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.

Liquid Sky

A friend recently sent a letter via snail mail to ask my opinion of a NYC 80s cult classic titled, Liquid Sky

I couldn’t find Liquid Sky in the fantastic collection at my local library (APL I’m lookin’ at you!) and was feeling stumped. So I asked another friend who happened to have been a NYC filmmaker for quite a few years and might have some insight for me. She tracked it down on the Dark Web, a place called…YouTube. 

Liquid Sky refers to heroin and this opiate takes center stage in the drama. Apparently, the unseen aliens who zap anyone reaching orgasmic ecstasy within range of the saucer they have landed on the protagonists’ downtown penthouse are into any type of endorphin rush. 

The odd part of this at times difficult film (you have to pay attention to keep up with the patchwork plot) is that it’s not a celebration of Bacchanalia or the hedonism of late 70s & early 80s NYC New Wave/No Wave culture. I’m not sure if the death by sex theme here, a mainstay of any slasher movie you’ve ever seen, is not simply a moralistic take by the producer/director and writers. (This 1982 film is pre-HIV/AIDS hysteria as revealed by one character who references that she might get syphilis —as a worse case scenario). Is it merely a critique of American society by the Russian filmmakers, using as a cultural trojan horse the ultrahip stylings of New Wave fashion and music and the general vibe of 80s underground New York City (of which I’m a sucker for). Certainly, it’s an intelligent film, under the far-fetched script and cheeseball special effects. And the bad guys (and a girl!) get what’s coming to them—or more accurately stated, what they are coming to.

I watched a film made this year called Execution, directed by Stavit Allweis, that was even more raw and had arguably even cheesier graphics. Basically it takes place in one room. The guys are rolled in one by one. Their heinous crimes against women are announced and they are killed before us in one way or another by a group of women. Not exactly a parable, as in Liquid Sky, but more honest in many ways. That is, if the point of Liquid Sky is revenge. I’m not exactly sure about the point. The more questions I seem to answer for myself, the more pop up. I know that the film is a kind of ethical minefield, with complicated and unsympathetic characters. I think Liquid Sky would certainly appeal to any nihilistic readers (or readers with nihilistic tendencies) of the L&D Report.

Another feature in Liquid Sky is the language. It’s got more blue streaks than a Midwest hair salon. The amount of F-bombs that get dropped would would make Tony Montana look up from a pile of blow. But it never seems inauthentic. It just seems New York. 

Anne Carlisle creates a stand out performance of both characters, Margaret and Jimmy. This rivaled, if not surpassed, Cate Blanchett’s double turn as Cate and grungy cousin Shelly in Coffee and Cigarettes.  

I certainly would drop Liquid Sky solidly in the NYC indie film, New Wave genre canon, along with Smithereens and Downtown 81. There’s hints of Scorsese’s After Hours and Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. There’s an air of Daryl Hannah’s Pris in Blade Runner. There’s the flair of David Bowie and there is a charge that’s reminiscent of Prince’s First Avenue in Purple Rain. Not even the film’s own disparaging take on the scene can erase or beam up the intrigue and excitement of that particular NYC zeitgeist. 

The Iron Lady & The Two Popes Walk Into a Bar: Thoughts on the Biopic

LnD not so recently experimented with the Netflix Party Chrome screen sharing extension. This really didn’t go anywhere as there was no one there in person to poke D awake, like there is in real life.

Since then I’ve learned that Netflix Party Chrome extension is most popular as a hack that kids use to thwart parental controls — cool! 

Once we got past the need to use an emphasis in the word biopic (/ˈbīōˌpik/) I was off to the races on my review. These two films include some high powered talent but only one hit the mark for me.

In The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict leave you with the feeling that they were both born to play these roles. 

But this is not your Dad’s Pope movie. And it’s not a simple good Pope vs. bad Pope story. The one major standout element of this film, besides the uncanny acting, is the scope and originality of the cinematography. 

If you’re settling in for a film where two dudes sit on a bench and have a theological conversation for two hours you are going to be sadly disappointed. Two Popes moves, even wide angle shots track, overhead shots go right through helicopter rotors and the torture scene will stand your hair up at attention. It’s not a movie about romanticizing the past but examining the current situation through it. 

On the other hand, The Iron Lady is a film where you never get away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The camera lingers on her. You start to wonder, who was the Director? Was Streep the Director? (No. No she wasn’t. (Phyllida Lloyd.) This isn’t some vanity piece. And Streep who no doubt uses an Oscar statuette as a toothbrush holder has got more chops than Chopin at an Austin BBQ. In fact, she slays in another Netflix film with Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, directed by Soderbergh, The Laundromat. But here, she never gets lost in the character and so we can never transcend her being her fabulous self. We can never really understand the complexities of the times and the struggles she may have had with her choices. (Yes, Streep won her, yawn, third Academy Award for this role).

You don’t have to agree with someone in order to find them interesting. Often, it’s quite the contrary. But The Iron Lady seems stuck in a debilitated present, that lacks movement, that lacks a living history—and motivation. If a film doesn’t offer the audience transcendence, even on a visceral level, the most basic level that cinema can give, then the audience will also never get perspective on either the historical figure as real person or their own lives in relation to that figure. 

In terms of biopic, it’s really a challenge to make a sweeping historical film meaningful. There are so many possible storytelling detours and dead ends. It’s easier and I’d argue more effective to take a situation, like in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “On the Basis of Sex” and turn your narrative around that. That film was about the late great Notorious RBG’s first time arguing a case in court as an attorney. And by concentrating on those specific events, the story speaks to universal truths. However, this is not to say a sweeping biopic can’t hit you hard or inspire you, because it’s achieved with aplomb and passion in The Two Popes

The Forty-Year-Old Version

A special guest review to the LnD Report by Joana Kosowsky Dane

After reading half a sentence about the film “40-Year-Old Version,” I knew I needed to see it.  

Radha Blank plays herself, missing her dead mother, unable to return her brother’s phone calls. She is chronically late to the after-school theatre class she teaches where one of the girls, frustrated with Miss B’s indifference to her heartfelt spoken word, calls her washed up, a fake. It stings more than the girl knows.  Radha had higher expectations for her art, no doubt.  Her name is on the 30 Under 30 Playwright’s Award that sits among the clutter on her dresser.  But now she’s 40, with that all-too-familiar reality facing aging artists: What do I have to show for this life I’ve lived?

Filmed in black and white, we follow Radha on a journey through New York – Harlem and the Bronx and a brief foray on Broadway – the camera in close, capturing all the details of her pain and her comedy.  She glances at the camera and we know exactly how she’s feeling about D, the guy who lays down beats for anyone willing to bring him a bag of weed; or about J. Whitman, a famous producer who is willing to give Radha a big break but only if she compromises the integrity of her play by turning the characters into racial stereotypes.  

What’s an aging artist to do?  

Interspersed are color photographs explaining years of back story in a single flash (like the one of Radha and her gay agent, dancing together at her high school prom); and postcard sized snippets of interviews with characters from the neighborhood giving blunt and hilarious commentary on Radha’s middle-aged life.  

She’s down, but not so far down that she can’t grasp inspiration when it strikes, rapping one afternoon about all the ailments that come with being 40.  “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why a young boy on the bus offer his seat to me? Why my skin so dry? Why am I yawning right now?  Why them AARP niggers sending shit to my house?” She catches the ear of the elusive D who invites her to perform her piece Poverty Porn at his next showcase.  She fails hard.  But we see what the past 10 years have taught her, a resilience that comes when an artist keeps creating despite being crushed and ignored.  

D takes her on a long drive, to a Queen of the Ring competition where 4 women battle with their rhymes in a stark boxing ring.  Radha is awed by their raw power and their courage.  They show her how it’s done, and in turn, she shows us.  Keep doing, stay brave. 

Radha goes to see her brother.  Trying to figure out what to do with one of their mom’s numerous paintings that neither have room for, her brother says it will just have to go into storage.  “Wow. You come here with a dream, and your work ends up in storage,” says Radha, a pitiful conclusion to an artist’s life.  Her brother sees it differently.  “She did what she wanted. She was a teacher, a curator.  She chanted, she traveled, she did some art.  She lived a life.”  Her children, their mother always said, were her greatest creation.

Radha realizes the reward is not in the big production, but in the much smaller daily task of staying true to her art.  And when she does, she wins the admiration of her theatre students, though she won the viewers’ admiration long before that.