond?” Fun. Smart.

But why give up the sexcapades and keep the bad puns? “It was an eye-opening experience.” Oof. Stop it already. Why keep the idiocy of the villain’s island hideout, with its industrial lair, security guards, and bowing serfs? Didn’t the “Austin Powers” movies kill off those conceits? Why go Jack London for the post-mortem toast? What, no good British writers to choose from? And why not end it there—with M saying “Back to work”? That’s a good end. Why cut to Madeleine and Mathilde driving along some seaside road, and Madeleine saying she’ll tell her a story about a man, James Bond, and Mathilde smiling her sickly smile? Why hire that girl to play Mathilde in the first place? She brings nothing. Why end with a Louis Armstrong song like it’s a Nora Fucking Ephron movie?

Above all, why did you ruin James Bond?

This is how they kill off the world’s greatest secret agent. After putting the women, including Nomi(?), into a boat to safety, he stays behind on the island. “I have to finish this,” he tells Madeleine. “For us.” For us? No longer for England and freedom and all that? Since the island is a nanobot virus farm, the Brits are going to blow it up, and Bond has to make sure the bloody blast doors are open. And he does. But then Safin shows up, blah blah, and speechifies before Bond tackles him into a fountain and brutally breaks his arm. Ah, but Safin has been carrying a vial with the nanobot virus targeting Madeleine’s and Mathilda’s DNA, and it gets in the water and on Bond. Now, if he ever sees them again, he will kill them. Ha ha ha ha.

(Aside: Why did Safin tell Bond all this? If he’d said nothing, Bond would’ve killed the woman and daughter he loved. Surely that would’ve been more painful. For that matter, why is MI-6 so sure blowing up the island will destroy the nanobot virus? I thought it lived forever?)

Anyway, after Bond realizes he can never see his woman and child ever again, he basically gives up. He just kills Safin and hauls his sorry ass to the rooftop. He doesn’t try to get away. They might as well be playing Harry Nilsson’s “Can’t live/Living is without you” on the soundtrack. It would’ve been better than the dialogue we got: 

Bond: You have made the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She’s perfect. Because she came from you.
Madeleine: Oh my god, the vial! You have been poisoned. There has to be a way.

There isn’t. They say their I love yous and Madeleine finally admits the child is his.

Madeleine: She does have your eyes.
Bond: I know.

He watches the rockets coming toward him.

Bond: I know. 

And that’s that. Boom. James Bond’s last line.

When they reboot this thing, I beg them to bring back the frivolous sex and the cold heart. James Bond can’t be us. They turn him into us and he dies. But first they make him dull.

Posted at 02:12 PM on Friday December 31, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

Sunday December 26, 2021

Movie Review: Don't Look Up (2021)


“Some say the world will end in fire,” Robert Frost wrote, “Some say in ice.” Adam McKay chimes in, “Hey, how about stupidity?”

I’m kind of with McKay on this one.

“Don’t Look Up” is McKay’s “Dr. Strangelove,” an absurdist satire on the ways we might bring the great wheel to a crashing end. The A-bomb is old news by now. McKay, writing and directing from a story from left-wing politico David Sirota, posits stupid people watching stupid shows and electing stupid politicians who are bankrolled by stupid CEOs. And a comet runs right through us.

Like humanity, the movie is good for a time.

It’s you that I lie with
A Michigan grad student and her professor, Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Randall Mindy (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio), discover a new/old comet, celebrate for a moment, plot its trajectory, then realize it’s heading straight for Earth. It’s the size of Mount Everest, will arrive in 6+ months, and end all life on the planet. It’s that old plot, but with no Bruce Willis or even a Ben Affleck in sight.

Our astronomers try to get the message out but can't bust through layers of irrelevance. The head of NASA, for example, is a political appointee who knows nothing of space or comets and doesn’t sense the danger. And even when they do get an audience with President Orlean (Meryl Streep), she’s more concerned with SCOTUS appointments and upcoming midterms. Plus she’s an idiot, too—closer to Sarah Palin than Hillary Clinton.

So our heroes head to the press. Surely a Woodward or Bernstein will help. But somehow they wind up on “The Daily Rip,” and only “The Daily Rip,” a chirpy morning or afternoon show (I can’t tell), where they are the final guests, upstaged by the break-up/reconciliation of pop stars Riley Bina and DJ Chello (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi), and where Dr. Mindy’s overly scientific approach has trouble getting  past the effusive upbeatness of the hosts, Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry). So Kate angrily blurts it all out: “We are all 100% for sure gonna fucking die!” she screams. Even this doesn’t work. She becomes a meme, mocked on social media, while Dr. Mindy is celebrated but not for his intellect. “Meooow. Me likey hunky Star Man,” tweets @Vegan*Babe. That one made me laugh out loud. At this point, I was thinking, “Why is this getting mixed reviews? It’s pretty spot-on.”

I think, at two hours, 18 minutes, it just goes on too long—again, like us—and some subplots don’t hit. Both astronomers lose focus. Dr. Mindy gets swept up in it all and has an affair with Brie, while Kate becomes so ostracized she leaves academia and winds up as a cashier at a kwiki-mart type place, where she meets some skateboarders and begins a relationship with Yule (Timothée Chalamet). Sure. But who cares? And why the fuck would you work customer service when you know the world is ending in two months? Has Adam McKay ever worked customer service before? That’s the last thing you’d do.

Meanwhile, Pres. Orlean finally takes notice, confirms the data with Ivy Leaguers, and launches a rocket’s red glare assault on the meteor led by the super-macho, overly racist Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman). But this plan is aborted when tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) informs the president that the minerals in the comet are worth trillions. So they attempt to break it apart by mining it. (I think.) Dr. Mindy finally comes out of his fog to lead the scientific community, admonishing the world to “look up,” while Pres. Orlean tells her nutjob base the opposite: “Don’t look up!” she says, giving them a chant, a la “Lock her up!” and the movie its title.

It’s you I watch TV with
The look up/don’t look up thing is good, and Rylance’s on-the-spectrum tech billionaire in a million-dollar jacket is brilliant. But the rest of the movie? A bit obvious, or a bit much, or beside-the-point. Isherwell’s plan fails, the world braces for its end. What would you do if you knew everything was about to end? The rich and powerful get on a transport to another planet, but Dr. Mindy turns this down to reconcile with his wife. That’s the end he chooses. He and his family, and Kate and Yule, along with a sympathetic government man (Rob Morgan), have a last meal and prayer around the dining table. Sure. I liked Jack and Brie’s final moments better. He asks if she wants to fuck but she decides she’d rather just drink and dish dirt about people. Great line. 

Oh, and the epilogue on the other planet, where Pres. Orlean finally gets hers? Nah. I wanted to see these people die, but that did nothing for me.

“Don’t Look Up” attempts the impossible: satirizing things that seem beyond satire (Trump, social media, et al.). And it did make me flash on that great post-9/11 Onion headline again: A SHATTERED NATION LONGS TO CARE ABOUT STUPID BULLSHIT AGAIN. This is us caring only about the stupid bullshit as the world caves in.

Posted at 10:50 AM on Sunday December 26, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

Thursday December 16, 2021

Movie Review: Mr. Saturday Night (2021)


The main thing missing from “Mr. Saturday Night,” John Maggio’s documentary on Robert Stigwood, is Robert Stigwood. What do we learn about the man? He was the manager for The Who (but how did he become their manager?), he nearly became the manager for the Beatles (but why did they object?), and he managed the Bee Gees to massive success in the late 1970s. At the 11th hour, we learn that he was gay. He liked young, good-looking men, and hired them, but wasn’t too #MeToo about it. He had an unerring sense of what would be popular. Until he didn’t.

A close second of what’s missing from “Mr. Saturday Night” is a sense of chronology. I’m a broken record on this topic but the culture keeps getting worse at it. 1963 is not 1967 is not 1976. How we got from 1963 to 1967, and then to 1976, is the story, so if you fuck up the chronology you fuck up the story. And “Mr. Saturday Night” keeps fucking up the chronology.

Apologies in advance for this. It’s going to get a little petty.

At one point, film producer Kevin McCormick, who got his start as one of those handsome young men at RSO Records, attempts to give us an overview of the movie scene that Stigwood was landing in in the early 1970s. Against a backdrop of Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Born on the Bayou” in concert, McCormick says this:

From Woodstock on, Hollywood was totally in transition.

Wait, from Woodstock on? That’s a bit late, isn’t it? I’d go earlier—to at least “The Graduate” in 1967.

Then McCormick talks about how Hollywood saved itself by using music to illustrate a movie, and as example we get the opening credits of “Easy Rider,” which was, again, 1969. And again I’m like: Why not Simon and Garfunkel and “The Graduate” from two years earlier?

I’ll cut to the chase: McCormick finally does mention “The Graduate,” and the doc shows Dusty in his convertible with S&G on the soundtrack, but it’s an afterthought. And from there we immediately go to Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” in 1976—then to “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1975—and it’s all about how directors had way more creative control back then, which was the milieu Stigwood was landing in. And I’m like: Sure. But Stigwood was a producer, not a director. How does this factor in? And why bounce around chronologically? And what does CCR have to do with any of this?

Meanwhile, the larger point is lost. Stigwood spearheaded his inroads into America through “Jesus Christ Superstar”—a complicated-enough story that the movie does little to clarify. It was actually an album first. I didn’t know that. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice tried to sell it as a stage production but nobody was buying, so they turned it into a concept album and it took off. A voiceover from Rice, the lyricist, tells us: “When we were doing the ‘Superstar’ album, before it was a show, Robert got in touch with us, and Robert definitely knew what he was doing.” So what was he doing? Who knows? Why was he interested? Who knows? But he helped turn “Superstar” into a stage production, which set longevity records in London, and then a movie. And it began a pattern for Stigwood that the doc touches on but probably should’ve underlined.

This is the pattern: In the first part of the 1970s, two of the biggest movies Stigwood produced were “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy.” What did they have in common? Both were hit albums first. And what did Stigwood do when Paramount began dragging its feet about Stigwood’s “little disco movie” called “Saturday Night Fever”? He turned it into a hit album first. The movie was scheduled for release in December, he released the soundtrack in November, and it became big enough that the movie opened wide enough that it became a huge hit. At least, that’s what the doc says. Some part of me wonders if Stigwood wasn’t planning on releasing the album first anyway.

I mean, if Stigwood invented this concept—release the music first, then the movie—bravo. But I’m doubtful. Because the doc keeps giving him credit for breaking ground on stuff that wasn’t groundbreaking. Turning a TV star (John Travolta) into a movie star, for example. “Nobody had done that,” says a voiceover, “coming from television into feature films.” Sure, nobody. Not Steve McQueen (“Wanted Dead or Alive”), Clint Eastwood (“Rawhide”) or Burt  Reynolds (“Dan August”). Nobody. The doc also implies that making a movie (“Saturday Night Fever”) out of a magazine article (“The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by Nik Cohn) was unprecedented when it’s long been industry practice. “Dog Day Afternoon,” to give one example from the period, was based on a Life magazine article.

Overall, “Mr. Saturday Night” misses the story. It keeps talking up how Stigwood had an instinct for things, how he knew where the culture was going when the suits decidedly did not, but then, after the success of “Saturday Night Fever,” he was undone by the homophobia surrounding the anti-disco movement. But that’s not really what undid him. I think the story is that he had this instinct until he didn’t. And it went away. Like that. In the same year. 

For Stigwood, the first half of 1978 was the unprecedented success of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” while the second half were the absolute disasters of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Moment By Moment.” I can’t think of any impresario who had that kind of up-and-down year, one that was so expertly bifurcated. 

Some stats:

  • In the winter/spring of ’78, “Saturday Night Fever,” the movie, grossed $94 million. It helped launch (or relaunch) a disco craze, made a star out of Travolta, who became the first and only Sweathog to be nominated for an Academy Award, and its imagery is still iconic more than 40 years later.
  • But that’s small potatoes. “Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack, was the No. 1 album in the U.S. from Jan. 21 to July 1. That’s right: 24 straight weeks. Half the fucking year. And its songs cluttered the singles charts in a way that nobody had done since the Beatles in 1964.
  • And then, starting July 29, the Stigwood-produced “Grease” soundtrack was No. 1, off and on, until October 28. So Stigwood had the No. 1 album in the country for 36 of the 52 weeks of 1978. Plus two of its singles went to No. 1.
  • But that’s small potatoes. “Grease” was the No. 1 movie of 1978, grossing $190 million. It’s still 28th all-time when you adjust for inflation.

This isn’t even taking into account Andy Gibb, another Stigwood client, who had the No. 1 song of the year: “Shadow Dancing.” Think of that: Stigwood was the producer of the No. 1 single, soundtrack and movie of 1978. He was everywhere.

Ah, but then the second half.

  • In July, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the soundtrack, with music from the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Earth Wind & Fire and Aerosmith, debuted at No. 7, rose to No.5, hovered for a bit, and then disappeared completely after the movie bombed in August. Four singles were released. One reached the top 10.
  • “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Ban,” the movie, was not just a bomb but a laughable bomb, and the reviews were scathing. “Indescribably awful” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum. “A business deal set to music” said Janet Maslin. The Bee Gees say it was the beginning of the end for them.
  • In December, Stigwood went back to his moneymaker John Travolta with “Moment by Moment,” a love story co-starring Lily Tomlin, which got even more scathing reviews, died even sooner at the box office, and almost ended Travolta’s career just as it was beginning.

Seriously, has anyone ever had such a whiplash year? And if you’re a documentarian, how do you ignore it? Maggio does.

I should add that most of the doc is really about “Saturday Night Fever,” not Stigwood, so it’s odd how it’s being titled, promoted, etc. And I’ll admit, some of the rabbit holes it goes down are fascinating. But even here it’s missing the overall.

I would do the “Fever” story in four acts:

  1. Inclusive: The disco scene is born in Manhattan, and it’s gay, Black and inclusive. Everyone is welcome.
  2. Exclusive: Cohn’s article is published in New York magazine in June 1976, focusing on the disco scene at the 2001 Odyssey club in a dilapidated section of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is almost exclusively Italian-American. No one else is welcome. Particularly anyone gay or Black.
  3. Everywhere: “Saturday Night Fever,” the movie based on Cohn’s article and those exclusive Italian-Americans, becomes a smash hit, and the disco craze blankets the nation.
  4. Nowhere: Out of that success, the anti-disco movement is born, and it is decidedly anti-gay and anti-Black, and within a few years it helps kill off disco.

That feels powerful to me. Here’s this positive, inclusive thing that we’ll: 1) appropriate, 2) monetize, and then 3) kill.

The arc of that story is in “Mr. Saturday Night,” but the dots aren’t connected. Instead, Maggio focuses on Stigwood without really telling us anything about Stigwood: who he was, what he did, why he rose, why he fell. It’s vague hagiography.

Posted at 10:16 AM on Thursday December 16, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

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 think I missed about 20% of what was said in 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.

And yet.

“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.

Posted at 08:57 AM on Friday November 19, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

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? 

Jewish/not Jewish
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.

Posted at 08:15 AM on Tuesday September 14, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

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.

Hollow Earth
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.

Regular idiocy
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.

Posted at 07:58 AM on Monday April 05, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  

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.

Not surprising
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.

Not funny
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.

Posted at 06:49 AM on Tuesday March 09, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  
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