Amsterdam vs Wildlife

I was so uncomfortable during Amsterdam. It was so self-indulgent. I was wondering when it would end. It never seemed to end, though it had long past had anything to say. It was just in love with saying things. 

I wondered what this film would have been like with a halfway decent Director. Then was surprised to learn that it was directed by David O. Russell. It was beautifully shot but some of the shots seemed unsteady, not the greatest. Except the Director of Photography turns out to be one of the greatest, Emmanuel Lubezki. The cast was just a powerhouse of talent. Though they seemed unsure, stepping on each others lines, seemingly uncertain of what to say next. One actor gave the world’s flatest performance. Didn’t the Director notice? Was his note to act like a piece of wet cardboard? 

It was a beautiful film, though. It’s too bad that you can’t just hang each frame in a museum and admire them without the rest. Maybe watch it with the sound off? Even still, there were a few great lines: Are you with someone because you choose them or because you need them? And…If you’ve had your heart broken, well it just means that you were living. Kudos to Russell for some depth there.

This film, which takes place in the 1930s had a certain haunting nostalgia. Meanwhile, the protagonist was doing a major Columbo rip-off. Yet there was no homage to Columbo which could save this film. Like the infamous Jerry Krause, the General Manager who broke up the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls, this film didn’t know how to get out of its own way. And maybe we should be grateful because I don’t think there would have been a dry eye in the house if they could have figured it out and pulled it off. 

Meanwhile, I was also able to watch Paul Dano’s 2018 Wildlife starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. Also a period piece, this time from 1960 but with a distinct 1930s flavor. The film’s compositions owed much to Hopper and his isosceles trapezoids, which you can read about in Mark Strand’s Hopper. And Hopper’s light as well. It certainly felt like a depression-era story. And yet, a timeless story. Not nostalgic and unrelatable like Amsterdam’s fever dream. More like the slow burning forest fires that always menace these characters from a far off yet not impossibly distant place. Wildlife is a domestic nightmare, seen from the eyes of its 14 year old protagonist. There is no sledgehammer voiceover here, like in Amsterdam, telling you what to think. The story is told visually. In close-ups of cigar smoking. In tracking shots revealing the sunrise. In fantastic vistas of ever expanding, majestic mountains. It’s an allegory about pride and desperation and it never feels distant. If you get a chance to see Wildfire, it’s well worth the emotional deep dive. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I enjoyed The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry but you probably won’t. …This is a film that has a lot of continuity problems. But if you are willing to suspend disbelief (a film phrase right up there with diagetic space, persistence of vision and the martini shot) then you might enjoy it, too. 

Here’s an example. For starters the story is specific to New England, yet the accent is only discernible briefly in one character, in one scene. What gives? On an isolated island like this people wouldn’t talk like they were emerging from an LA nightclub. And I could go on and on. On the other hand, who cares. Not really me, it turns out. This movie has a lot of heart, a lot of spirit, it’s intriguing at times and laugh out loud funny a lot. …So why was the theatre empty? What do people want? More The Ring knock offs? (Smile, I’m frowning at you.) …To ask the question is to answer it, as D would say. 

Well, you know what? They can have all the cheap jump scares they can handle. I’ll stick to the unlikely but still thought-provoking and interesting movies on this side of the megaplex, thank you. 

See How They Run

There were quite a few horror films to chose from this week: Smile, Invitation, BarbarianBullet Train. At some point I’ll stop picking on Bullet Train but I can’t get those two hours back so I’m still processing how bad it was. Why are there so many horror films out there? It’s always been a popular genre. Back in my Hollywood days, I even shot one as a Cinematographer, The Unbidden. It got crushed. I read one review and I think I stopped reading reviews of my own work after that. Too painful. On another horror feature I shot, I did film the death of someone who was killed by asphyxiation, with a plastic bag, at night, at a bus stop in Little Tokyo, Downtown LA. I was shooting while standing on a ladder at the time…above the stream of critiques.

But you’re here to read about See How They Run. It’s an original script based on the longest running play in the world, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, in London’s West End. The Mousetrap is circa 28,000 performances at this point. Twenty. Eight. Thousand.

So it took a little something to bring a version of this play, that isn’t this play, to the cinema in a fresh way. I think the film succeeds in that venture, at least cinematically, with a mix of aspect ratios and vertical and horizontal split screens —almost an homage to Wes Anderson. It’s literate, with a voice over by a narrator. It’s loosely a film within a film and a play within a play. The acting is strong, though constrained, by design. Obviously, there is a murder. But the killer fails to take the tongue out of the victim’s mouth…though they tried to do that. It’s not totally clear why but that attempted action is about as gory as this film gets. It seems that we have, as a society, become at least somewhat immune to this type of sadism. I was told that the new Dahmer series on Netflix, “doesn’t really show anything.” Well, besides the severed head in the fridge in episode 1? No severed heads here, rest easy. No one is living in the basement torturing people. Brad Pitt doesn’t pretend to be acting. Nothing like that. It’s just a smart, entertaining movie that perhaps isn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread but certainly checks the box for a fun evening of solid entertainment.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

This film is structured like a The Princess Bride for adults. Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is having apparitions in the most awkward of situations—though I imagine this circumstance would always be a bit unsettling. However, she’s a hard-nosed scientist, a PhD in Narratology (the study of the structure and function of stories) and on a lecture tour in Turkey. She doesn’t have time for ghosts…or ghost stories. She has read them all…in their original Greek. Except that a djinn named Djinn (Idris Elba) who she unwittingly releases from a bottle she picked up at the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, has other genie-like ideas. And since he manifests as a giant who takes up her entire hotel suite, he is a little hard to ignore. Djinn’s stories include battle scenes, castle intrigue, a dash of Orientalism and some humor based on corpulent people — I mean laugh out loud, squirm in your seat humor. The film is entertaining. It’s frankly a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be. It’s also expertly directed by George Miller, who you know from the Mad Max films and Babe: Pig in the City.

There are some plot elements that are obvious and telegraphed but the point of the film is the journey and the theme. The theme being, not dissimilar from Life of Pi. That a world culture that has given up on myths, stories and legends, will be quite a sterile, ignorant and terrified one. There is another great scene with Dr. Binnie’s xenophobic neighbors. An elderly female couple. It’s not clear what their relationship is to one another but in the vein of The Muppet Show’s Statler and Waldorf they are disturbingly hilarious balcony dwelling trolls. One of the zingers from this geriatric set include calling the good Dr. a fuckface, which puts a comedic point on their true character. 

On the whole, I was surprised and impressed with Three Thousand Years of Longing. I can’t tell whether it is that it’s such a great movie, but considering the absolute dogs, like Bullet Train to name one, that we have been subjecting ourselves to, I found it an intelligent, funny and welcome reprieve. 

Breaking

Executive Producer and Actor John Boyega, of Star Wars sequel trilogy fame, gives a strong performance as Brian Brown-Easly, an Iraq war veteran who is suffering from PTSD. Lance Cpl. Easly is apparently not taking his medication and like many, does not have the financial, legal or emotional tools to deal with the injustice he is facing at the Veterans Administration. The film is based on a true story. And according to the credits, to this day the VA still owes him $892 dollars and an apology for siphoning this sum from his Wells Fargo account. 

There are times when I wonder why a film got a green light to be produced. Usually though, this thought is triggered by a bloated Hollywood production where the actors are just phoning it in and having what feels like an elaborate inside joke. Here, it’s the opposite, a long list of no doubt earnest Executive Producers couldn’t catch the obvious or speak truth to power — the film is too literal, there is no strong foil, there is no real conflict, therefore this is no enduring drama that can sustain itself for 100 minutes.  No there, there.

The classic heist film like Dog Day Afternoon was also based on a true story but you’d be hard-pressed to forget Pacino outside the bank with a crowd of onlookers yelling, ”At-ti-ca!, At-ti-ca!”. A reference to the New York State prison and the riot that occurred there, which killed 43 people. This scene was improvised on the spot by Pacino. …It’s a movie. 

The filmmakers seem to want to stay as true to the real story as possible. In that case, this film should have been given to the immediate family as a gift and to the VA as a cautionary tale. But a movie audience expects and deserves more.  The filmmakers were trapped by the truth. That’s not something that is easily forgiven in a narrative film. 

The real difficulty here is that once Michael Kenneth Williams shows up, there is at least a modicum of possibility that this film will take off like a rocket. That all of the introspection and endless phone call scenes will simply be a setup for some spectacular, powerful, even funny action. But it never materializes. Even Kafka has a powerful ending in The Trial. In Breaking, it’s like watching a game winning pass drop out of a receivers hands in the end zone…in super slow motion. 

As for the late great Michael Kenneth Williams, even with both hands tied behind his back, he still lights up the screen and owns every scene he is in. It was like the filmmakers chose to overlook a diamond in a mine to stare instead into the abyss of an empty cinema. 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Is that the Metascore?

Where the Crawdads Sing ** I am guessng this is a pretty good book. I saw it on a list of great books for novice mystery readers, possibly because this isn’t a conventional mystery, so I thought I would round up the gang and see it. The biggest mystery of the night turns out not to be the who done it, but rather was that really only two hours and five minutes? Ugh.

I like this movie a little more upon reflection than I liked it watching it. The acting is pretty stellar, I think, and the movie is beautiful. That said, it was painful to sit through. If you are looking for insight above what you might get on the Hallmark channel, you will have to look elsewhere. So with all this had potentially going for it, I am going to lay the blame on the script and the director for not tightening this up. Metascore 47 and should sink from there.

Small Town Wisconsin v. The Metascore

L&D haven’t quite regained our stride yet in churning out the reviews with all the triathloning and assorted world travleing, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t kept our stride in hitting the theater. But it seems that the disconnect between what we are seeing on the screen and what the Metacritics are telling us seems to be growing more acute. So here is the &D-half of a bundle of recent films for your consideration.

Downton Abbey: A New Era **  What information does a Metactric score of 63 convey here? Not much, unfortunately. Most of the reviews emphasize how “fans of the series” might enjoy the pomp and the camp and the big clothing budget and the French countryside. Fan or not, this production in no way threatens to turn into a good movie. If you are familiar with the series, this is watchable. If not, forget it. Dominic West as the dashing Guy Dexter warrants an extra half star.

Hustle **½ A straight-to-Netflix production with Adam Sandler as a basketball scout that travels the globe looking for the uncut gems of the basketball world. You know that guy you play noon-ball with? With a little roadwork and some helpful tips from Adam Sandler, he could be playing for the Celtics! This one answers the question of how many cameos and popular-culture references can you jam into 100 minues and still call it a movie? Answer: Quite a lot. An entertaining movie, but not a terribly tight or believable script. The best part for me is that Sandler does an excellent job portraying someone who is trying to be funny but isn’t. Metascore of 68 is generous, with 10-15 of those points undoubtedly coming in garbage time, so to speak.

Eiffel *** This is a nice contrast to the Downton Abbey reviews, with a lowly 46 for its Metascore. This one also features remarkable production values and some pretty impressive feats of strength as the eponymous tower goes up. The storyline is improbable and at times problematic, and the movie had some pacing problems in its second half, but this is a solid effort that is quite a bit better than Downton Abbey goes to France. C’iest la vie.

Elvis **½ An ambitious three-hour long spectacle that tries to do ten things and does two or three of them well. Austin Butler in the lead role has some super great moments, and the first Vegas show is awesome. But what you learn here is that the film makers either don’t know too much about Elvis or they don’t want you to know because that would ruin their film. Tom Hanks as the Colonel is easily the worst thing about this movie. Whose idea was that? Overall, you will probably like this so I recommend that you go see it. If you have a thing for big-budget music vidoes, you should definitely go see it. Even so, Metascore of 64 is pushing it.

Top Gun: Maverick *** This is approximately as good as the original in my estimation, and it works as a stand-alone project. Very loud and very serviceable action. Bump it a down a half star if Tom Cruise is a distraction for you. Metascore of 78 is generous, but not egrigious.

Thor: Love and Thunder *½  On the plus side, Christian Bale is a pretty good villian and Russell Crowe has a moment or two as the Big Guy. Oh, Matt Damon, that is kind of amusing. On the negative side, pretty much everything else. I got up in the middle to do my business and Dr. B was worried that I was walking out of the movie and abandoning him. Metascore of 60 is at least 20 points too high.

Small Town Wisconsin *** In what is not exactly a love letter to his home state, director Niells Mueller characterizes working-class rural America (focusing on a twenty-mile permimeter in and around Milwaukee). The New York Times is the only source to weigh in at Metactric, concluding that the film “is not sufficiently distinctive to rise above the standard-issue cinematic contemplation of the arguably poignant state of the white male American screw-up.” Screw up isn’t a terribly sympathetic description of a main character who is a second-generation (at least) alcoholic and child-abuse victim, but there you have it. The Metascore is 60, and I think that’s probably about right.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Another awesome guest review from artist & friend of the L&D Report, the ever-esteemed, Joanna K. Dane.

What a delight to see at the theater, a movie as odd and daring as Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

First, there’s Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, a woman caught in a mid-life rut of hard work, high expectations, and daily proof that her husband is silly and useless; her daughter, endlessly difficult.  How did she turn out to be such an ordinary woman, washing other people’s clothes, after so many big dreams?  A failure, just like her father says.

Here she is at the dining room table, worrying over stacks of receipts. Not only is their struggling laundromat being audited by the IRS, but Evelyn’s father is visiting from China, and her daughter has just arrived home from college with her new girlfriend. 

Evelyn needs to focus, but she has a spitting headache and keeps getting distracted by very odd visions.

Haha!  It’s Jamie Lee Curtis playing the evil tax auditor who wears orange polyester suits that highlight her belly fat.    

Evelyn’s husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan is mousy and silly and sweet.  In this universe.  But in another, the universe where they didn’t get married, but went their separate ways, he is suave and rich and charming.  

But Evelyn’s journey is so much more than a marriage story.  There’s the universe where she is a chef with a chef who wears a raccoon under his hat.  There’s a universe where she is a kung fu master.  A universe where she is traffic cop.  A universe where she is a maid for a sleaze bag who’s into S&M, a universe where people have giant hotdogs for fingers and Evelyn and the tax auditor are lovers.  And her favorite universe, where she is a world famous singer.

It’s a mother/daughter story and a father/daughter story, and a story that blurs the line between dream and reality, between failure and success.  It is a kung fu story and a story about the nature of our minds.  It’s a movie that breathes and dances and pulses with life.  A dazzling feat of editing and sound.

And there’s the realization that Nothing Matters.  And the black hole that’s shaped like an everything bagel.  And the fanny pack kung fu scene in the IRS office.  And the dazzling costumes worn by Stephanie Hsu playing Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy, who, it turns out, is also the villain of the multiverse. 

And the line, “I would have loved to have spent a life with you doing laundry and taxes.”

And there’s the long silent scene where mother and daughter are rocks in a lifeless universe.  

A scene so long, you start to wonder, is it going to end like this?

The Northman

As a survey of both sub-genres in Nordic Death Metal, “OOHHHHHH!!!!!!” and “AAHHHHHH!!!!!!” this film is a cultural tour de force. Otherwise, it’s just a load of macho bullshit. 

Maybe you don’t like hearing that? Maybe you lose sleep thinking about free will and fate, nature versus nurture, Big Mac versus Whopper. If so, and you don’t mind or maybe even love the idea of sitting through 5 beheadings — albeit two are horses — then this movie is right up your alley. 

Maybe it’s your idea of a good time to check out Willem Dafoe wielding a strap-on? Okay. No judgement here. Or you love Björk’s acting (for 10 minutes). Or maybe you haven’t had enough dudity in your life recently. Though there is a thing called the internet that would save you the two hours and seventeen minutes of sitting through this, for that. 

Apparently a few so-called critics are saying the movie is great because it makes Shakespearean connections. …Shakespearean connections. That’s about as profound as saying you noticed that cars have wheels. Every piece of Western literature, including the menu at Norm’s Diner, owes its life to Shakespeare.

Alas, the boneless pork chop / the weak, weak coffee.

It’s all there. 

Now this film, The Northman, is essentially a cross between Midsommar and Conan the Barbarian. However, it’s not as psychologically mind-fucking as the former or as compelling as the latter. It’s certainly not original. Even hallucinogenic mushrooms were more creatively deployed during the Phantom Thread.  The weird thing is that I actually enjoyed ACT I and thought Ethan Hawke played a believable King. Then everything unravelled, like a roller coaster that descends as slowly as it peaked.  

I picked up a book called Italian Folktales recently. It is edited by a writer I love, Italo Calvino. I couldn’t get past the first story. It was simply too absurd. It could be me or as I said, it could just be a bunch of macho bullshit. AAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! OOHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

CODA

I watched most of CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) with a lump in my throat. It’s such a moving and emotional work and such a genuinely funny one at that. 

I could tell the people next to me where crying (No, not D and Dr. B…the people to my other side) and that was totally understandable. 

Even though there is an obvious ending it’s really not about the destination at all. The journey there is so profound and harrowing for Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) that you get lost with her at every twist and turn. 

The role of Ruby’s dad, Frank, is played so utterly humanly by Troy Kotsur it also garnered him an Oscar, along with this film for Best Picture. Again, I’d emphasize the humor in this film.  It’s not above a good fart joke. Or Tinder joke for that matter. As much as you’re rooting for, hoping and getting caught up in the raucousness of this family, you are laughing along with them the whole way. 

Eugenio Derbez gives a multi-layered turn as Choir Master Bernardo Villalobos. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin also stars with a strong performance as the mom, Jackie. 

It’s one of those films that makes you think about life, how you got where you are and how great a privilege it is to struggle. It transcends the screen and I highly recommend it.