Reminiscence + The Protégé

These films both held a lot of promise but ultimately illustrate the idea that sometimes the sum of a film is not greater than its parts. If you had a recipe like: one part Hugh Jackman, one part Steampunk art direction, one part underwater fight scene — instant hit, that’s what you’d get. It’s not lost on me that a film called reminiscence, which includes all these ingredients, will soon be forgotten. 

Reminiscence, which features spectacular special effects of a not-too-distant future where cities are half-submerged in water, lags due to the self-indulgent and confused tone of the story. It’s a dystopian action/comedy/romance/thriller/sci-fi — and none of these. It also needed to be at least 30 minutes shorter. I held in check the urge to walk out. And I’m the type of person who would enjoy watching a film where grass grows. It pushed my patience as the director followed up every loose strand and tacked on egregious monologues regarding Greek mythology. Not necessary. As was the constant voice over narration by Jackman. It became an almost instant parody unfolding in real time before me. A disappointing experience. 

The Protégé at least had some interesting fun and games involving the incomparable Michael Keaton and the talented Maggie Q.  Though at some point in this film it becomes apparent that the story hinges on an absurd fantasy that Maggie Q’s character, the take-no-prisoners fighter and intellectual Anna, would be interested in Keaton’s Rembrandt, who seems to be wearing an ascot. That’s when you realize it’s a story tailored for old guys though ostensibly featuring a strong female lead. The fight scenes with Keaton and whoever his stunt double is were ridiculous. On the other hand, the Maggie Q action sequences where on par with Die Hard and fun to watch. The film goes off the rails with a shark jump to rival the original shark jump of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s. And Act III becomes predictable, preachy, involves gratuitous violence and is irrelevant. The filmmakers let this one slip through their hands and there was nothing that the great acting of Samuel L. Jackson could do to save it. Another bummer. 

In this latest batch of releases I would recommend Free Guy for a fun action film. For a strong drama, look to Stillwater, where I think Matt Damon deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Free Guy

I just played a game of online Asteroids to warm up for this review. It was on the Atari site and sponsored by AARP. Free Guy is a film that will either appeal to the 14 year old in you or your actual 14 year old. It’s a cross between Her, War Games and It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is loud and brash and original if not in plot, then at least in the graphics department (excluding the direct but well-timed references to Star Wars and Marvel) since it is not based on an existing game —or even amusement park ride!

The film doesn’t really poke fun at itself in the sense of breaking the fourth wall. However, it does have a point to make about breaking out of how you think your life is supposed to be. This theme will be obvious to those of us who know what AARP stands for but I think it’s a good message for people of any age.

Speaking of graphics, the special effects were flawless and fun.  If you are the type of person who finds yourself playing a video game and trying to say, land a fighter plane on the Golden Gate Bridge…or figure out where the edge of the simulated environment is…and try to hack it, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The other interesting aspect for those who get into metaphysics and ontology…when is something real? If an AI character is evolving on its own and believes it is feeling, is it feeling? This question motivates Act III and is covered specifically by the NPCs (non-player characters) themselves in a strong scene between Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy and Lil Rel Howery’s Buddy the security guard.

This isn’t a totally dude-centric film either (though there is a very big dude in it). There is a strong female character, Molotov Girl, played convincingly by Jodie Comer. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, this time as producer and star, is able to unleash every facial expression imaginable. Overall, this film certainly had its moments and I enjoyed it.

Stillwater

I might be late to the party but Matt Damon is a great actor. I think anyone could do the Bourne Identity stuff. Is that even acting? That’s a lot of hours in the gym so you can look like your stunt double. But Stillwater. That’s acting. The story does get trying at times. Forced suspense that carries on for too long. But there are more times where you find yourself asking, “Where is this going?”, in a good way.  The character of Virginie, played by Camille Cottin, who was outstanding in the Netflix series, “Call Your Agent!”, was a strong counterpoint and anchor Damon’s character Bill. But the scenes of Bill and Virginie’s child Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) goofing around, sharing language and advices and just playing the roles of a parent and child, absolutely stole the movie. They weren’t cliched scenes. They were real life and funny. Bittersweet really.

Which is how I would characterize this film. The characters are all flawed, very human. And even if the story twists seem improbable at times, the feeling of the place, in this case Marseille, and the everyday lives of the characters come to life. You can imagine yourself there. You can understand why the “fuck-up” can’t stop being one, though he is trying everything he absolutely can not to be. You can understand the philosophy of acceptance that the character of Allison (Abigail Breslin), tries to explain to her Dad from behind bars.  “It’s not about justice, it’s about peace.” 

I was surprised at the complexity in the story and of the characters, the humor in the film and the drama. A trip to Stillwater is definitely thought provoking and time well spent. 

An Origin Ride

Black Widow is fun ride. Maybe like the new riverboat movie, Jungle Cruise, it will become an actual ride at Disneyland. But unlike that ride, I mean movie, it wasn’t a ride first. In any case, Black Widow boasts strong leading performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) and excellent action. The story includes women who kick ass all over the place and the highest caliber production value — except for the scene with the jail and even the avalanche stolen from War for the Planet of the Apes. They could have tried harder there. 

But it’s one of those kick up your feet, eat your popcorn, turn off your brain blockbuster summer movies. Another 200 million plus budget movie that will return over 500 million most likely. And it needs to. There were more plasterers listed in the credits than…than…you get it, they hired plasterers. 

This film did have a heart, did deal with family dynamics, with ethics and loyalty, with friendship. And had a sense of humor. All those good things. So it delivered on what you would expect, massive explosions for example and then some. Also, it’s simultaneously streaming on Disney+ but it’s a big movie that deserves a big screen.  

Floridian Inferno

Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm. 

What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?

I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way. 

I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound

Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.  

Rafiki

This is a great film, originally banned in Kenya and only released after my UCLA Film School friend, and Director of this film, Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government. According to Wikipedia, “On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film.” I was able to check this out at my local library here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s also available on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Showtime. It’s a great story, with Capulet and Montague overtones and a scene reminiscent of a film that recently blew me away, David Lean’s, Ryan’s Daughter. There is a truly indelible, good natured human spirit that runs through this film and I highly recommend it to you.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

What makes a terrible movie terrible? Gratuitous violence? Maybe. One dimensional characters? Yes. Absurd situations like…the escape boat at the end of a dock? Again? …And again? Umm humm. Bulgaria? Check. Knockoff 007 storyline? Certainly doesn’t help. A Director who doesn’t know the actor can’t pronounce Fugazi? Likely. Great actors cashing checks for skating by?

The saddest part, feeding the movie making machine when it would be more interesting to just hear what those same great actors would have to say if you were having dinner with them at a restaurant? The truth from D. …I think perhaps it’s the sum of these with apologies to Bulgaria. I’m sure it’s a lovely place. Oh and I laughed a lot but maybe it was a laugh to keep from crying type of laugh. Or maybe the movies, like most of us at this moment, are just rusty in so many ways?

In any case, I’m looking forward to a real movie by Reynolds, Hayek, Jackson &/or Banderas in the near future. This one will be utterly forgotten. However, there were a couple of references to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s “minor masterpiece,” Overboard (1987), which I’d like to check out.  Even a terrible movie, like a broken clock, is right twice a day. 

Operatic Pulp

I don’t doubt that Jason Statham can dramatically act but it’s unlikely we will ever find out. He can however do action and in Wrath of Man he does it well. There are several things I like about this picture starting with the language. It’s a sort of flowery almost screwball comedy prose. A cross between Shakespearean iambic pentameter and a dirty limerick you’ve heard a thousand times. Similarly, we have all seen this movie plot many times before. I know D however missed the usual Ritchie humor. Though maybe Guy Ritchie felt like there was nothing to laugh about when he directed this film, based on another film, Le Convoyeur (2004). Yes, Wrath of Man is a remake.

Once again, the action is done well. There are enough characters and drama to keep you going. And even though there are various plot flaws, inconsistencies and minor characters that are crowbarred into the narrative, I still commend Director Guy Ritchie for at least trying to prop up action with some character development and dimension. It’s easy enough to suspend disbelief when you need to.

Unlike in a movie like Drive, which promises action but just lays the beauty shots on you. Wrath does deliver the action — and with some feeling. Downtown LA plays a major role in the film. Of course it’s darker than a Raymond Chandler fever dream but, again, without the relief of Chandleresque zingers. Can a place running amok in YSL knockoff handbags really be that bad?

The white text on a black screen chapter titles may be the most intriguing part of the movie. Along with a score that includes Wagner and Johnny Cash. 

Ultimately if you’d like to watch a good heist or action film on the big screen, this one will work for you. On the other hand, this film will be streaming for a reasonable price, if not become a free offering on Amazon Prime, soon enough. 

Cruella Duella

As the Assistant Directors like to say after lunch on set: “We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!, We’re Baaaack!” 

But hopefully you’re happier to hear that than the crew. …We are. 

Cruella stars Emma Stone who we’ve seen convincingly blast zombies, work her way up the royal hierarchy and dance on LA freeways. In this role she kicks ass and takes no prisoners (sans three Dalmatians). One of the best things I can say about this movie is that it almost —almost!— doesn’t feel like a an overproduced Disney picture. To give you an idea, the budget on this production is larger than the GDP of several nations. Yes, they are all small Pacific island nations but nations with a seat at the UN nevertheless. At one point, a great daybreak shot with Cruella jetting on a scooter she just jacked, the film almost takes on the flavor of the DC Comics universe (which is owned by Time-Warner who is owned by AT&T, not Disney). And Emma Stone is so good (I refuse to gush about her like I always do). She simply elevates any film she is in. She brings it. I truly wonder what role she would love to play if given the opportunity. Maybe it will be the next movie she produces.  

So it feels like a pretty grown-up film, for a kids film. The production value is absolutely off the charts. And an army of people did amazing work on this technically flawless show. 

There are a few cool story twists. One in particular that I won’t name involves things that fly. And there is also a great supporting acting. In particular the performance of Paul Walter Hauser who also shined in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell”. Emma Thompson held her own as Cruella’s foil. The casting and performances were top-notch across-the-board.

The soundtrack was amazing. I think it may be the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a movie, with plenty of deep tracks from the likes of Queen, Nina Simone and Tina Turner. At least the best since Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.  D turned to me and said he would be playing the soundtrack at work tomorrow.

Ultimately this film is all about style, StYlE. STYLE!!! —And it does that well. The plot is absurd and predictable but there are also enough cool twists to keep you interested. Overall, Cruella was an entertaining, check your brain at the door movie and a lot of fun. 

Mank

With a David Fincher movie, you know you are going to see a well crafted work of art at the highest standards of the cinematic craft. Fincher himself championed (the rumor was part-owned) one of the first cinema grade digital cameras, the Viper, which was groundbreaking back in the aughts. With Mank, I’d also congratulate Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on some exquisite and indelible images. If you’ve ever been up to Hearst Castle for a visit and imagined what the grounds must have been like back in the days when Chaplin was a regular house guest and tickling the ivories after dinner, this film will give you some idea. Famously, newspaper mogul W.R. Hearst kept a menagerie including escaped zebras that still roam San Simeon to this day. In short, it’s really a beautiful movie. 

Gary Oldman is transcendent in the role. He becomes Mank in a way that we will forever associate with someone who we hadn’t really thought that deeply about before. It’s a profound performance in its subtlety. He takes on a character under all kinds of pressure and brings levity and in turn empathy from the audience. Gary Oldman is someone else who merits our high expectations.

Perhaps oddly, Citizen Kane, the film that this one revolves around, though drummed into my brain in the countless film classes I’ve taken — and the subsequent passing on of such drumming to my own film students — has never really spoken to me. I’d rather curl up to say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Strangers on a Train. If I’m supposed to go crazy for deep focus shots, there is always Ozu (Master Japanese Director, not Greek alcohol, though I’m sure there’s an argument that can be made.)

What does strike me about Mank and Kane are the close-ups. As was done with great precision and emotional effect by Director Neil Butler in this years’ fabulous short, “Herzog & Morris”, the extreme close-up can work like a  punctuation mark on an island all its own. Editorially, it doesn’t have to graphically match on action, it doesn’t have to flow seamlessly from the previous or following shot. It can just be there saying, check me out.! Just like that.

The genius here is the threading of these purely cinematic punctuations within the great theatre that, in this case Gary Oldman, brings to the role of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, a mensch who saved an entire town from the Nazi’s but is himself drowning from the bottle. In real life, he would die the year after writing the script for Citizen Kane. The film also gets into his battles with Meyer, his employer and unscrupulous if not downright evil head of MGM. Though Meyer, Wells and Hearst for that matter, are painted in caricature in order to focus more on the relationship between Mank and Hearst’s mistress, the Brooklyn actress and future philanthropist, Marion Davies, played convincingly by Amanda Seyfried.

The film also takes a stab at the sociopolitical milieu and the crushing hand of the studio and dominant political class. These sub-plots work in the sense that we can get to know Mank better in relief; as a man with a conscience, a backbone, a gift for storytelling and ultimately a disease that he couldn’t escape. 

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend this adventure and if you don’t, I’m sure that this title will find its way to your library’s shelves or streaming service soon enough.