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. 

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.

A Wenders Journey — Essay

As the 1960s dragged on in divided Germany, conventional movies, American imports and porn were the only products you could find to watch in the cinemas of the West. Many movie theaters simply shut down. To the rescue of this sad state of affairs came a group of young independent filmmakers whose movement became known as New German Cinema. Its manifesto reads, “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” 

The two most famous and internationally successful Directors to come from this movement are Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.  With Wenders, it’s not so much that his worldview is borderless but rather that he absorbs and elevates each country he is filming in. He holds these diverse cultures and peoples to be equal. In these times of over the top nationalist sentiment, it’s a powerful message. But it’s not overtly political. His cinema is one of travel and discovery. Of movement above all. Trains, planes, automobiles, cable cars, boats…whatever it takes to keep the characters literally moving. And if they are not moving, they are sleeping, restlessly, somewhere on the road. Or trying to kill a mosquito in the night or actually killing a TV set in a hotel room.

Which brings me to another aspect of Wenders’ cinema. A respect for and acknowledgment of making the images themselves. Whether Polaroid, Hi8 video or using a Bolex. Telling stories cinematically is what matters most to him. A recurring theme is the cultural importance of image making. “You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity. That’s why you always need proof, proof that you still exist. And that’s why you keep taking those photos.” — From Alice in the Cities

When a Wim Wenders film starts, there is a sort of transportation that also happens within me. Wherever he is going, the intention of a Wenders film is to take us all along for the journey. 

A special treat for the cinephile are the many Director’s commentaries that can be found on Wenders’ DVDs. These commentaries were made often 20 years after production, during the release of restored versions of his films. You can really feel the depth of his desire to use movies as not just a form of expression for himself but as a way to bring us all out of our shells and into the entire world with him. 

— If you’d like to get out of your shell in Appleton, Wisconsin, the next (and final!) installment of The 602 Club Wenders Series is Saturday, March 5th. I’ll be screening 1994’s Lisbon Story, which I mail-ordered from Korea, with a proper glass of port. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley brings the star power: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe…I could go on.  And in Act I, it does a great job creating dramatic tension, with an intensely cinematic take on a Midwest carnival in 1941. A circus where side shows are the main event and the animals are human. This part of the film wonderfully weaves directing, acting, screenwriting, art direction, cinematography, hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects — the whole shebang —into an intriguing portrait. The homages fly: Days of Heaven, Strangers on a Train, La Strada, Wings of Desire…and yet it also seems all its own.  

But then ACT II happens, and the waves of tension and intrigue flatline. 

By ACT III the film is a mockery of itself and a bathroom break is in order. 

This is the 5th year of the LnD Report and if you look through the archive you’ll find many circumstances where the sum of its impressive parts didn’t achieve the total of a great film. What went sideways in Nightmare Alley? As D pointed out, the foil is not strong enough, particularly in terms of motivation. Also, by the time of the denouement, there are no characters for the audience to care about. The most interesting characters are left far behind. As one example, Willem Dafoe has more of an opportunity to show his dramatic range in Spider-Man: No Way Home, than he has playing Clem Hoatley, the carnival boss and geek wrangler in Nightmare Alley

According to our friend F, the 1946 novel is much better. So that would be worth checking out. I was also reminded of a great title I read in a previous life, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Or simply pop in a DVD, Blu-ray or stream Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, Freaks, if you are jonesing for an emotional carnival drama.