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!!!!!!

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

There’s a certain late night cafe in Los Angeles, in Los Feliz, on Vermont. I was there when Benicio Del Toro appeared suddenly, shadowed by the arch of the door like a cowboy avenger in a Spaghetti Western, busting in on a tavern full of bandits. I don’t think he was after me however. I’m pretty sure he was there for the fries. Then as now, he is a larger than life figure. Intimidating as well as intriguing. Wes Anderson casts him perfectly in the masterpiece, French Dispatch. 

Wes Anderson’s cinematic world is a theatrical one, including light gags, absurd stunts and impossible cross-sectioned sets. His oeuvre is really a celebration of Art Direction. And though the fourth wall is sacred in terms of performance, it is anything but in terms of the actual walls. They are unapologetically shoved around, pushed through and across. If you are wondering where the real wall is, one scene in particular features a prop that is, to great effect, resoundingly smashed right into the camera lens.

Anderson’s films cast a spotlight on our at times absurd behaviors and activities.  In his study of minutiae within the particular style of screwball writing and delivery and cinematographic controlled chaos, he is able to reveal what actually moves people.

House of Gucci

House of Gucci is an operatic yarn that spins from farce to tragedy on a dime. The tragicomedy is handed off flawlessly like a relay baton from Lady Gaga (who showed her acting chops in A Star is Born and does so again) to Jeremy Irons (Flaw. Less.), Al Pacino lights it up, Adam Driver is completely believable…but it’s Jared Leto as the fumbling, bumbling yet simpatico Paolo Gucci who shines brightest and steals this film as his character is stolen from. Paolo Gucci has some seriously funny zingers related to everything from chocolate to Lycra and he doesn’t disappoint. How does he do it? To quote our friend G., “It’s called acting.” 

Maybe some of the accents are off. Maybe sometimes they say grazie and sometimes they say thank you. Maybe there is too much espresso (strike that, there can never be too much espresso). But the point is, Director Ridley Scott knows nuance, timing, how to pull a heart string, how to intercut for drama, how to set up tension and relieve it with passion or comedy. 

For some, this won’t be an interesting movie. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the jet set. Couture. Meh. And I get that. But I enjoyed the performances overall and that was more than enough for me to say, Bravo Gucci! Bravo!

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 otehr 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 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 the 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.

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.

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. 

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.  

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.