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.

The Batman

What the hell was that?

The question constitutes the quick take from our L&D special guest, who joined us for the world premier of The Batman Thursday evening.

My answer? That was a limited Netflix-type series condensed down into three hours and change. There are clearly four or five separate episodes here, replete with the cuts between ‘episodes.’ Indeed, at one point I thought the movie might be over, it had that natural break feel about it. But, after lingering a beat or two, we moved on.

I am endorsing this one because there was so much I enjoyed about it and I will enjoy discussing it with other Bat-fans. For example, I liked how the entire musical score is built around Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” (which serves to tell you pretty much all you need to know about the mood of this one). I loved Robert Pattinson in the leading role; he put the goth in Gotham, for sure. Now there’s a Dark and gloomy Knight for you! There was good action throughout, including the sequence where muzzle flash provided the only light. And a great car chase!

But the verdict is that this is a case of trying to do too much and, as a result, not doing enough things well, and leaving too many things undone. Case in point, there is a great To Live and Die in LA chase sequence, but why were they even chasing him? What was the payoff? (Those familiar with the White Knight story arc should certainly see my point here). The purpose was that they needed to introduce the Batmobile (I doubt that constitutes a spoiler). Yes, following the chase there was a pretty fun back and forth with Gordon and The Batman here during the grilling, but ultimately this defied credulity even moreso than usual.

But my biggest gripe is certainly that the writers grossly overestimated the payoff from their “big” plot reveals. I am not sure exactly how we were supposed to respond when that news came out, but my response was: Yawn! I saw that movie already! So pretty disappointing on that front, pretty good story, not a great story.

Plenty of starpower, including Peter Sarsgsaard, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell. That’s a lot of characters to introduce, develop, and complete a story arc on. The Batman doesn’t, and couldn’t, without another few hours of exposition. I listed the actors in descending order of how I thought of whether the character worked, from Sarsgaard as the DA to Farrell as a pretty forgetable Penguin. What a waste of makeup and acting talent (though I am definitely the minority view on this assessment). Kravitz as Catwoman is certainly remarkable in the true sense of that term. Another something to chat about on the ride home. I thought Dano was good in spots as the Riddler, but, meh.

So, there you have it, a dark, brooding eight hours of entertainment mushed down to three. If you go to these types of movies, you will almost certainly find something to like. But this feels more like The Dark Knight Rises than The Dark Knight in terms of the overall quality and payoff. It’s going to be in theaters for a while, so you’ll have plenty of time if you want to see this one.

Jackass, Forever

He is no hero who never met the dragon… Only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure is hard to attain.”

That’s Carl Jung, of course, but it may as well have been said by Johnny Knoxville, the long-time ringleader and curator of the improbable but unmistakable Jackass serial.

Knoxville and his dragon-facing gang are all back, older, no wiser, and seemingly more willing than ever to put their testicles on the line for the cause. The entry fee to be part of this team is to take some gratuitous punishment — preferably to the greater genital region — and then writhe in pain whilst your brethren bust a gut laughing at you &/or adding further insult to your injury.

And often more injury to your injury, as well.

Knoxville, of course, is the mastermind who dupes, defiles, and degrades his merry gang of ostenstibly trained stuntpersons (what sort of training do you suppose one receives for bellyflopping into a cactus garden?), making him seem rather demented and sadistic. But it is Knoxville himself who stands tall in the path of a raging bull, unflinchngly taking its best shot.

And then he does it again because he didn’t quite get the right angle on the first take.

Remarkably, the series doesn’t seem to be running out of ideas — or perhaps it is not so remarkable, opportunities to be a jackass are pretty bountiful! But they do it so, so well! Something as simple as donning marching band attire and dutifully stepping on a high-speed conveyer belt is a recipe that continues to deliver low-brow, low-tech, high-impact laughs.

Not from me, of course, but these antics do seem to tickle L’s funnybone.

Jackass, Forever also adds some new faces here, too, faces willing to take a scorpion stinger or a couple of snake bites for a laugh. That’s the price of admission to be part of this group.

As per always, some of the most hilarious segments involve misdirection: the guy steeling himself to take a hockey puck to the crotchal area, but instead the first shot goes to the face. That’s pretty high comedy. The subsequent cupshot is almost beside the point.

But we’ll take it anyway.

That is, he’ll take it anyway.

The French Dispatch

Image
Panama Al Brown, Paris, 1935

The new Wes Andersen film, The French Dispatch, finally made its way to the greater “north”east Wisconsin area, and D and Dr. B were able to catch it in some of its glory. If you are a Wes Andersen fan, it is highly likely that you have already seen the movie and you are busy gushing about it to someone.

If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you should. The movie is incredible. The level of detail and all of those Andersen touches in set after set is almost incomprehensible. And the star power of the cast is almost hard to believe — there are not too many new faces in this one because evidently there are lots and lots of old faces who are crawling over one another to work with Andersen, including Appleton’s own Willem Defoe! And The Fonz! And, off the top of my head, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Scwartzman, Griffin Dunne, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, that guy from Dune, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, and, of course, Bill Murray.

Oh, right, and Ed Norton. Ed Norton! He gets roughly 45 seconds of screen time, sure, but it’s Ed Norton!

The great sets and great acting and solid storytelling notwithstanding, the movie still did not quite sit well with me. So I swapped notes with an L&D regular who found the movie “oddly boring.” That is exactly how I felt. I liked the first story well enough(Benicio del Toro dominates!), but by the end of the second story I was kind of not looking forward to the third story. And by minute 90 I was impatiently awaiting the credits to get an accounting of all the star power herein.

The credits came, and I will say my experience with the credits is probably an apt summation of my feelings about the movie. For each of the stories the cast flashed on the screen alongside a putative cover of The French Dispatch, but there wasn’t enough time to examine the characters and to digest the cover. And if you pick just one, you still don’t have enough time to take in what’s going on. There is 110 minutes of that.

This is all by design, of course. As French Dispatch editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., (Bill Murray) continually reminds his writers, in what I take to be the thesis of the movie: “Just Try To Make It Sound Like You Wrote It That Way On Purpose.”

And those writers, of course, are proxies for writers for The New Yorker magazine, which the movie is an extended homage to. Not coincidentally, the credits slow down as Andersen lists the dozen or so New Yorker greats from back in the day that he dedicates the movie to.

One of those writers, A.J. Liebling, is an iconic boxing writing, and his prose is instrcutive. Liebling opens his classic, The Sweet Science, with this advice on attending a fight:

If you go to a fight with a friend, you can keep up unilateral conversations on two vocal levels — one at the top of your voice, directed at your fighter, and the other a running expertise nominally aimed at your companion but loud enough to reach a modest fifteen feet in each direction.

Let me ask you this, is that the guy you want sitting in your section?

Liebeling gives us an example of how a (self-proclaimed) expert might go about this:

“Reminds me of Panama Al Brown,” you may say as a new fighter enters the ring. “He was five feet eleven and weighted a hundred and eighteen pounds. This fellow may be about forty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter, but he’s got the same kind of neck. I saw Brown box a fellow name Mascart in Paris in 1927. Guy stood up in the top gallery and threw an apple and hit Brown right on the top of the head. The whole house started yelling “Finish him, Mascart! He’s groggy!'” Then, as the bout begins, “Boxes like Al, too, except this fellow’s a southpaw.” If he wins you say, “I told you he reminded me of Al Brown,” and if he loses, “Well, well, I guess he’s no Al Brown. They don’t make fighters like Al any more.”

There is a lot of amusing stuff in there, yes. But to what end?

This identifies you as a man who (a) has been in Paris, (b) has been going to fights for a long time, and (c) therefore enjoys what the fellows who write for quarterlies call a frame of reference.

A frame of reference, indeed, but perhaps not the most humble one. The medium is the message. In The French Dispatch Andersen doesn’t just approve of this, he venerates it. Indeed, he adopts it. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of 110 minutes of Panama Al Brown references. Just because the loudmouth at the game knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t mean he’s not annoying.

Still, this is an exceptional piece of work that is well above the $5 bar and is certainly one of the better movies you will see this year — the production values, the attention to detail in the set pieces, the stories, the acting, it’s all there. So when it’s all said and done you can pick up the BluRay and start dissecting it with the extended Andersen fanbase. Or you can, as my friend reports, go home and watch The Budapest Hotel.

“Now that’s a great movie!”

Lamb

Lamb A24 movie

Man versus Man. Man versus Nature. Shepherds and sheep. Live-action deliveries. Isaac and Abraham. 80s pop. At least four of the Ten Commandments, especially the tenth. Wrath of God. Wrath of Lamb. This film has it all.

Noomi Raplace (of Girl with the... fame) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason (I had to look up the spelling) carry heavy loads as the leads in a film where sheep outnumber humans by a pretty wide margin. As for Raplace and Guðnason, they play a staid married couple at what is certain to be a pivotal point in their marriage and their lives. In an early scene the couple has a breakfast conversation about time travel that gives you the sense that they are in no hurry to go forward, and they definitely don’t want to go back — perhaps they should just stay at the table.

The movie was shot in Iceland (and possibly Poland), and the film makers were not afraid to pull out the wide-angle lens. The continous canvassing of the landscape and the setting reveal many things that are otherwise otherwise left unsaid (the film has subtitles, but human dialog is pretty sparce). One thing we learn, for example, is that they own a fair swath of property that is pretty far afield from the bus stop that gets you to Reykjavík. And, of course, the lead couple tend to crops and have more than just a few sheep.

The pace is deliberate, to say the least, and there is not a lot of on-screen action. Indeed, pretty much everything that does happen would constitute a spoiler in one way or another, so describing the plot is out. Let’s just say the film opens with some live births in a manger on Christmas Day, and the religious imagery only gets thicker from there. I have a feeling if I had paid closer attention in Sunday school back in the day, I would have more to work with on this review.

L was no help on that front — still smarting from Midsommar, he left Dr. B and me in the proverbial Icelandic desert on this one. And, as such, we shared a fair bit of headscratching as we made our way to the parking lot. So I will close this up with a bit of the New Testament that I do remember, my favorite of the Lamb of God responses: Have mercy on us.

No Time to Die

Wait, Felix is from Milwaukee?

Alright, then. We headed off to opening night of the latest, but not the greatest, edition to the Bond canon, which gives a well-publicized sendoff to Daniel Craig in the title role. The movie is, in my estimation, the second or third best of the Craig era, and right about tenth in my personal rankings in the series.

I don’t really have a full-blown review here, but I do have some notes from some texts I shared with one of our loyal readers. First off, Daniel Craig is bored. This shows up intermittently throughout the film when he isn’t doing his best to pretend otherwise. Unlike the aging prizefighter looking for that last paycheck, however, he came in in excellent shape!

Second, the story is not a bad story, all told, but the villain by committee is both unsatisfying and uncharacteristic of the series. It’s like watching a baseball game where the manager keeps changing pitchers. I guess the writers sacrificed the prospect of one last great Bond villain in the service of a bunch of other things they wanted to include.

Third, the action is OK. There are a couple of very cool scenes, including the first part of the opening scene (this is a really long movie), but nothing that holds a candle to, say, the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises or Tenet.

I bring up those latter two because it is difficult to discern whether the many, many, many similarities and parallels to action films generally (including The Dark Knight Rises (!)), or Bond films specifically, are hat tips or homages or just mere coincidences. That said, many things happen in this movie that are new to the Bond series, the types of things you can probably read about in reviews that have ample spoiler alerts.

In my estimation, there are a handful of Bond films that are good, stand alone movies. Then, depending on the day, there are five-to-ten in the series that are durable as fun action movies, but aren’t terribly good stories and you wouldn’t consider watching them if it didn’t have the Bond pedigree. No Time to Die is probably in the former category for now. The novelties herein will probably have people revisiting this one more than they might have otherwise.

The Green Knight

What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!

Dark: And so Sir Gawain sets off, traversing forests and mountains to find The Green Knight, where he meets a talking fox who warns him: 'You will find no mercy, no happy end'

The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.

I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.

The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.

Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.

At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.

There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.

The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.

The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.

If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?

The Green Knight

We rallied the troops and hit The Green Knight on opening night, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic 14th-century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” So the big question you are asking, I’m certain, is whether the film is faithful to the poem?

And my answer, of course, is that you are asking the wrong guy.

There is so much about this movie that I don’t have answers to, starting with who is this Green Knight? Is it the rocky, green-tinged shrub guy, or is it the inexperienced Gawain himself? Does his mother actually like him? Is she a lady or is she a tramp? What do you think happened to that little guy? And shouldn’t King Arthur be perhaps just a little more buff?

So L&D called a doctor for this emergency. Not an M.D., of course, but the type of doctor with command of lyric poetry and pop culture (!). So keep an eye on this space.

Meanwhile, a few of my unvarnished observations: Firstly, this is really great entertainment. Great story, great acting, great intrigue, great fun. It is not Hollywood fare in that you can’t really see where this one is going. And it is not Hollywood fare in that once you get where this one is going, it is unlikely you will be able to sort it out neatly. Yes, there is magic and there are spirits and there are even a handful of mushrooms for you and your handsome friend, so that doesn’t add to the clarity. But my advice to anyone overwhelmed by mushrooms, as always, is to stay put and see what happens.

Secondly, you should see this before it gets displaced by all of the (would-be) August blockbusters. Ugh. If it sticks around, I will see it again. Grab a friend and go.

And, finally, as we were watching, we started a running list of films that this one draws upon, including (but not limited to), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fantastic Planet, Midsommar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Phantom Thread, Cruella, Guardians of the Galaxy (I or II), and I’m sure this list will continue to grow.

Big ups from the entire crowd. It’s highly likely you will find this on the year-end list…

One Year Hence.

Presumed Innocent

What a colossal blunder

My wife and I took in the 1990-something classic, Presumed Innocent, this evening. The big takeaway is that Raul Julia dominates the movie in the role of Rusty’s defense attorney, Sandy Stern. In hindsight, I suppose I knew this because the only parts of the movie I remember involve Julia. Otherwise, it is an interesting and somewhat complicated plotline, and I actually had to pay attention to keep up.

A couple of big moments: In a brilliant cinematic moment, Stern stands behind the prosecutors during his cross, and we get to see the DA and ADA’s reactions as he dismantles their witness. The scene where he undresses Dr. “Painless” Kumaga bests the climax of A Few Good Men, for sure. It must be nice to see a script like this come your way.

Bonus: Rusty’s kid is a Packers fan. Who knew?

Recommended.

H/T Hecubus (Spoiler Alert!)